I know this sounds mad, but I am convinced it can be done, partly by soil improvement, but mainly by suitable choice of plants (and aided by the fact that our winters are not normally as severe as any of the places just listed, thanks to the Gulf Stream, although they are wetter).
To me, the requirements for a sub-tropical effect seem to be plants with exceptionally large leaves, plants with unusual or exceptionally large, bright flowers (provided they are not too common, like dahlias), and plants which attract attention simply by their association with hot climates (e.g. cacti of any size). This reveals another aspect of my lunacy, in that I am defying all standard recommendations by filling this tiny garden with huge plants (small plants naturally usually have small leaves and small flowers).
For the winter I am not content with the frequently recommended plants which simply have coloured stems in winter, such as dogwood (Cornus) and willow (salix) species. To me a dead looking stem is a dead looking stem whatever its colour. Similarly shrubs with insignificant flowers do not appeal for winter colour, whether the insignificance is the result of size or (like Garrya elliptica) the dull green colour. The overpowering scent of the small suckering shrub Christmas box (Sarcococca humilis) may redeem it if I can find a way of hiding it behind something more attractive in the summer, but as yet I haven't found a place for it.
In such a small garden I have to be very selective with the plants - there is no room for passengers as there might be in a larger area. Large leaved evergreens are therefore particularly useful, especially if they flower in winter - and I have found one which fits that description, while several manage all except the winter flowers. These form most of the structure of the garden.
Although the front garden is very small, it is still divided into two parts by a straight path (32 inches = 0.8m wide) from the gate at the roadside to the front door. When I was kick-started into doing something about long-standing vague plans for the garden, this was because we had had the former tumbledown fence on one side and the hedge on two others replaced by a brick wall. One result of the construction work was that the smaller bed had been converted by the builders into a sea of mud, with not even a weed to be seen. In fact, several years passed before the first weed appeared in it! In consequence, that bed received some priority treatment long before I started work on the larger bed.
The larger bed had been a simple square of grass with a narrow border all round it, but over the years I had widened the borders and nibbled away one corner, roughly halving its total area. The beds contained a row of winter-flowering heathers along the path, a good patch of day lilies (Hemerocallis) and, in the corner (nibbled from the grass) furthest from the path and closest to the house was a bush mallow (Lavatera). The latter was an excellent plant in the right context, covering itself in pink flowers from late spring to mid-autumn every year. After being cut almost to the ground in early spring it grew to about 8 feet (2.5 metres) up and across each year. It is, however, short-lived and not at all sub-tropical in appearance, so had no part in the long-term plan. Otherwise the beds contained self-sown annuals and biennials such as marigold (Calendula), feverfew (?), foxglove (Digitalis) and some long-standing and partly self-sown perennial Tradescantia virginiana. The grass was sown by the house builder in 1955, so you can guess what the soil under that was like.
In the remaining corner, closest to the house, I planned to put an unusual red hot poker Kniphofia caulescens which has leaves which make it look like the kind of yucca that will only survive indoors in Britain, but it thrives outside and flowers late in autumn in my garden (it was in fact not added until September 1995 because of difficulty in locating a source for it). I understood that it was the only kniphofia with attractive leaves - the others all looking grassy (but generally having better flowers), while between its planned position and the jasmine I put a purple-leaved New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax "Dark Delight" (planted 2nd August 1994).
Having, as I thought, established the main structural planting, I now added some smaller, mostly herbaceous, plants to fill in the gaps. Under the palm in semi-shade I added two species of hellebore, the so-called Christmas rose Helleborus niger and the Lenten rose Helleborus orientalis hybrids, plus a little group of common snowdrops Galanthus nivalis and hardy cyclamen Cyclamen coum. In front of it, in partial shade from the wall, I added winter aconites Eranthis hyemalis as well as some more in the corner under the palm. Adjacent to the first mentioned aconites, in full sun in front of the palm, I put three tiger lily bulbs Lilium lanifolium splendens, although one of them in fact turned out to be the larger, hairier pink-flowered variety "Pink Beauty". Beside them and in front of the yucca I put Algerian iris Iris unguicularis for its large blue winter flowers, and beside them a bulb of the pineapple lily Eucomis bicolor. Against the wall between the jasmine and a rhododendron I put what I understand to the be largest of the strange arisaema family Arisaema consanguineum. Three plants were then given ample space in the centre of the bed, a voodoo lily or dragon arum Dracunculus vulgaris and two bulbs of the giant Himalayan lily Cardiocrinum giganteum. Finally, in part to help prevent soil from falling through cracks between the retaining rocks, I put a few large-variety houseleeks Sempervivum "Commander Hay". The eucomis was in fact (because it was available) planted at the same time as the phormium, while the others had to wait for their proper season and were not planted until 30th March 1995.
The first photo (34,177 bytes) shows the bed as it was on 1st December 1994, with lots of empty space. The red hot poker was destined to go into the corner nearest to the camera. The second (28,062 bytes) is a closer view of the jasmine and the phormium, the third (23,401 bytes) shows the yucca and the fourth (28,888 bytes) the palm, all on 2nd December 1994. When I bought it, the yucca showed no variegation and was only 11 inches in diameter; the nursery told me I could expect it to reach 2 feet in diameter and height after about five years growth. By the time of this photo, 6 months after planting, it had already doubled in diameter, and it reached almost four feet after only two years! The fifth photo (18,150 bytes) shows the arisaema in flower on 14th June 1995.
The penultimate photo (40,010 bytes) shows the whole bed again on 14th June 1995, about a year after the first plantings. The jasmine has clearly grown well, unlike the dead phormium in front of it. The lilies can be seen growing but not yet in flower on the right, with the thriving yucca to their left. In front of the yucca, the three apparent tufts of grass are the Algerian irises, and to their left again is the rosette of the eucomis. To its left and against the boundary stones is the succulent-like houseleek. In the centre one giant Himalayan lily is quite prominent, with the other snmaller one to its left and a little further back. The arisaema does not show up well in this photo against the wall to the immediate right of the jasmine, but to its right the two rhododendrons are growing well. Under the palm tree the Christmas roses are visible, but the Lenten roses are just off the right edge of the picture. The surface of the soil is completely hidden by a heavy mulch of cocoa shell.
The last photo (25,597 bytes) in the above set shows one end of the bed about a month later, on 13th July 1995. Two lilies (the genuine variety) are in flower, and the eucomis (bottom left) is just starting to put up its flower spike.
This photo (34,980 bytes) shows the bed on 12th September 1995. The newly-planted red hot poker can now be seen at the bottom left.
Here we can see the red hot poker Kniphofia caulescens in flower on 13th October 1995, only six weeks after being planted. As with all photos on this page, click on the thumbnail to see a larger image (30,834 bytes).
Finally in this section, here the rhododendron "Cliff Garland" is shown in full flower on 27th March 1996 (30,750 bytes).
The giant Himalayan lilies were another disappointment. I had bought two (rather expensive) bulbs of quite differrent sizes, because they are monocarpic (i.e. they grow for several years without flowering, then produce both flowers and offsets and die. It is supposed to take about five years from new offset to flowering size, so I was trying to increase the frequency of flowering. However, the larger bulb produced unexpectedly small leaves, which were reduced further in June when first it was subjected to a urine spray by a cat, killing one leaf and damaging another, and then a slug ate half the biggest remaining leaf, reducing it to one and a half leaves. As if this was not bad enough, later in 1995 both it and the smaller one turned yellow, while remaining glossy and firm. The nursery who supplied it said this was temporary chlorosis caused by the exceptionally dry summer. In 1996 the larger one failed to appear. The smaller one continued to grow slowly but suffered sun scorch until I provided shade. In 1997 the leaves turned yellow again, and again it was necesssary to provide it with a sunshade. That autumn I moved it closer to the palm so it was well shaded from the hottest sun, and mulched it heavily with its preferred treatment of leaf mould, but slugs attacked once more in the following spring. It never really recovered from that, and did not appear in 1999.
The next problem was the jasmine, but for the opposite reason. As can be seen in the 12th September 1995 photo of the bed above, it thrived and threatened to take over. The long, flexible stems root wherever they touch the ground, and they already extended well beyond the support wire I had provided and had reached the first rhododendron. The solution I came up with was to erect an obelisk over its roots and train it up inside. This photo (20,609 bytes) shows the immediate result, and it has simply improved each year since then. A recent photo (see below) shows how well it has responded to this unorthodox treatment.
Another apparent problem in 1995 was that the voodoo lily simply failed to surface. However, this problem eventually solved itself but in the meantime I had provided for compensation in mid-September 1995 by adding a few crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) in front of the arisaema to give late spring colour in place of the, as I then thought, failed voodoo lily. This photo (13,256 bytes) shows the crown imperial on 25th April 1996 in its first spring.
The winter aconites were another failure. For the first two winters they produced a small number of leaves (far smaller than the number of corms I had planted) but no flowers, the next just one leaf, and then they disappeared.
The Christmas roses were not much better. The three plants between them produced a couple of flowers in April 1996. In February 1997 two of them produced one leaf each but no flowers, and they have not been seen since.
Yet another winter flower, the cyclamen, was initially unbelievably successful, but it did not last. I planted just three corms, expecting each to produce a few leaves and one or two flowers. In fact somehow twenty plants appeared and gave a great display. The following winter, in February 1997, they did the same again, but in 1998 only a very few leaves and no flowers were seen. In 1999 they managed four flowers, then for the next couple of years just one or two leaves, and then they disappeared. I have since learned that they do not like to be mulched, so this was probably the reason for their sudden change of fortune.
The rhododendrons, also intended to be winter flowering, provided a different kind of problem, or, rather, two of them. They flower somewhat later than I had hoped, and are very inconsistemt about the date. I have known them flower by mid-February, but more often it is some time in March, with the cream "BoPeep" always a week or so later than the pink "Cliff Garland". The second problem is that for the rest of the year the are simply small scruffy looking bushes which detract from the intended sub-tropical appearance. Consequently, in April 1997 I moved them to the rear garden.
The aim of winter flowers received another setback from the Algerian irises. They grew well, but flowered inconsistently, with an occasional flower as early as January but the best display in April. The flowers also were partly hidden by the coarse, grassy evergreen foliage which was threatening to swamp the yucca. In autumn 1997 they also were moved to the rear garden. That was particularly disappointing because the flowers themselves are large, bright blue with a yellow throat - just the sort of thing I was wanting. The problem can be seen towards the right of the photos below, where the yucca is almost hidden by their mass of leaves.
Photos of the bed on 2nd July 1996 and 19th July 1997.
Of the initial plantings there was one other failure by way of unsuitability. The red hot poker proved to be too vigorous, producing many more rosettes of leaves and threatening to swamp its neighbours, as can be seen on the left of the two photos above and even more so in that on the left, which was taken 2nd September 1997. I also belatedly discovered, from reading not experience, that in order to keep it flowering it needs to be divided every few years. In consequence, I took it out in June 1998, by which time the lifted plant was too heavy for me to lift single-handed, and too big to put into my wheelbarrow. I divided it into three on the spot, gave away the larger piece and replanted the other two in the rear garden, first bathing the roots in fungicide and then sprinkling flowers of sulphur on the main cuts as a further precaution against rot. I replaced it with another red hot poker which I had just heard about, Kniphofia northiae, which promptly rotted away. The suppliers put it down to the wet summer and supplied a free replacement the following year (the next planting opportunity). This, they assured me, did not tend to produce any additional rosettes, but did have even broader and longer leaves than K. caulescens. They showed me one in the owner's own garden, and I was suitably impressed. Further comments on that below ...
Other fairly early changes were a small move for the voodoo lily, bringing it further from both the palm and the wall into the middle of the bed and at the same time dividing it into five separate tubers, of which two went into the rear garden, and a small move for the pineapple lily to get it further from the rapidly growing yucca.
There still seemed to be a lot of empty space, especially along the wall where the rhododendrons had been, so in late April 1998 I put in a Japanese banana (Musa basjoo).
This photo shows most of the bed on 25th April 1996. The crown imperials are in flower, the original red hot poker is starting to spread, the yucca has grown considerably, the irises and rhododendrons are still in place and the young voodoo lily is growing to the left of the yucca.
Thinking they would help to fill up empty space, I planted two hostas (Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans') behind the red hot poker, and they did help a little for a year or two, but the combination of attacks by slugs and swamping by red hot poker meant they did not survive.
The tiger lilies seemed to behave rather oddly after the first couple of years. They seemed to develop some means of locomotion, coming up as much as a foot from where they had been the previous year, and in varying numbers of both varieties, until, following a very wet winter in 2001-2002, they disappeared, probably drowned.
I don't seem to have many photos of this bed as a whole later than those shown above, but these immediately below, together with some of the more detailed photos and those of the entire garden further down this page show how the early wide open spaces have become a dense mass of vegetation.
The bed as seen from the front door, on 2nd July 1996 and a similar view on 28th June 1999 (the apparent lean of some buildings is distortion caused by the lens, not the result of a drunken photographer). The third picture, from the road outside, was taken on 8th July 2003 and the fourth, from the front door again and the foreground now dominated by the red hot poker (well past its best for the year), on 15th June 2004.
The voodoo lily is an early summer flowering tuber, and is supposedly rather tender. I was therefore very surprised to find it producing a very strong shoot in the middle of January 1996, nearly ten months after planting and in the middle of a period of hard frosts. Here it can be seen in bud on 28th June 1996. This photo was in fact taken for a different reason - framed between a couple of downward pointing palm leaflets and an up-and-to-the-left pointing yucca leaf, on careful examination you may see the head of a hen pheasant which had decided to take a rest there! I also used a zoom lens to get some much better pictures of the bird. Below are two pictures showing the plant in flower on 5th July 1996 and a third on 25th June 1998.
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