London Pride

Jo & Gary report on 'Open Day' at a certain palm journal editor's garden, hidden away in sarf London.
Jo & Gary Parker, Surrey, UK

Chamaerops No. 19, published online 23-07-2002

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Garden view

The cloud forests of the Hawaiian mountain peaks. The mist-shrouded valleys of the Himalayas. The primeval tree-fern forests of Tasmania. Perhaps the effect was enhanced by the damp weather, but these were the images that sprang to mind when we first saw Martin Gibbons' South London garden. On 2 September Martin opened his garden to the EPS, and during the course of the day over 40 members came along to experience the garden's exotic delights, and chat with Martin and Jason de Grellier Payne, the garden's designer.

Seen from the raised oriental-style entrance deck, the garden appeared to be an impenetrable sub-tropical forest. Our view of palm crowns, cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana) and mimosa (Acacia dealbata) was framed by lush stands of bamboo such as Phyllostachys bambusoides 'holochrysa' and Thamnocalamus 'Kew Beauty'. Descending to ground level, we wouldn't have been surprised had we glimpsed a kiwi scuttling beneath the tree ferns

Thriving in the shade beneath the entrance deck we spotted Chamaedorea palms (C. radicalis and C. microspadix). Amazingly, these survive the winters and looked superb. Passing a group of grinning EPS members (snatches of conversation such as "mine went to minus eight!" were overheard), a meandering path drew us into the undergrowth. Beyond a grove of unusual palms, yuccas and ferns, the spiky form of a large Trithrinax acanthocoma attracted our attention. Over the winter, it had been cosseted with a plastic tent and fan heater, but Martin has decided this was probably erring on the side of caution and intends to give the palm less protection in future. Behind the Trithrinax stood a small specimen of the striking blue form of the European fan palm, Chamaerops humilis 'Cerifera. The colour difference from the type was noticeable - and it keeps its blue coloration despite being partly shaded by an impressive grove of tall-trunked Yucca aloifolia.

Nearby, a wonderful whorl of 15 new cycad leaves glowed bright green in a shaft of sunlight. We've never seen a healthier-looking specimen of Cycas revoluta - proof that it can be grown outdoors. With a bit of luck, the new leaves will manage to harden before the frosts hit. Unfortunately, as the garden grows shadier, Jason expects that the cycad will have to go. The garden used to contain many sun-loving Mediterranean plants, but the emphasis is now more towards shade-loving ferns, bamboos and rare palms. Although just 17 feet (5 metres) wide, the garden offers a sense of mystery because the end is not visible from the entrance and the sides are cleverly screened with bamboo.

Taking pride of place near the entrance deck we couldn't miss one of the most unusual plants in the garden: the South American high-altitude palm Parajubaea coccoides. About four feet across and as much high, this graceful palm has large juvenile leaves which looked perfect. The palm obviously takes the winters in its stride.

Across the path we saw a small, recently planted specimen of Guihaia argyrata; another unusual palm even by Martin's standards. In maturity its leaves develop striking white undersides. Also in this area of the garden we were able to compare rare members of the Trachycarpus genus - T. martianus and T. 'doi chiang dao' with the more usual T. fortunei. Following the path further we admired two impressive Trachycarpus wagnerianus specimens. Growing in the shade, the compact 'waggy' character of these specimens has softened due to the formation of longer leaf stalks, but the distinctive white leaf edging and small, stiff leaves have been retained.

At the bottom of the garden, we reached an octagonal deck extending over a large pond. Overhung by Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns and mature Trachycarpus fortunei palms, the pond is beautifully integrated into the surroundings, curving like a natural waterway around the palm trunks. When forming the pond Jason took the brave step of cutting deeply into the Trachycarpus roots to achieve the desired effect (luckily, the palms were unfazed by the root damage). On the opposite bank we spotted a tiny Rhopalostylis sapida 'Oceana', a relatively hardy variety of the New Zealand shaving brush palm.

Returning along the path to the front of the garden we reflected on the rarity of the plants and the success of the overall effect. The garden forms a marked contrast to the surrounding backyards, which are little more than grass and dirt. Yet somehow they are the odd ones out: this garden seems as though it is the last surviving pocket of a subtropical forest which once covered the area. We almost felt resentful that foolish neighbours had slash-and-burned theirs!

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  28-01-23 - 23:39GMT
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