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Exotics in a Windy Seaside Garden

Wind is the enemy of so many of the plants we love to grow. Here, student Martin has tackled the problem head on.
Martin Parker, 7 Haslemere Road, Seasalter, Kent, UK
Chamaerops No.32 Autumn 1998

I have been a palm enthusiast for just over three years now after seeing a picture of a Dicksonia antarctica in a Biology textbook. I since have had a desire to have exotica in the back garden and have a thirst for knowledge in this area. I have bought many of the 'recommended' species as well as several which would be a bit more experimental. Another point of interest is that I have kept records of rainfall, temperatures and air pressure in our back garden since 1995. I shall use these records to show the extremes that my plants have lived through, also giving an idea of how wet the ground was during the colder spells.

The garden in question is the family back garden and is located less than 200 metres from the sea. The soil type here is predominantly London clay, which although is very thick and not the most permeable of soils it is good for holding water and has some nutrient value. The weather here in general is fairly similar to that of much of the South East of England. We are in the region receiving some of the lowest rainfall (nearby Margate being similar to a desert in one year, with less than 250mm) and although our summers can be very hot in this area (we had the highest recorded temperature in the country one year, long term national record used to be held by nearby Canterbury) we also can get extreme winters. Temperatures rarely get excessively low themselves but the main chill comes from the winds off the North Sea.

Our garden is not very sheltered. There are houses all around which have their gardens border ours though apart from a few fir trees in neighbouring gardens there is very little shelter. One part in particular suffers from the wind and many plants, even Buddlieas, look very scruffy and stunted in that area. Instead of cutting off our neighbours and putting up lines of bamboo or huge fir trees all around our garden I decided to take the wind as a challenge, more than a problem.

Nothing was actually planted in the ground until I actually plucked up the courage to do so two years ago. My first plant was bought in early 1995, none other than a Chamaerops humilis which I had been told was on offer at a nearby garden centre (even to this day does the garden centre in question still sells Trachycarpus fortunei as 'Chamaerops excelsa'!). This plant had apparently been there for one winter already and just sat outside in a big black pot. It was about 2 1/2 feet high when I bought it and it hasn't grown very much since but has produced many suckers. It is known that this area has been as cold as the safe minimum reported for this species (-12°C) without the wind chill factor.

Later that year, following the discovery of the Palm Centre and the vast knowledge of the manager there, I purchased some more small plants. These were Trachycarpus fortunei, Jubaea chilensis, Butia capitata and a Dicksonia antarctica. They were only small seedlings with a few leaves and were the selection on trial for our winter. They were placed in their pots in the garden to benefit from outdoor conditions and enjoy the sun. All went fine until I went away for a week to the Isle of Wight in August 1995. During that week London recorded 35°C and I had concern for my palms in the garden, which were the responsibility of my sister at the time. When I returned, I found they had more or less dried out, including the D. antarctica which had been more shaded than the others. I drenched them and worked hard to revive them all. It was to be the Jubaea chilensis that didn't make it past our summer. The others recovered well from drying out, especially the Butia which just grew as normal the whole time.

Next came the winter of 95/96, where the Chamaerops was to be left sitting in its tub in the garden, while the others enjoyed slightly greater luxury in the shed. The shed is at the bottom of the garden and is not heated in any way, apart from the sun in the winter (south facing windows) and has air circulating through large gaps around the door. It was mainly for protection from frost and snow but the temperatures in there did fall to several degrees below freezing. The actual minimum temperature we had for the whole of that winter was -5.5°C (a frost on 29/12/95) after a couple of days with similar temperatures below freezing (the maximum temperatures also below freezing). Later that winter, near the end of February '96 came a short period of snow and very strong winds. Reports were of the winds having a chill factor of -15°C (which of course had the freedom of our garden). We also lost our electricity, due to the gales, for much of the first day. Slowly but surely, summer arrived (how many UK readers remember summers?!!) and the palms began their recovery. Of all the ones in the shed, all were fine and were then taken outside for the summer. The Chamaerops was exactly the same as it was the year before, but soon suckers started to appear (which have been left on).

In June that year I decided to get a Musa basjoo followed by a Chamaedorea radicalis. Both went straight out into the ground. In September I attended Martin's 'garden party' and collected a few more seedlings. Those were; Trachycarpus wagnerianus, Caryota 'himalaya', Chamaerops humilis (blue form) and Archontophoenix 'Illawarra'. So, how did they all fare in the winter of 96/97...? As usual, the seedlings and smaller palms entered the comfort of the shed, whereas all the others were on trial with full-on winter conditions. The Musa basjoo was planted fairly near the house and surrounded by large shrubs and a fence on all but one side. The Chamaedorea was planted on the other side of the garden, also in a sheltered place and when the first frosts arrived was wrapped up in bubble-wrap (the sort used for insulating greenhouses). The Musa basjoo was left alone for the first frosts and consequently died off (they were very light frosts). It had already received some degree of damage from winds.

A fairly mild, but ominous September and October provided little cause for alarm, but again, winds did tend to reach their peak at around that time (recalling that the famous 1987 hurricane of south-east England happened in October!). From a period of 26th December-11th January 1998 came some really quite severe weather (by our standards anyway) which involved temperatures struggling to reach a degree or two above freezing. This was accompanied by heavy snow which lay on the ground for much of that period. -3.8°C was the lowest temperature recorded for that winter and all the palms in the shed survived well apart from one. The loser of that trial was to be the Archontophoenix 'Illawarra' sadly. The Chamaedorea was more or less unscathed, with allowance for some regular wind-battering. The wind did result in the loss of two leaves at one point, but thankfully my C. radicalis has maintained slow but steady growth through all weathers and these were eventually replaced. Only two changes happened that summer, one being that my Butia capitata was still growing as strong as ever and was moved into a bigger pot. The other was the not so daring planting out of my T. fortunei. This had a fairly wind-free position at the end of the garden, next to a fence. As a small plant, less than a foot in height at the time, it didn't get bothered that much by wind. The banana eventually re-appeared around the end of June and was watered regularly but still hardly even reached a couple of feet before it was in need of protection yet again. Upon arrival of the first cold spell, the seedlings again returned to the shed and the banana was wrapped up and so too was the C. radicalis. The C. radicalis was also given extra protection from the wind in the form of a green-mesh windbreak. The T. fortunei was to be left to display its cold-hardiness for all the neighbours to see. It was great to be able to point out a clump of lush green leaves in the middle of winter to people with a garden full of brown twigs!

The first frost (-3°C) arrived late October, followed by much of November being frost-free. December was much the same, but then followed a short period at the start of January with powerful storms (with gales up to 90mph) causing damage and also some flooding in places. I was thankful that the pessimistic construction of a windbreak around the C. radicalis proved to be a good idea. The record high temperatures that followed weren't enough to start the banana growing again, as it had been adversely affected by its winter protection, resulting yet again in death of the plant above ground level. Overall quite a mild winter, the lowest temperature recorded here was -4°C on the 2nd February. Sadly, this summer, as many of you know, wasn't easy to tell from a mild autumn. I was concerned that the banana may have been finally beaten by our weather, until in early July a small shoot appeared which restored hope. A nice plant proceeded to grow, until we were again hit by strong winds. I was horrified to find the small banana plant had just snapped in half. I was then informed that I should place a large jar or something over the left-over stump and keep my fingers crossed. I did just that and soon the banana started growing again. I was shocked at how tough this plant seems to be, it is constantly suffering from the winds and cold weather yet still struggles on regardless. All my other plants are still fine and that M. basjoo is now growing at a rapid rate. I have also planted out my T. wagnerianus and large Chamaerops this summer. My other Chamaerops, the blue form, has been repotted and has grown faster than I could have believed. I might also mention that I bought a Musella lasiocarpa from the Palm Centre two years ago too. I thought it was an extremely attractive plant and was desperate to see it in the garden. So I also put that through trials, but I was sad to find it had no future as a garden plant here. It sat outside in partial shade through the summer but as soon as the first few frosts came, the leaves started to die off. I cut these off and left a pointed green stump. This was brought indoors to a warmer place but deteriorated and eventually started to rot.

Well, that's my account of what has been happening palm-wise in my back garden for the last few years. The south-facing front garden has yet to be conquered but as it stands I intend to provide some hope to those living close to the sea, that Tamarisk and fir trees aren't the only trees or shrubs you should try. Still it does involve some pressure on the palms as they are of course less than ideal situations for them to grow. My theory had mainly been with the idea that sea-side gardens are generally quite mild and frost-free which, as a comparison done with a more-inland garden nearby has shown, is quite true. My next two plants to be tried are hopefully going to be Butia capitata and Caryota 'himalaya', with high hopes for the survival of the Butia at least.


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