My tropical garden odyssey

For the past four years or so I have become more and more obsessed with tropical gardening. The tropical spark was ignited when I visited Will Giles’ garden in Norwich two weeks before he died and the garden was closed. I also got great inspiration from the World Garden at Lullingstone Castle, The Salutation tropical garden designed by Steve Edney and Steve Edney and Louise Dowle’s home garden in Ash. After I visited Steve and Louise’s garden I was in awe by all the beautiful plants and how they combined hardy foliage plants with tender plants. My first tropical garden was in Herne Bay where I gardened on 10 square meters. When I moved to Ash after a tip off from Louise I got a house with a much larger garden. It is not massive; probably average for a 1980s built terraced house.

The weekend I moved to Ash I had one van load of furniture etc, and two van loads of plants. The garden at my new place had a dying lawn in it, and walls covered in a thick layer of ivy. I needed to plants my specimen plants, so I dotted them around the half dead lawn. I couldn’t give it that much thought, but the washing line in the middle meant that I couldn’t have tall plants there. Luckily this washing line died after a couple of months so I could do more planting!

The garden just after I had moved in.

Because I started this garden from scratch and was planting and still taking old shrubs out at the same time, I couldn’t plan it out as I would have liked to. I used Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ as a filler and this became the dominant plant in the garden. It swamped a lot of things but had its purpose in this first year. The garden looked lush and full which was the main goal.

The garden in its first year.

2017 was a good year for the tropical garden as there was some rain, some heat and the temperatures stayed above freezing until December. The first weekend in December I took all my tender plants out and put them in an unheated greenhouse. At the time my Canna x iridiflora ‘Ehemanii’ was still in flower and my Salvia stachydifolia was still providing nectar to the late bee.

Winter 2017/2018 was a strange one. I had to go to the greenhouse several times to either put hessian over my plants during a cold spell, or take it off again when the temperatures rocketed. We had a bad frost in March followed by warm weather. Winter gave me an opportunity to think about how I wanted to change things. Which fillers I could use and which plants I wanted to add. I took all the plants out of the greenhouse in May and planted them up a couple of weeks later. Before I planted them out I placed my plants in their pots in the garden. I moved them around quite a few times before I planted them. Even after planting I still kept on moving things around as sometimes things just don’t look right. I am quite particular about leaf patterns and I see them as being more important than flowers. I mainly use plants for their foliage, not so much their flowers. I don’t like it when the same types of leaf are next to each other, not even when they have a different colour. Two plants I had next to each other were Musella lasiocarpa and Canna ‘Durban’. I needed something between the two as the leaves are far too similar in shape. Eventually I found some seeds from my variegated shoo fly plant, Nicandra physalodes ‘Splash of Cream’ and I sowed this between the two plants. The different leaf pattern with its variegation will break the two up quite nicely.

The garden in June 2018.

At the early spring RHS London show I bought Begonia masoniana. This was another plant I had recently seen at Lullingstone Castle. The leaf pattern is extraordinary and it has this dimpled effect on the leaf surface as well. I have found however that it is very difficult to combine with other plants. The leaf is so unusual that it doesn’t seem to match with anything. I moved it five times in my garden, but have now put it back in a pot where it forms a nice combination with Sinopodophyllum, Adianthum, Ophiopogon and Asplenium scolopendrium ‘Crispum Golden Queen’.

Begonia masoniana finally in the right spot.

Often people tell me they find it too much work to do a tropical garden as plants have to come out and be planted again every year. I don’t find this a problem at all as it means you can re-design your garden every year. Also, as the garden is usually quite densely packed, the garden requires hardly any maintenance during the year. You have to pull out the odd weed, do some watering, but that is usually it. This year I am opening for the NGS so I would like to get things right and it may mean I am a bit more fussy about the combinations. It has proven to be a difficult year with the early cold, later heat and drought now, but I am seeing changes in the garden and things are filling out. I’m still moving plants around but I suppose I’ll never be completely happy!

The garden slowly filling out.

If you would like to see my garden, please visit during the NGS open days on 29 July, 19 August and 30 September 11-5. 12 Woods Ley, Ash, Kent, CT3 2HF. Steve Edney and Louise Dowle’s tropical garden, 300 yards from mine, will also be open during the same times.

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