04 June 2014 By Katherine Crouch
When ethnobotanist James Wong first moved to the UK to study, he was astonished to find how much work was involved in keeping the British garden flourishing through the seasons. In the tropical gardens of his home in Singapore, exotic plants were planted and when they got too big they were cut back and that was about it.
Taking advantage of the mild climate of the South West, the hardy exotic garden uses mainly slow growing evergreens with dramatic forms for year round effect. With added perennials for seasonal summer colour this is a great low maintenance solution for busy people who still want a vibrant and colourful garden.
Exotics can look a little odd with a backdrop of country fields, oaks and cows so the site has to be carefully considered. This style of garden works very well by the sea, and in enclosed spaces in urban and suburban areas.
Bamboos hail from the cold regions of China and Japan and are entirely hardy, forming the backbone of my exotic gardens. The Phyllostachys varieties are well behaved for the first couple of years but can become invasive. The Fargesias are a better choice for a small garden, clump forming and finer stemmed. With sufficient moisture they will cope with sun or shade.
The hardy palm trachycarpus fortuneii enjoys a sunny position, as will Pittosporum tobira, phormiums and cordylines. Regrettably, the exotic garden can be expensive to establish if you buy mature specimens. Still, I have had more enjoyment from a £60 bamboo than the toe pinching killer heels languishing at the back of my wardrobe.
For a cool and semi-shaded garden, I would plant Aucuba japonica variegata, Acanthus spinosus, and Coprosma Lemon and Lime with an underplanting of Geranium palmatum (so much hardier than Geranium maderense). Summer colour can be introduced with New Guinea impatiens in hot intense colours of scarlet and magenta. With slug control, bold leaved hostas such as the chartreuse green 'Sum and Substance' or gold and green 'Great Expectations' work well, and I also add golden creeping jenny to trail over border and container edges.
The hardy tree fern Dicksonia artarctica is an investment, costing at least £30 per foot of stem, and demanding some frost protection in winter, but one specimen will form a shady focal point unlike any other.
Canna lilies and dahlias are especially effective for vivid summer colour, and useful in gardens where there is no conservatory to keep tender plants through the winter. Mulch the tubers with straw, or if your soil is heavy, dig them up, dry the tubers out and keep them in a frost free garage or shed and replant in April. I love Canna Tropicanna for its bold striped leaves and dahlia David Howard boasts tangerine orange flowers and chocolate foliage.
If you are lucky enough to have an Alitex greenhouse, then you can overwinter potted succulents such as agaves, aeoniums and echeverias. My favourite aeonium is the black 'Swartzkopf' although the green varieties are slightly hardier. Agave Americana needs each vicious spine at the end of the leaves trimming with nail clippers for safety, a quick job rewarded by a plant that can be left un-watered while you go on holiday.
Like any other new garden you will have to remove weeds during the first season, but during the following years the growth should be so lush that weeds don't get much space or light to establish. After that, simply do the 'brown-bitting' each spring, pulling or cutting off dead leaves. Apart from watering during dry weather, there will be very little to do in your exotic garden except enjoy it!
Katherine Crouch Garden Design
BBC Gardener of the Decade
In 1999 Kathy entered and won the first BBC Gardener of the Year competition, and the following year the queue on her garden open day went round the block. As clients were now demanding her services she set up Katherine Crouch Garden Design in early 2000 and has since been designing gardens all over the South West. Proving it wasn't just a fluke the first time round, she then won BBC Gardener of the Decade in 2008 and the enjoyment of developing gardens continues. Projects range from tiny to large private gardens and commercial work for local town councils and businesses.