Posted on | October 4, 2008 | No Comments
In the 1980s I began experimenting with exotic plants, probably enthused by my liking for house plants as a boy. At that time there was little information on growing exotica, with only scant details available from mostly Victorian gardening books.
There was no internet to ease my way to discovering obscure plants. I spotted the odd Trachycarpus (Windmill Palm) lurking in hidden corners of old gardens, but that was enough to give me an inkling of what might be possible outside the balmy confines of Cornwall. While scouring the gardening section of a local bookshop I remember finding a book by Myles Challis (published in 1988) entitled The Exotic Garden.
It was based on the author’s experiences and experimentations in his small 40×40ft garden in Leytonstone, East London. It was the first book published in the 20th century that covered what was known in Victorian times as sub-tropical gardening, in other words the use of exotic-looking but largely hardy plants to create a garden reminiscent of some far-off tropical climate.
Exoticists like me, who gardened in their own vacuum around the country and who yearned for more information about the kind of exotic plants that could be grown outside in the UK, devoured this book. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that nurseries selling so-called exotic plants began to appear outside of Cornwall. The first major nursery was opened by Angus White at Cooks Farm, Nuthurst, near Horsham in West Sussex.
Architectural Plants became a runaway success. Angus explained: “For years I lamented the fact that the average British garden (mine included) was about as fascinating to look at in winter as a wet breeze block. My solution was to put together a special collection of special looking plants.
Some were spiky, some had big leaves, some looked tropical, some looked absurd but all were evergreen.” Angus’ pioneering venture was followed by Martin Gibbons, who opened The Palm Centre near Richmond, in Surrey, where he became one of the main proponents of palms not only in Britain but Europe as well.
He started to import palms from all over the world, many being sourced on his own expeditions to far-flung places in search of hardy species. I began to hear of other enthusiastic gardeners who were pushing the boundaries of what can be grown in our British gardens. Paul Spracklin was one such rare person who started his garden in the 1990s at South Benfleet, near Canvey Island in Essex.
There, he transformed a terraced slope facing south across the Thames Estuary into a sub-tropical, horticultural wonderland covering a third-ofan- acre that appears oddly at home with its surroundings. Many of his early plants came from those pioneering nurseries.
In recent years Paul’s passion for exotic plants has taken him down the arid root and he now has one of the best landscaped cacti and succulent collections in East Anglia, protected from cold north winds by a line of ash trees. Paul was fortunate in the beginning with such a sheltered site, but he taught himself (with the help of some trial and error) that taking chances on unlikely plants often pays off!
In 1993, the late, great gardening writer Christopher Lloyd announced to his readers that he was digging up the rose garden that had been a central feature of his father’s Edwardian design at Great Dixter in East Sussex and replacing it with a planting of lush, subtropical exotics, which has delighted and sometimes shocked summer visitors. Another landmark in the revival of exotic gardening came in 1998 with the publication of The Plantfinder’s Guide to Tender Perennials by Ian Cooke. In it, Ian discussed the use of tender perennials.
This excellent book was followed in 2003 by The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Cannas, in which he extolled the virtues of over 150 species and cultivars and in the process reinvigorated a plant muchadmired by the Victorians in their great parks. My own contribution began in 2000 when my first book, The New Exotic Garden was published, followed, last year, by The Encyclopaedia of Exotic Plants for Temperate Climates, in which I pulled together all of the past and recent information on exotic plants into one tome.
Over the last decade many nurseries have been opened throughout the British Isles – far too many to mention them all here, though I must mention Amulree Exotics and Urban Jungle. Between them, they sell many of the plants essential for creating today’s version of the exotic garden.
Apart from my own garden here in Norwich, which now boasts an additional xerophytic garden, we in Norfolk are also fortunate enough to have the fabulous garden created by Alan Gray and Graham Robson at East Ruston Old Vicarage. Their large garden contains, amid a myriad of other styles, a Desert Wash, designed to resemble parts of Arizona, where it seldom rains, and an Exotic Garden with surrounding beds planted with both hardy and tender plants to give an exotic and foreign feel.
I must also give an honourable mention to the wonderful Beth Chatto Gardens. In recent years, the gardens, which took root in 1960, have become known for the superb gravel garden which was created out of a former car park and where you can see an amazing array of droughttolerant plants. This brings me neatly on to the question of the future of all gardens, not just exotic ones.
Our climate is changing irrevocably. Unpredictable seasonal temperatures and rainfall combined with extreme events such as drought, flooding and storms are bringing new challenges to gardens everywhere. While gardeners have always thrived on certainty, the onset of climate change appears to mean that uncertainty is now the only certainty. Beth Chatto recently said: “We just can’t expect to carry on growing all those lovely bedding plants and dahlias – less intensive gardening without the use of chemicals and the introduction of wise watering must become an attractive proposition for the horticultural retail industry.”
Longer summers and warmer weather might sound like a dream come true, but the effects of climate change are not all good and could have far-reaching consequences for our gardens. England’s days as a traditionally ‘green and pleasant land’ could be numbered if the predicted changes to our climate continue at the current rate. Within the next 50-80 years, cottage gardens, yew hedges and that great British institution, the lawn, will be battling for survival against warmer temperatures, wetter winters and drier summers.
We have just had two of the wettest summers on record, showing that our typical summers are now way off skew as localised climatic conditions change.
Unpredictable seasonal temperatures and rainfall combined, with extreme events such as drought, flooding and storms, are bringing new challenges to gardeners everywhere.
While gardeners should do all they can to maintain our native species, this changing climate also present an ideal opportunity to explore the variety of different colours, scents and architectural shapes that drought-loving Mediterranean and large-leaved tropical plants offer.