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

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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 experiences.

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 plunge.

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 9 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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