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Garden News

After three frustrating years in a flat, Tony Smith moved to a house with a garden. He describes how he changed it from a suburban 'bit of grass with flower beds' to an exotic oasis.
Tony Smith, 11 Chipetead Way, Woodmansterne, Banstead, Surrey
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002

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How wonderful at last to have a garden after three years living in a flat! Three years of frustration with my plant growing activities limited to a five-foot windowsill, luckily southwest facing.

During this time I became interested in exotic plants, which thrived in the flat. My Cocoa plant almost became a tree, as did the avocado - both reaching over five feet tall. After discovering palms at the Palm Centre, I soon added the following to my collection - Trachycarpus. Brahea, Jubaea, Nannorrhops, Phoenix and Hyophorbe.

The flat began to resemble a tropical forest. This lush green exuberance appealed to me and after visits to the newly planted Palm House at Kew and the Fairchild Tropical Garden, Florida, I was hooked on the atmosphere of such places. For me atmosphere is the most wonderful thing a garden can possess.

It was natural then to use the opportunity of a new garden to try and capture the lush and mystical atmosphere of tropical forest.

The first job tackled was the path which involved much adjusting of hosepipe to get the curves right. Having decided on the position, the next step was to remove the turf and lay a foundation. It was at this stage I had my first surprise and worrying moment too. The spade went in about two inches and stopped dead. I soon discovered the whole lawn was laid on rubble six inches thick. Luckily, the soil is deeper in most places, up to eight inches. Still, not a lot of soil.

After an initial bout of depression I began to feel a bit more positive. After all, the rubble will improve the drainage and judging by how the front garden puddles I would have had to improve the drainage anyway.

The next two weeks saw me digging, digging and digging. The whole lawn was turned over and most of the existing plants removed to friends and relatives.

At this stage, I began thinking about planting, moving potted plants around the garden to check the effect. These plants I had collected over several years, some grown from seed and cuttings. The planting scheme that evolved was influenced by several factors: the amount of sun or shade, soil type, and, of course, personal taste. Three main areas have started to take shape. The shady area, which should become very lush and green, the sun trap (slightly Mediterranean) and the acid bed, hopefully Himalayan with Rhododendrons and Trachycarpus.

The garden benefits from the shelter of woodland to the east, which is also a wonderful backdrop. Shelter is provided to the west by a house and to the north by a six-foot fence. With all this shelter, cold winter winds should be kept to a minimum.

Back to the path for which my first idea was woodchip or bark. This I felt would be the most appropriate material but not practical as it would tread into the house. As a compromise I settled on an idea borrowed from Myles Challis' book 'The Exotic Garden' - concrete topped with pea shingle when still wet. This has worked very well.

With the paths half-finished (ran out of shingle), the acid bed dug out awaiting soil, and fences wired for climbers I could resist no longer the desire to go plant collecting. Looking for evergreen framework plants I picked up a few common things such as Giselinia, Ceanothus and Magnolia grandiflora at local nurseries. Then it got a bit more serious at Architectural Plants. Three bamboos; Phyllostachys viridi-glaucescens, Sasa palmata nebulosa and Chusquea culeou. An interesting climber Holboellia coracea, Pittosporum tobira, Trochodendron aralloides, Yucca x floribunda and Hydrangea serratifolia which I have since seen in all its glory at Nymans Gardens.

Inspired by hot humid weather, thunderstorms and rapid growth I visited Martin Gibbons at the Palm Centre intent on adding to my collection of garden palms. What better way to spend an hour or two on a Sunday than looking at, talking about and buying palms. I was more enthused than ever after comparing notes with Martin and returned home to plant my newly acquired Chamaerops humilis.

I had a little difficulty in finding topsoil for the acid bed. Local garden centres could only offer alkaline soil of inferior quality. In the end I had to pay more than twice the garden centre price at a turf specialist. They provided good quality screened loam, which tested slightly acid, at about ph.8.5. It took three hours of wheel barrowing to move the four cubic yards of soil from the road to the bottom of the garden.

Having levelled the soil I could now start putting up the greenhouse next to the acid bed. The greenhouse was given by a friend of a friend on the grounds that if I removed it from their garden I could have it free. I did and it has languished in my parents' shed for three years. Some of the glass has broken in this time but otherwise it is in good condition. If anything, I am more excited now than ever about the new garden. I can hardly wait for next spring and summer to see Mother Nature continue and improve on all my hard work.

When he's not gardening, Tony Smith is a professional tennis coach (in the tennis racket as you might say). He was married last month and honeymooned in the Scilly Isles. Thanks to Jason Payne for the plan above.

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