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The Yorkshire Riviera?

Richard's wonderful garden has been featured in gardening magazines and on television. Now it's our turn for a guided tour.
Richard Darlow, 106 Vaughan Road, Vernon Way, Gawber, Barnsley, S75 2NJ, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 13, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Trachycapus fortunei and Yucca ‘Floribunda’.
Below: A general view of this wonderful ‘Yorkshire Riviera ‘garden.

As an exotic plant fanatic (particularly palms, yuccas & other spiky plants, bananas, cacti etc.), I am never happier than when visiting the gardens and landscapes of the Mediterranean - such as on the Cote d 'Azur. Having said that, visits to Tresco are equally thrilling and many of the wonderful gardens of Devon and Cornwall are almost as exciting. Of course, some Cornish gardens are noted for their collections of Rhododendrons, Magnolias and Camellias rather than for exotic, 'sub-tropical' plants but it is southwest England or western Scotland that one usually associates with 'Mediterranean-style' planting in Britain.

My passion for plants seen in gardens of Mediterranean countries, Devon and Cornwall, rather conflicted with my thoughts of the average British garden in winter and led me to make a decision to create such a garden here in Yorkshire. But you can't grow exotic or tender plants in Yorkshire, can you? Or so all the books and experts implied. I researched the types of plants that are grown in Mediterranean and West Country gardens, their possible hardiness and the availability of such plants in the U.K. A look through a copy of the Hilliers catalogue revealed that there are many plants that can be grown in Britain with some protection i.e. a warm sunny location or against a wall for example. Clearly, there were going to be some plants that would be too tender for Cornwall, let alone Yorkshire, but these could be overwintered indoors.

The decision to create a Mediterranean garden was taken some nine years ago but several years were to elapse before the dream could become reality. This was mainly because at the time my garden was too small, and unsuitable for a number of other reasons. However, as the opportunity arose to purchase plants on my 'wanted' list, I decided to acquire and 'store' them as container plants on my small patio area. The search was on for a suitable garden, which, of course, would mean having to move house. Meanwhile, the situation with the patio became increasingly desperate - i.e. I ran out of space several times! I was raring to go and I wanted to prove the books wrong.

To cut a long story short, a house with a seemingly ideal garden was eventually acquired - in I 989. The rear garden was of reasonable size (for an urban one), some 60 feet X 30 feet but the most important quality was that it faced due south. The garden was in need of total renovation however, which included the removal of a number of unattractive trees and shrubs. A 40ft ash tree and two gnarled old apple trees were initially removed, just before Bonfire night! The local pub made good use of the timber on the 5th.

The entire perimeter demanded new, high fencing in order to provide shelter and protection for the plants as well as offering privacy and security. This was before any designing and planting could be attempted. Firstly, a conservatory was erected for the winter housing of my already large collection of tender tub plants. A patio area also had to be dug out and laid.

Renovation proper commenced in the spring of 1990. Fine weather enabled full use to be made of most weekends and the gradual lengthening of the days meant that the work could continue during the evenings, as well. Much hard work and determination saw the removal of uneven, coarse grass, followed by double-digging of the entire plot. With the exception of buried treasure, you name it - found it! - bricks, stones, old clothing, corrugated iron sheets, parts of bathroom suites etc. Five or six midi-skips later (I began to lose count), the fencing was erected and the garden design marked out, so that soil preparation and improvement could be undertaken.

It was July before planting began. Since then, the garden has developed with the continual addition of plants, some of which have been re-sited (3 times in some cases!) in order to create the best effects. The garden consists entirely of Mediterranean and warm climate plants - crammed with trees, shrubs and perennials originating from all five continents some rare or common, tender or hardy, desert or jungle, many exotic!

From a patio/terrace of 'Roman' style paving, two or three steps lead up to the main part of the garden. A winding path of stone and pea gravel loops around a central circular area of limestone chippings and two island planting beds. In the centre of the gravel is a young Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana. There is no lawn, the areas between the path and the boundary fencing consisting of dense planting.

The north facing upper end of the garden is shadier and damp and has taken on a jungley appearance. Pinus radiata stands in one corner and Cedrus atlantica glauca in the other. These have provided impact quickly but due to their potential size, their growth will have to be checked and their removal will eventually follow. The area between is planted with Fuchsia, Hydrangeas, several Camelhas, Garrya elfptica, Crinodendron hookerianum and Eucalyptus gunnii - which has produced more than 15 feet of growth since being pruned to soil level when planted three years ago. The Ginger family is also represented in this border in the form of Roscoea cautleloides, R. humeana and Cautleya spicata robusta - the shade suiting their requirements.

In front of the Cedar are a small Rhododendron sino-grande, Gunnera manicata and Zantedeschia aethiopica. The Gunnera is very compact as the ground is simply not boggy enough for the plant to be able to produce those huge 'walk-through' leaves. Just as well really! Large leaved Ivies variegated Hedera canariensis and H. colchica (dentata variegata & "Sulphur heart") clothe the fencing.

In the 'island' bed opposite, a very lush Bamboo - Arundinaria murielae or nitida - arches over the path and contributes to a jungly feel to this part of the garden. Also in this bed grow Fatsia japonica variegata, a very bushy chinese Fir - Cunninghammia lanceolata, golden leaved Arundinaria viridistriatus and the cristate form of Cryptomeria japonica with wonderful foliage resembling antlers and sea horses!

The western border (facing east) contains three species of Eucalyptus - dalrympleana, glaucescens and niphophylla which, with the exception of the latter, will periodically be cut down to maintain their growth as shrubs. Surrounding the Eucalypts are numerous shrubs of contrasting foliage and flower. Species included here are:- Choisya, Calycanthus floridus, Cistus, Hibiscus syriacus and several Hebes. Against the fencing are Teucrium fruticans and a very floriferous Ceanthus - The blue flowers contrasting effectively with the Hebe "Purple Queen", Cupressus macrocarpa "Goldcrest" and silver leaved Brachyglottis (Senecio "Sunshine", Lavender and Santolina. Other herbs included are Rosemary, Thyme, Sage and Helichrysum.

Towards the house at the side of the steps leading from the patio is Genista aetnensis providing a golden cascade in July or August.

The warmer west-facing border contains a number of less hardy subjects, which include several tender 'wall' shrubs. Lapageria rosea grows behind the Monterey Pine but never flowers; possibly it is too shaded by the pine. A rampant clematis armandii "Apple Blossom" produces a welcome display of pink tinged flowers over a long period (from February to May during 1993), covering a large area of fence behind a Phygelius and a Loquat - Eriobotrya. Small specimens of Telopea oreades and Acca (Feijoa) sellowiana provide a support for a scrambling Eccremocarpus scaber, which regenerates each spring.

Further along, Magnolia delivery with its large attractive leaves contrasts well beside the silver needle-like foliage of Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius "Silver Jubilee" with its attractive pink budded creamy flowers. This has self-seeded into the gravel path. A small Carpenters californica is sheltered by Magnolia grandiflora "Goliath" with its exotic, glossy bright green, russet backed leaves. Moving closer to the house, Abutilon X "Suntense" provides colour in spring and the silver leaved Cytissus battandieri continues the colourful display with its fruity scented yellow flowers. Between these, Euphorbia mellifera from Madeira is establishing itself. The remainder if the fence is covered by Passiflora caerulea "Constance Elliot" and, Abutilon megapotamicum which flowers from May to Christmas.

A number of further shrubs and various perennials grow in front of the 'wall' shrubs. Overhanging the patio, a very vigorous Grevillea X "Canberra Gem" freely produces its exotic red flowers over a long period from late winter until early summer. Other shrubs include Callistemon rigidus, Fabiana imbricata, Myrtus communis lavandula stoechas, Phlomis, Ballota and Pittosporum. Eucalyptus perriniana with its grey willow-like leaves rises above a group of mainly South African perennials. Crinum powellii album, Agapanthus, Crocosmia and several varieties of Kniphofia grow with Acanthus, Asphodelus, Cynara and Hedychiums - orange flowered H densiflorum and a shy to flower H. gardnerianum.

The sunny, south facing wall of the house provides an ideal spot for more exotica: Fremontodendron X "California Glory" has proved to be the fastest growing plant in the garden and has to be pruned after flowering to keep it in check. Next to this, Passiflora caerulea twines through Abutilon X "Millieri" and the 'Lobster claw' - Clianthus puniceus - which was heavily laden with flowers during April and May of 1993. Sheltering beneath these shrubs is a dwarf pomegranite - Punica granatum nana - which never flowers but is attractive in leaf. A spiky contrast is provided by Beschorneria tubiflora, Agave americana marginata, Aloe aristata and Yucca elephantipes (yes, Y. elephantipes!).

A narrow raised border at the side of the house is even more exotic. Below a fan trained Fig, the Japanese Banana - Musa basjoo - grows with several cacti, succulents and other 'spikies'. Agave americana, Aloe striatula, Yucca aloifolia and Sedum praeltum share a small "rockery" with some Opuntia species and several Chamaelobivia hybrids. Also in this border are specimens of Cordyline, Beschorneria and Astelia. A specimen of Cycas revoluta has recently been planted.

The remaining, central part of the garden along with the other 'island' bed, features a desert theme and the soil here is covered with pea gravel. Apart from a pencil-like Italian Cypress - Cupressus sempervirens - and some Euphorbias, all other plants have spiky or "Architectural" outline.

There are several young palms: Trachycarpus fortunei I 'wagnerianus Chamaerops humus, Butia capitata and Phoenix canariensis and a dozen or so different types of yucca. Huge rosettes of Y. gloriosa variegata and Y. recurvifolia dominate this area while several Phormiums, Cordylines (including C. indivisa), species of Fasicularia, Epiphyll and Eryngium complete the spiky format. Underplanted are more Opuntias, Lobivia sylvestri - the peanut cactus, many varieties of Sedum, Sempervivum, and, Delosperma nubigenum which forms bright green mats studded with gold stars in the summer months.

The patio itself is the most exotic part of the garden, at least in the summer months. From May to October or November, approximately 100 tender plants in terracotta pots complete the 'Riviera effect'. Specimens of agave, aloe, palm, yucca, strelitzia and citrus predominate. In the winter months, an unheated conservatory protects them from the elements. Two potted palms - Brahea armata (Mexican Blue) and Trithrinax acanthocoma (Brazilian Needle Palm) - will hopefully remain on the patio all year round however.

This 'piece of Mediterranean' on the eastern fringe of the Pennines is 500 feet above sea level. I'm often asked the secret of growing palms here. The short answer is that there is no secret - the garden faces south, the individual siting of each plant has been given importance and some gravel has been incorporated into the fairly heavy soil.

Otherwise, little additional protection is given to any plants.The winter climate is typically English i.e. appalling, and frost is common from November to March but generally not too severe. During the past three winters, I have recorded occasional temperatures down to -5°C or -6°C on the patio which is the warmest part of the garden. Snow is received most winters (sometimes heavy), rainfall is high and strong winds are frequent. Destructive westerly gales tear off leaves or even branches, although the garden is sheltered by surrounding houses and trees. The effects of cold, drying north or east winds are minimal however - protection being afforded by the house and the fencing.

The garden is very much experimental and many plants are 'on trial'. With the knowledge that coastal Cornish gardens and the Mediterranean itself are not immune from frost, yet many tender plants still survive, I'll try any plant that I know to have some frost tolerance. There have been losses each winter though in the main not unexpected. I cannot grow Oleander, Furcraea longaeva, Gazanias, most perennial "mesembryanthemums" and most Osteospermums, but surprises have included Beschorneria, Yucca elephantipes (survived 3 winters), Clianthus, Euphorbia mellifera, Echeverias, cacti and other succulents.

I am particularly excited about a specimen of Echium pininana. During 1992, a number of self-sown seedlings appeared and some were quite large by the winter. Two of the largest were left in situ and a sheet of bubble plastic was thrown over them during the Christmas frosty spell. Defoliation was the result but the tiny new leaves in the centre of one of the plants survived and growth resumed in spring. I now have a multi-branched 'tree' some 5 or 6 feet high and as much across despite several branches being severed by the wind during the summer. I shall aim to protect the main growing point during the current winter in the hope of continuing its survival. It probably will never produce its wonderful 12-15 feet flower spike but may instead remain as a perennial foliage plant?

In conclusion, my garden is living proof that tender or exotic plants can be grown inland well away from southern and coastal locations. It shows that many plants are tougher than we think and could perhaps be grown far more widely than they are. I like to prove books and experts wrong; so often one reads statements such as 'can only be grown in the south west', 'Hardy in the south', 'Cannot be grown North of Watford' etc. I suspect that all too often, these statements arise from assumption rather than from experience or experiment.

I don't consider that the Yorkshire climate is unique in view of the fact that my garden has been able to flourish. I feel that a similar garden could survive in most parts of the country particularly if the hardier subjects were used.

Indeed, I see examples of slightly tender plants wherever I travel in Britain - some of which appear to be growing in the most unlikely places; e.g. A Cordyline just outside Stockton-on-Tees in the cold northeast, some 12-15 feet in height with substantial trunk! I do believe though that as a collection of plants, my garden is unique, especially so in view of its geographical location.

The garden has been featured on BBC 'Gardeners World' and in 'Amateur Gardening' magazine. From 1994, it will be open by appointment under the National Gardens Scheme. EPS members welcome! In the meantime, I hope that the winter will not be too severe and that this article will perhaps serve to inspire other would-be exotic gardeners.

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