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The Man With The Electric Garden. Part 2

In this follow-up article Peter tells us how electricity continues to turn Hampstead into the Tropics.
Peter Tenenbaum, 12 Spaniard's End, Hampstead, London NW3
Chamaerops No. 17, published online 23-07-2002

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Above left: a small Trachycarpus fortunei planted in 1988.
Above right: the same plant in 1994.
Below: Hawaii in Hampstead: a general view of The Electric Garden.

When I was a kid my school reports summed me up as a dreamer. Today, I am 45 years old and I'm still dreaming. I have suffered for over twenty years from a rare and incurable disease, Palmitis. I dream of looking out of my window at a 30 foot Delonix regia in full flower, flanked on one side by a fifty foot Roystonea and on the other by an impenetrable jungle of Phoenix reclinata. The more failures I have the more determined I am to have success. It is this determination and obsession that makes the likes of Martin Gibbons go from rags to riches as he feeds on the fruits of my addiction (a real palm baron), but who cares? If I can fulfil just 10% of my dream in the quest to achieve a tropical paradise in my own back yard then it has been worth it, and if in the process I contribute to Martin's wealth, well good luck to him.

Some would suggest that I move to Barbados or somewhere equally tropical to fulfil my dream, but this is where the story becomes really sad - If I lived in Barbados I would probably try to grow roses or daffodils. Sadly there is little or no hope for me.

My initiation into the world of exotic gardening started, as with most of us, with our old faithful friend, Trachycarpus.

A lone Trachy planted in your average English garden has always looked distinctly alien to me. By any stretch of the imagination it is not the world's most attractive palm, lacking much of the grace and majesty of its more tropical cousins. Too often seen with a fat hairy trunk crowned with a few broken, wind swept, yellowing leaves, it can look quite sad. However, a palm is a palm and this one is legendary for its hardiness, not only growing, but if given the right conditions, actually thriving in our often miserable summers.

In the exotic garden it is invaluable. A well-grown one can look at the very least magnificent, and planted extensively with other hardy exotica it makes a bold statement, and can be used with stunning effects to form the hardy backbone of the garden.

It is essential to keep the correct balance between hardy and tender plants and I have never been so foolish as to assume that my elaborate methods of protection are foolproof, and in the unlikely event of some terrible mishap, I don't want to wake up some frosty morning to find the core of my garden has been reduced to mush.

This is where the Trachy comes into its own and I have no less than fourteen m my garden usually grouped m threes, and of varying heights. Their growth characteristics differ widely. My experience is that they tend to take time to settle in. The leaves are not nearly as fragile as some would believe, their resistance to wind damage adapting in time, and indeed the plant itself can take several years of minimal growth before suddenly leaping ahead, my eldest one now producing a good foot or more of trunk every year.

The photo was taken in 1988: - Look at the Trachy on the right, seven years in the ground and not much bigger than when first planted. The other photo shows the same Trachy in 1994. Need I say more?

Combining the Trachy with further inspiration drawn from reading the 'Exotic Garden' by Myles Challis, which taught me of the existence of a whole world of other hardy or near hardy plants like Paulownia tomentosa, Tetrapanax papyroferus, Musa basjoo, Phyllostachys aurea etc., the stage was set for me to really venture deep into the jungle.

The idea of keeping tender plants in pots, and displaying them around the garden during summer, only to have to overwinter them indoors has never appealed to me. Not only is it a back breaking job to move large subjects, but my working schedule is so hectic that I often forget regular watering, and as we all know in the case of a palm especially this can have devastating consequences in hot weather. Somehow the idea of planting permanently into the ground has always seemed the more attractive option. The roots are not restricted, feeding and watering is so much easier, and growth is not restricted by the size of the pot you are able to carry or over winter.

After all one only has to find a way of keeping the temperature a little above freezing. I know that with hessian and straw etc. one can preserve much of that precious heat, and grow a whole host of half hardy plants, but I wanted to go further. The more tender exotica, which can stand little or no frost needs something a little more dependable, especially during those freak winters for which our British Isles are so notorious.

Our editor's American counterpart Tamar Myers claimed that with thermostatically controlled heated cables and a good supply of heavy gauge polythene she could get a coconut to survive a winter in Moscow. A tall claim, which I decided to put to the test, not with a coconut, but something a little less ambitious, Phoenix roebelenii, the pygmy date palm. Not being one to do things by half I invested a small fortune with my electrician and set up a whole network of waterproof outdoor power points around the garden. A further sum was invested in buying a few hundred feet of electric soil-warming cables and with thermostat set at a little above freezing point, I was ready.

My problem now is not so much what will survive a winter in the ground but what will grow in our all too short, cool summers. For example an Arecastrum romanzoffiana (now: Syagrus) survived two years outside (cabled), but in all that time failed to produce a single new leaf before I finally gave up and discarded it.

Delonix regia (Royal Poinciana), hailed by some as the most beautiful flowering tree in the world is without doubt my ultimate if not impossible dream. Impossible, not because of the challenge of keeping it alive through the winter, but because of its summer requirements. I grew one from seed and after several years it finally outgrew my conservatory. Last summer I decided to see how it would fare outside. Even after days above 215C/705F it refused to wake up from its winter dormancy and by mid summer was still without a single leaf. Rather than subjecting the poor thing to any further punishment I decided to ask Kew Gardens if they would like it. They accepted and I was more than happy to donate it so they could add it to their collection. Hopefully it will go on to give pleasure to many people, in conditions I was unable to provide.

There is, however, a whole host of true exotics which don't require hot house conditions to make significant growth, and thanks to the cables, and since my success with the roebelenii, I have had surprising results with a whole string of other treasures which would have otherwise been denied me. Cyathea, Datura, Phoenix canariensis all thrive in the hostile winter environment of Hampstead, high above the centre of London.

It is my aim this summer to experiment with Musa morelii which is a rare and wonderful red leaf clone of Musa ensete. This, however, depends on the success I have in keeping alive a common green leaf ensete. My attempt last year ended in disaster, not as a result of frost, but due to over-cosseting the plant. I literally cooked it, only the result was not banana fritters, but a stinking decaying soggy mess. This time I have allowed more air to the plant and kept the heated cables from making direct contact with the watery trunk by using stakes, and if I am lucky, this summer I will be enjoying a banana tree more spectacular than basjoo with even bigger, more wind resistant leaves.

I can't imagine there are too many people m North London with a large clump of basjoo permanently outside, even less with an ensete, and I absolutely guarantee there is nobody with a morelii. Imagine, with no root restriction and pounds of fertiliser with gallons of water, in a few years I could be enjoying leaves up to fifteen foot long or more, which this baby is more than capable of producing. They don't come much more exotic and growth, even in our bleak summers, is very fast.

There will also be further plantings of Carica Papaya, Plumeria rubra, Cestrum nocturnum and Hibiscus rosa-sinensis to name but a few.

I hope to report my findings in later issues. Meanwhile the photos say more than a thousand words.

Well there you have it. Having an "electric garden" is not the final solution, but it does offer the possibility of succeeding with many more weird and wonderful plants which would otherwise succumb to our dismal, unpredictable winters, and could only at best spend the summer outside in pots before being brought in before the first frost.

The more traditional forms of protection will never afford the same security, and I would thoroughly recommend anyone who wants to be more adventurous in their garden to try the heated cables in their quest to grow something a little more special.

Final note: If you are considering using electricity outside, take the normal precautions, and do consider having the set-up installed by a qualified electrician.

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