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.
by 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 (-12øC) 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 35øC 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.

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