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
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Above left: a small Trachycarpus fortunei planted
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
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
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
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
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
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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