Exotic Community

Mike Prime runs the Besson Street Community Garden in south London. In some detail he explains its history and creation, its successes and failures. Mike is a 'hands-on' sort of a guy and his personal observations are painstakingly recorded. Valuable stuff!
Mike Prime, 30 Petten Grove, Orpington, Kent
Chamaerops No.22, Spring Edition 1996

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Photo: can this be London? Agave, Dasylirion & Yucca whipplei, at home in the Exotic Community

The origins of London's first 'exotic' public garden go back to 1987, when I was employed as the sole worker at a community garden in central London. With its sheltered, inner-city microclimate, I had hoped to make this garden an oasis of exotica amidst the traffic-ridden streets of London's West End. Unfortunately, I was responsible to a management committee who insisted on a policy of planting only 'English' plants, which they had heard were better for wildlife. In fact, their definition of 'English' plants included such far-flung introductions as Hollihocks, Sunflowers and Shasta Daisies. What they would not accept were plants that looked 'foreign' - Palm trees, I was told, would make the garden look vulgar.

As an ecologist, I tried in vain to persuade them that a 'natives only' policy had little relevance to a newly-created urban site that had already been artificially planted, and that a garden containing exotics could be made equally attractive to wildlife, while also reflecting London's multicultural character. It is sad that the vital messages of the conservation movement have become distorted and popularised as a natives good, aliens bad' dogma. Horticulture in Britain is still dominated by attitudes that arose sn the first half of this century, when the insecurity induced by loss of Empire led to a rejection of the exotic plants loved by the Victorians, and a haze of nostalgia for concepts of 'Englishness' which were themselves largely invented during the Victorian era.

Needless to say, I soon tired of banging my head against a brick wall, and retired south of the river Thames to see if it would be possible to create a truly multicultural community garden in my own borough of Lewisham. After forming a working party with other local people, we approached Lewisham Council's planning department for help in locating a site and seeking funding. At that time, Lewisham was one of the lucky inner London boroughs selected to receive funding for community projects through the Department of the Environment's Urban Programme. A half-acre derelict site was found, containing nothing more interesting than a patch of amenity turf, a few trees and a crumbling Portacabin, facing one of the busiest road junctions in the borough. To meet the conditions of the Urban Programme, a firm of community landscape architects was engaged to draw up and supervise the contracts for fencing and landscaping the site, while all planting schemes were left to our group. In 1989 we succeeded in obtaining funding, but the architects' estimate proved inadequate to fund all the works necessary. The vandal-prone location made an expensive persmeter fence necessary, while a series of mounds planned to screen the garden from the road proved problematic. I could never see any trace of the thousands of pounds' worth of topsoil which was supposed to cover these mounds which according to the landscape architects had been delivered. In the end we were left with heaps of sticky clay mixed with builders' rubble to plant in, and very little money for plants. On a brighter note, I succeeded in getting a job with Lewisham's Nature Conservation Section which enabled me to include the garden in the rota of volunteer workdays through which the Borough's nature reserves are maintained.

It was unfortunate that we could not afford a few large specimen palms, which would have given the garden instant impact. A few small plants were all we could afford, augmented by those I had propagated myself. Planting began in the autumn of 1990. Because of the extremely poor nature of the soil, I chose to plant a selection of Acacia species for screening and shelter, as these fix their own nitrogen. These have proved a spectacular success, several already having reached tree size, and providing flower from November to March in some years. Visitors are amazed by the diversity of foliage in this genus, which ranges from feathery pinnate leaves to prickly conifer-like phyllodes. Our collection includes Acacia dealbata v. subalpina, A. frigescens A. mearnsii, A. melanoxylon, A. patackzeckii, A pravissima, A. riceana, A. rubida and A. verticillata. We have not experienced any frost damage, despite temperatures as low as -9°C in February and December 1991. A Eucalyptus delagatensis planted at the same time has already reached nearly 30ft. With its large sickle- shaped leaves tinged red in summer, and erect trunk, this is amongst the most exotic of the hardy Eucalyptus. As it grows to 300 ft in the wild, it could eventually prove quite a landmark! Even faster growing is E. crenulata, which has grown 20 ft in two years! All Eucalyptus and Acacia were planted as 12-18" seedlings, which establish better than larger plants, and were selected from high altitude provenances. Other plants that have grown well in the compacted clay mounds include the South African Freylinia cestroides, covered in scented flowers every autumn, the Pepper Tree Schinus molle, the winter flowering Buddleia officinalis, Yucca aloifolia, Lyonothamnus floribundus, Ceanothus spp., Pomegranate and Olive trees. A seedling of Ceanothus griseus v. griseus has topped 20 ft in five years. All these contrast with a native species hedge of Hawthorn, Hazel and Blackthorn, which has barely reached 5 ft in the same amount of time. A slightly less compacted mound was planted with a selection of succulents and other xerophytic plants. Despite initial fears of how they would take to the clay soil, the admixture of rubble and the raised nature of the mound seems to prevent any waterlogging in winter.

Tireless hoeing by our long-term volunteer, the appropriately named Bob Gardiner, has also helped to improve the soil structure. Dasylirion achrotrichum, seedlings from the old plants at Tresco, have grown rapidly, as have Yucca treculeana, Agave americana and Nolina longifolia. This has the broadest leaves of any Nolina, and in time formns a thick, branching trunk. All of these put on a spurt of growth in autumn that carries on into early winter, but seem unaffected by frost. By contrast, Opuntias, such as 0. haematacantha and 0. linguiformis, grow only in the hottest months, while 0. compressa prepares for an Arctic winter by shrivelling up and lying flat on the ground at the end off August. None of these succulent plants is covered in the winter, as is so often stated to be necessary. Ground cover is provided by the invaluable hardy mesembryanthemum Delosperma cooperi, together with the winter-flowering 0thonna cheirifolia. The blue leaves of a Butia capitata associate well with the succulents, while a seedling of Sabal minor planted in this bed has made slow but steady growth, producing two leaves a year which are gradually increasing in size. This year it has been joined by a Brahea armata and a Chamaerops humilis, completing the desert scene.

Another palm with a reputation for sloth is Jubaea chilensis, but our seedling has grown well, producing four or five leaves a year. Unlike Phoenix canariensis (which we also have a specimen of), which gains hardiness only with size, this palm seems safe to plant out even as a seedling, and it grows more quicldy once in the ground. A small plant I had growing unprotected in my own garden was completely unaffected by the three severe winters of the mid-eighties, despite frosts down to -12°C. Near the Jubaea grow the so-called Chilean Guava, Myrtus ugni (which fruits every year), and the hardy lemon, Citrus ichangensis (which hasn't yet) . Has anyone ever attempted to cross this with the more edible citrus varieties? Also nearby, but in partial shade grows the only specimen of Cordyline indivisa that I have ever managed to establish This appeared to die in a spell of hot, dry weather soon after planting, but miraculously reappeared the following spring. I have avoided watering it, but it seems to have got its roots down far enough to survive drought. There is no doubt that drying out before the root system is established will kill C. indivisa, but I have also lost specimens in hot weather that have been carefully watered. I suspect that like Arbutus menziesii, they may be allergic to London tap water.

In 1992, we succeeded in obtaining funding from the London Marathon to replace the old Portacabin (whose roof had now fallen in) with a brick building. As a result of the building operations, we were left with a pile of rubble to dispose of, which I made use of to construct another succulent bed along more classical lines. The rubble was levelled into a 12" layer, and covered with another 12" of a mixture of 2/2 ballast to 1/2 soil. Despite a November planting date to coincide with the opening of the building by the comumonwenhth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (who made an important speech in favour of multiculturalism in horticulture), most of this new planting has succeeded well. The only exception was a Washingtonia filifera which did not survive its first winter (not really a fair trial), but Brahea brandegeii proved to be made of stronger stuff. Agave ferox, Beschorneria yuccoides, and Yucca schottii are all doing well on a portion of the bed that is shaded for half the day. In fact, Yucca schottii, a treelike species from high altitudes in New Mexico and Arizona, seems to resent being placed in full sun, turning red and refusing to grow. Puya alpestris and P. chilensis are enjoying the perfect drainage, as are Furcraeae longaeva, Yucca thompsoniana and Aloe aristata. Along with more Opuntias, a selection of globular cacti were planted here, including species of Echinocereus, Gymnocalycium and Neoporteria. There are probably hundreds of potentially hardy species of cacti from colder parts of North and South America that are worth experimenting with, given full sun and perfect drainage. I prefer to see what will survive without any winter protection, though this might be necessary in very wet areas. I have grown Echinocereus viridi flores and S. neomexicana outdoors for ten years now. The only problem I encountered was with a fox, who took great delight in uprooting the specimen of E. viridiflorus and hiding it in various parts of the garden. Luckily, the cactus suffered no more than a few small puncture marks, and the fox eventually tired of the game.

Most of the garden is often very dry in summer, but a patch of deeper soil on the western side of our new field centre has provided a home for some more moisture-loving species. The ginger Hedychium forrestii has luxuriated here, producing broad almost Cannalike leaves over a foot long topped with attractive white flowers. The Chain Fern, Woodwardia radicans, shelters under the blue leaves of Melianthus major. A very tropical effect is provided by Pseudopanax laetus, with its large, Scheffieralike leaves. Although this is one of the less hardy New Zealand Pseudopanax species, there are magnificent old groups at the Morrab Gardens, Penzance. It will be a great feature if it also proves hardy here.

Other palms I have not yet mentioned include, of course, good old Trachycarpus fortunei and its var. wagnerianus, and a seedling Nannorrhops which has grown more quickly than those I kept in pots. Small specimens of Raphidophylhum hystrix and Serenoa repens have taken over a year to settle in, but finally began to nsake some new growth last summer. Arecastrum (Syagrus) romanzoffianum has survived five winters, including a frost of -9°C, but was unhappy in its original position by the road, where the leaves became covered in black soot from the traffic fumes. Since being mnoved over a year ago it has made no new growth. Whether it will recover, or whether it is simply languishing from lack of heat or repeated cold, only time will tell. I have recently heard that this species can suffer from magnesium deficiency, so I will try dosing it with Sequestrine.

During 1995, we added a number of new palms to the garden, including Sabal palmetto and S. causiarum, Trithrinax acanthocoma, Phoenix reclinata and Chamaedorea radicalis. It might seem overly optimistic to be trying Sabal causiarum, a palm that originates in the West Indies, outdoors in London. However, this species has been reported to withstand -12°C in Texas and California, and might well have had a more northerly distribution before the last glaciation. Phoenix reclinata, the African Wild Date, survived the '87 freeze on Tresco, so I reckon it's worth a try. Experimentation will continue as various palm seedlings become big enough to plant out. The climate in this part of south-east London is not quite as mild as c entral London msorth of the Thames, but shade temperatures in summer are often several degrees higher than those reported by the London Weather Centre (whose thermometer is several hundred feet up on a windy rooftop).

Over the past two years, we have fitted much of the garden with Plantex weed-suppressing membrane . This is a thin woven material which allows air and rain, but not weeds, to pass through. It is not too difficult to fit it around established shrubs, and once covered in a layer of bark mulch or gravel it gives almost complete control of weeds. This has been a great boon, since the garden is maintained entirely through volunteer labour. Local schools make use at the garden regularly, amsd the school next door now has its own entrance, allowing daily use. A little girl of Moroccan extraction was able to describe to her class how Chamaerops leaves are harvested and woven into hats and baskets. The garden is open by arrangement: For details, please ring 0181-695-6000 x 8133.

Many of the plants mentioned are described in my booklet 'Multicultural Gardening", available for £1.30. from: The Nature Conservation Section 3rd Floor, Town Hall Chambers, Catford, London SE6 4RY

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