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The Fall and Rise of an Exotic North Devon Garden

Rev. Geoffrey Squire, UK
Chamaerops No. 46, published online 18-03-2003

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From left to right:
- The lush leaves of Musa, with Agapanthus, Agave, and a yellow form of Cordyline to the front of the house in October sunshine.
- A little summer colour lingers on in the December sunshine before the first frost arrives; Musa, Datura, bronze Ricinus, and Pelargoniums in the rear courtyard.
- An early spring view of the young flower buds of Beschorneria as they prepare to give their spectacular display.
- The exotic and highly-scented flowers of one of the varities of Datura. This species will only survive the mildest of winters here so we keep rooted cuttings under glass.
- An October view of part of the rear garden showing Trachycarpus Fortunei, Cordyline Australis, YuccaGloriosa Variegata, Cupressus Sempervirens, Hibiscus, Crassula, and other ‘exotics’.
- Winter sunshine over the lower garden with Trachycarpus Fortunei, Cordyline, Phormium, Phoenix Canariensis, and part of the shelterbelt of Pines and Eucalyptus. This was bare windswept grassland just 10 years ago.

It all began back in early 1961 when I visited the famous garden of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Here I saw huge banana 'trees' growing, as well as some very small plants of the same for sale on their plant stall. I bought one and it returned home with the camping goods on a very overloaded Lambretta scooter. Once home it was planted in a large pot and put in the old conservatory attached to our large Victorian terraced house in the North Devon town of Barnstaple.

In 1966 we moved to a house in the inland village of Swimbridge. It had a small field attached but no conservatory or greenhouse, so the banana, now about 4 ft. tall, was more or less abandoned in its pot by the end of the house. To my surprise, it survived the winter and so was planted out in the grass where it grew, sending out many young shoots. I decided to try other 'exotics' and added numerous Cordyline Australis, Trachycarpus Fortunei, Yuccas, Callistemon, Eucalyptus in variety, Gunnera, Phormium, and Bougainvillea. All grew well and the gardens, which were close to a village road, attracted considerable interest and were featured in the national press and in garden magazines on several occasions. Then came one exceptionally cold night in February 1987 when the region recorded its lowest ever temperature. Bougainvillea (outside for two years) was killed outright, bananas flopped to the ground as though dead, and much else looked brown and dying, but by the summer the bananas were growing well again and everything else except some small plants had recovered. The verdict was that 'exotics' were a realistic option for an inland North Devon garden.

I would have liked to have gone ahead and planted a much greater variety, but I knew that the garden faced an enemy that would cause far more damage than frost. It came in the form of the Department of Transport. The house and ninety-nine percent of its gardens would be obliterated in October 1987 to make way for the construction of the new trunk road to the region.

We purchased an incomplete barn-conversion in the village of Goodleigh, some three miles east of Barnstaple. It had two small fields attached but it was a hillside site, exposed to the frill force of the winds that blew in from the Atlantic, which could just be seen some fifteen miles in the distance, and the soil was mostly shallow, over rock. To begin with we had no intention to create much of a garden, but we did have a few very special semi-mature trees transplanted by JCB, and we also brought many shrubs and plants plonked into everything from dustbin bags to old tin cans and a considerable number of cuttings, and gradually a new garden began and gradually more and more of the grassy field was planted up.

Though we are some way from the almost frost-free regions of the Southwest, frosts are much less severe and of a much shorter duration than in more eastern or northern regions of England, and, with a high rainfall and a long growing season, things grew very quickly. Thirteen years later, our new garden has an appearance of semi-maturity. Pines, cypress, and varieties of Eucalyptus are up to 40 ft. tall, Acacia Dealbata ('Mimosa'), is at 30 ft. and looks splendid when in flower in early

February. Numerous branching Cordyline are up to 15 ft., Bananas up to l2 ft. The large number of Trachycarpus are strong growing and some are up to 15 ft. Phoenix Canariensis are proving to be more hardy than expected and are up to 5 ft. Chamaerops and Butia Capitata are more recent plantings. There are a considerable number of Phormium in variety, also Beschorneria, Echium, Pomegranate, Cyperus, Billbergia, Bamboo, Cupressus-Sempervirens, Lippa-Citriodora, varieties of Yucca, some large specimens of which are sure to be in flower at Christmas, Giant leaved Gunnera, Cycad, Callestemon, with their dazzling red or yellow flowers, Arum-Lilies, Canna, Embothrium, Dicksonia (Tree fern), and a rare but genuine Glastonbury Thorn.

Most Agaves and 'Prickly-Pear' cacti are grown in large pots or tubs and kept by the shelter of walls in winter as, although they will tolerate the cold that we get here, the open soil is too wet for them in winter and they suffer from rot and slugs.

We have experimented with growing Monstera-Delicosa and Bouganivillea outside. They have been outside for eighteen months but it is unlikely that frost reached back to the wall where they were growing in last year's short and mild winter. Owing to the size and quantity of the specimens, no form of winter protection can be given to anything in the gardens, so if it will not grow unprotected, it is simply not grown at all.

The long process of the restoration and extension of the house is now complete, and, with its natural stone walls, terracotta tiles, round archways, and whitewashed courtyard, it looks very 'Mediterranean' and is completely in harmony with the 'exotics' growing around it; in fact, both house and garden are much better than that which was destroyed


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