Time for Design
In the first of a series of practical step-by-step
articles, the theory of exotic gardening is explored.
Jason Payne, c/o The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West,
London SW14 7ED
Chamaerops No. 9, published online 23-09-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Judging by the enthusiastic response to the article
by Tony Smith in the last issue of Chamaerops: "Garden News",
growing exotic plants plays an important part in the lives of a
good number of our members. As a landscape designer I have been
lucky enough to have had the opportunity to design and build some
uncompromisingly exotic landscapes and I would like to share my
Gardens that are truly exotic down to the last detail
are rare in comparison with other contemporary styles, and in an
effort to encourage and inspire more people to consider this type
of planting I will be writing a series of articles explaining the
ways in which this type of effect may be achieved.
Exotic gardens are rare in this country, and they're
all the more exciting for that. But lack of examples to imitate
or even to be inspired by, may dissuade amateur gardeners from going
for the exotic look. By explaining techniques and illustrating the
articles with photographs of actual projects, I hope to be able
to at least partly overcome this shortage of information, and persuade
more would-be exoticists to overcome their reticence and take the
Many of the most spectacular plants that we can
grow in this country are only used as 'specimens', 'exclamation
marks' or centres of focus in otherwise dull landscapes. Their strong
visual characteristics are an important tool used by landscape architects,
interior designers and other visual artists. Such is their strength
that their appearance can create many different complete environments.
To compose groups of these powerful looking plants in a specially
designed environment can be the most evocative and imposing effect
that can be used in landscape, provoking strong reactions from those
who experience it. The effects of 'exotica' can be used in many
different styles; there are many more subtle influences that exotic
design principles can achieve than the lush jungle look that one
normally associates with the use of these plants.
London is undoubtedly the best location in the U.K.
for growing exotic plants, with summers that are hotter than the
west and south coasts. Additionally, inner London affords temperatures
that can be 80 or 9¾ warmer than, for example, rural Sussex, during
the coldest winter's day. Comparative freedom from frost is the
most important of the advantages, although this diminishes rapidly
as one moves away from central London towards the suburbs. In the
north of London, I have worked on some very steep sites and in wooded
areas, conditions that can sometimes form exciting but troublesome
micro-climates, which can be dealt with in due course, but for this
time I would like to describe the design, construction and planting
of a garden just to the south of central London, on flat ground,
which presented its own particular problems and joys.
The plot itself, the garden of a large Victorian
terraced house, measured 70 feet by 18 feet (21 .5m X 5.5m) and
was surrounded by a 5ft (l.5m) high brick wall, surmounted by 4ft
(l.2m) of trellis. The owner of this garden needed no persuasion
to go for the exotic look, in fact the design brief had few specifications
at all. An exotic character to the whole garden was desired, including
the excavation and building of a pond to take up the end third of
the plot. A hint of Chinese character was asked for, and to achieve
this, Bamboos, Rhododendrons and palms were suggested by him.
A rough plan was drawn up and during several meetings,
some on site; various suggestions were made, modified and generally
discussed. A final layout was agreed and while the choice of plants
was left until later, work was able to commence. The garden had
been neglected for some years and we started by clearing the site,
removing overgrown shrubs, potting up some plants that the owner
wished to keep, in the process. When this clearance was finished,
the only plants left were two Trachycarpus fortunei, with 8ft and
6ft of trunk, which the design was to incorporate.
The main earthworks could then begin, and the digging
of the pond, to be 4ft (l.2m) deep, involved the excavation and
removal/distribution of some 90 cubic metres of soil. The pond was
to be at the back of the garden and the design called for a narrow
bank along the water's edge at the back, and right-hand side of
the pond, and with the water actually against the wall on the third,
the left-hand, side. The larger of the two Chusan palms was to stay
in its central position, and the pond built around it, so that it
would appear to be on an island. This involved much careful manoeuvering
of the Butyl rubber liner, which was extremely heavy, in order to
achieve the desired effect.
To further the island look, rockery stones, some
of which were 2-3ft in diameter and all hand picked from the quarry,
were positioned on a shelf around the excavation in such a way that,
in some cases, up to 90% of the stone was under water. This was
then continued right around the pond, except where the water lapped
against the wall, leaving one area called 'the beach' where the
liner was hidden under smaller stones and gently shelved upwards
creating a slope where wildlife could bathe and drink. On a sunny
day, the stones are visible under water between the lily pads and
the gaps between them are favourite hideouts for fish, newts and
frogs. Moss has rapidly grown over some of the rocks, and between
others Bambusa eucaloides arches over the water softening the appearance
of so much (7 tons) stone.
The client's request for Rhododendrons to help with
the Oriental look posed something of a problem, since the garden
soil was neutral to rather alkaline, absolutely the opposite to
what Rhodo's prefer. In order to correct the pH, all the soil along
the back bank, including that of the 'island' was removed to sub-soil
level, and replaced with a mixture of topsoil and shredded and composted
bark, laced with Ammonium sulphate. Seasonal doses of this acidifier
will continue to be applied, as the bark rots down.
Rhododendron ponticum was planted in this bank,
together with R. augustnii, one of the bluest, and in the most prominent
position, on the island underneath the palm, a lm tall R. fictolacteum,
a sub-species of 'rex' with white flowers, rose-tinted and blotched
with scarlet. It is one of the best large-leaved Rhododendrons for
cool gardens, with leaves up to 2ft (60cm) long.
The walls around the garden are topped with trellis,
and this, together with the leaves of the Trachycarpus has a good
reflective effect in the still water of the pond. The walls were
planted with Fatshedera lizei and the Rhodo's underplanted with
the spectacular evergreen 'seersucker fern', Blechnum chilense.
With the predominance of evergreen plants in this area I thought
we could afford to include some herbaceous plants further along
the Rhododendron bank, between the two palms. A fairly mature specimen
of Gunnera manicata was planted in the corner at the top of the
beach, centrally between them, and this was underplanted with Darmeria
palmatum and Ligularia desdemona. Epimedium 'Youngianum niveum',
a mat-forming, semi-evergreen plant was positioned under Rheum palmatum
'Ace of Hearts' - an intriguing plant with kidney-shaped leaves
to compliment the large leaf shapes underneath the palms.
All this was at the back and side of the pond. At
the front of it, nearest the house, we installed a hexagonal shaped
12ft (4m) diameter wooden deck, designed with concentric hexagons
of 2" X 1" timber, stained black. This is the viewing
point for the pond and is large enough to accommodate a table and
four dining chairs, or two loungers. Its edge overhangs the water,
and to the left are planted some l5ft (5m) clumps of Phyllostachys
nigra, its ebony-black culms matching precisely the black stain
of the deck. When these, and the other trees and plants in the garden
mature, one should be able to sit on the deck, watching the pond
life, surrounded by exotica, completely out of sight of the neighbouring
houses which, like the client's, are 4 stories high.
Partly in accordance with the brief to use some
Chinese influence in the design, I decided to use three main types
of plant: Pines, Palms and Bamboo. The Bambusa eucaloides has already
been mentioned, this was planted with Semiarundinaria nitida, and
underplanted with Epimedium and an Acanthus mollis, with Solanum
'Glasnevin' and Holbolia coriacea on the wall and trellis behind.
Other Bamboos used included the P. nigra, and several Arundinaria
falconeri. Just beyond the bamboo on the south facing bank, I have
tried to introduce a heavier foliage effect with Acanthus and Populus
lasiocarpa, from China, the largest leaved poplar, often with 6"
X 6" (15cm X 15cm) leaves with bright red petioles. As we came
to the central part of the south facing wall, I introduced some
more tender plants: Lyonothamus floribundus 'Asplenifolia', Cycas
revoluta (with a foot - 30cm of trunk), Acacia dealbata, and an
unusual palm, Trithrinax acanthocoma - the Spiny Fibre Palm.
One of the most important structural plants in the
garden is a 25-year-old Pinus nigra, the Austrian Pine. I managed
to find only a few of these plants, which I used on different projects.
They are a great rarity because of the fact that they had been grafted
onto a dwarfing rootstock, which will keep them relatively small
and compact throughout their life, and had been well grown in the
ground since being grafted. This particular specimen had a height
and spread of about 6ft (180cm). It is the closest to a 'life-size
Bonsai' that I have yet to find, with fully mature fissured bark
and densely packed needles held on horizontal tiered branches. Around
it are planted a Pinus strobus 'Nana', P. strobus 'Prostrata', two
Juniperus squamata 'Blue Carpet' and J. sabina 'Tamariscifolia'.
This coniferous planting marks a changing point in the garden and
is situated on one side of the hill that was created from soil that
was excavated from the pond, and is studded with rockery stone that
continues from the pool's edge.
The influence of the stone dies out nearer the house
and a new mood is introduced, with a curving gravel path, planted
again with bamboo, which snakes from the house to the pool. There
is a collection of Euphorbia species on the hill, and an ambitious
tree planting. More about that in the next issue, and about how
it all fared during the winter months.
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