Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A dusting of snow

We had another fall of snow last night, again not too heavy, maybe an inch or so. But it did make the garden look very magical.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Variegated Delights

It may be cold and gloomy outside but one of the ways I cheer myself up is by browsing at plant photos I've taken last summer, admiring plants looking their best during the growing season. And I'd like to share one of my favourite group of plants, the Variegates!

It's one of those 'love it or hate it' sort of topics in the plant world, and if I'm going to categorize myself to either of the two only, I'd put myself under the 'love it' side.

As a mainly foliage gardener (who only regards flowers as a bonus), variegated plants give me an opportunity to introduce more variety on my plant collections, as well as have some contrast in the garden.

I do recognise that not all variegated plants are attractive and garden worthy, and certainly I don't find them all attractive myself. Some are better than others of course.

Here's just a few of my favourite variegated exotics. No doubt I'll feature some more in the future. Hope you'll find some of them attractive too!
Magnolia denudata 'McCracken's Variegate'
Daphne odora 'Rebecca'
Yucca recurvifolia 'Bright Star'
Aeonium 'Sunburst'
Farfugium japonicum 'Kaimon Dake'
Fallopia japonica 'Milkboy'
Fatsia japonica 'Spider's Web'
Echeveria 'Compton's Carousel'
Amicia zygomeris 'Variegata'

Ginkgo biloba 'Variegata'

Top: Ruta graveolens 'Variegata'
Bottom: Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cool Tropicals

One of the common views of a tropical garden in the UK is that everything is dug up and cleared away for winter. Whilst some exotic gardeners may do that, we want a garden that looks good even in winter. The philosophy for the garden is that most of the plants, especially all the backbone planting are hardy, often they are not tropical at all, but grown for a tropical effect.

Many of the interesting introductions in recent years have come from mountainous regions of Asia such as Yunnan Province in China, or Mount Fan Si Pan in Vietnam, areas used to cold conditions, but teaming with interesting plants such as Scheffleras and Fatsias that have an exotic look but are capable of tolerating quite low temperatures.

Last night we had a low temperature of -4C (25F) and a light snow fall, whilst many of the plants drooped in response, by lunchtime they had shook off the cold and were looking as they normally do. Some of the more tender plants are root hardy such as hedychiums and banana (Musa basjoo), so whilst these will be cut back this year they will return in the spring once the weather warms up again.

Here are a selection of photographs of the garden from today.

Fatsia polycarpa


Fatsia japonica in flower

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ice Crystals

With many parts of the UK gripped by the heaviest early snow fall in 17 years, we have had to ensure that the tender plants are all under cover. Some of the smaller plants in the garden now have upturned buckets over them, this gives a borderline plant a bit of extra help in keeping frost or snow off them until the worst of the weather passes.

We are due for a cold night tonight with temperatures below -1C at 21:30 (OK not cold by some standards but quite chilly for where we are). Our forecast is for about -3C tonight, so not anything to be too alarmed by, however we will probably find quite a heavy frost has formed by morning, with quite a few ice crystals.

Which brings me on to a particularly favourite plant in the garden, Ficus carica 'Ice Crystal', which is an ornamental fig, not grown in the UK for its fruits but its leaves.

The leaf shape quickly gives away the source of the name.
This plant has often attracted the interest of gardening friends when they have visited the garden, and most initially find it hard to believe it is a fig.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Winter Homes for Garden Houseplants

A few plants in the kitchen.
Every winter a number of plants that spend summer in the garden have to find homes away from the cold, the damp and the snow of a typical British winter. Every year we try to reduce the number of plants requiring homes but somehow the numbers never seem to get any smaller.

We are fortunate in having two greenhouses, plus a temporary plastic greenhouse to overwinter some plants, as well as using the jungle hut (See here). However a number of other plants come into the kitchen and occupy window sills in the house.

Many gardeners might wish their partner was more interested and encouraging of their hobby, sometimes it has its drawbacks. As we both are keen gardeners we are not very good at self restraint, so every windowsill and spare space in the house will have some plants in.

Knickers is fascinated by the Phoenix.
We are fortunate that our kitchen has a particularly high ceiling so can be home to a large palm, Howea fosteriana that would be far too tender to live outside, other potted palms such as Phoenix roebelenii and a selection of Chamedoreas also find homes in the kitchen.
A small number of Aloes spend winter months in the lounge bay window – often relegated to a tighter spot elsewhere over the festive season to fit in a Christmas tree, windowsills in the bedrooms all find small pots of unusual and rare Agaves occupying every spare inch.

Only the most tender plants find homes inside, other plants are grouped into the greenhouses depending on the temperature they need.

The first greenhouse we have is home to various Aloes and Agaves, as well as a few more leafy plants such as Begonia luxurians. This greenhouse is well insulated with bubble wrap and has a small fan heater set to keep the temperature between 3 and 5C (37 to 41F).
The second greenhouse has hardier plants inside, most of these will eventually be planted out, but with them still being smallish plants in pots we keep them under cover for winter with a heater set to keep these above 0C (32F). For the majority of winter this heater will not be needed as average winter temperatures will be above freezing.

We also take advantage of the wooden workshop we have in the garden, this building is insulated and double glazed and in summer is occupied by a home gym. However in winter a selection of Palms and Ferns take advantage of the protection offered (3 to 5C minimum) and will cope well with the low light levels.

Inside the workshop
The key considerations when planning the winter homes for plants are the light, heat and humidity requirements. Each plant will have different requirements and juggling this can be quite a skill to ensure everything that needs a home can find a suitable one. Balanced against this is the costs of providing heat, if money was no object then heating the greenhouses to 10 or 15C would reduce the risks and avoid having to have as many plants inside the house, but this would be very expensive. Therefore the most tender generally find homes in the house – except those that hate the dry conditions.

We need to have a regular routine of watering the houseplants – many of the palms require a lot of water in the house over winter as the dry air from central heating quickly removes all the moisture from the compost.
It is always a welcome relief at the end of winter when the plants go back outside and the house regains a light and airy feel!


Monday, November 22, 2010

A Couple of Summery Shots

by Gaz
The trouble with starting a blog about an Exotic Garden at this time of the year is that the garden doesnt have much in the way of a tropical feel to it. So over the course of the winter we will post up a few photos from last year just to have a tropical fix!

The following photographs were all taken in September this year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bountiful Harvest, Fit for the Bin

One of the garden tasks I had to do today was to harvest all the grapes hanging on our pergola. It was a bumper crop, much like last year. The difference though is that last years crop were all eaten by birds the very day most of them started to ripen, not a single fruit was left. This year however, they were virtually untouched for some reason, and all these grapes were still hanging there just rotting away.
I couldn't just leave them there to slowly rot away during the winter. If I did, it's just bound to make more mess on the patio underneath, and with its proximity to our Koi pond it's best to remove them to prevent any fruit falling into the pond and consequently polluting it.

So I spent a good hour harvesting away all these succulent grapes, in the middle of a cold, wet November day, far from the southern European conditions you normally associate grape harvesting with.

Also today is a landmark day for our new kitten Knickers (I know, but life's too short to just use serious names for your pets), he's been allowed to go outside for the first time! A bigger, wider world out there for him to explore and use up his very high kitty energy levels. He was having a good time, jumping and running about exploring our 'jungle'. Here he is, on top of our temporary plastic greenhouse which seems to be one of his favourite spots so far.

Knickers also experienced his first misadventure in the garden today. Whilst I was in the middle of harvesting grapes, I heard a loud splash on our natural pond, and within seconds out comes Knickers nearly flying away towards me absolutely dripping wet!!! Poor Knickers, absolutely soaked in smelly pond water and shivering away in the cold air. I thought it was funny though, but what followed was probably just as traumatic for him, a wash in the bath! I couldn't just let smelly pond water naturally dry out from his fur, so my garden task had to be interrupted by doing a kitten bath. And like most cats, he hates water and giving him a bath has given me a fair share of bites and scratches!

Oh well, that's one new lesson learnt by him today. I think he'll be extra careful next time he goes near that pond.

Back to my grape harvesting and after another half an hour, Voila!, a big tub full of succulent white grapes, ready to be tipped into the rubbish bin. It seems a shame to bin all of these grapes but they're wine grapes, Vitis vinifera 'Chardonnay' and too sour to be eaten even when fully ripe. We grow them for the lovely foliage rather than the fruits so it doesn't matter, and certainly we won't use them to make wine!
A little tip if you're thinking of growing grapes for the foliage rather than the fruits: It's best to choose white grapes over purple ones, so when the birds do eat them you don't end up having purple droppings in the garden.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Winter Jobs

Its that time of the year when we tend to start thinking ahead to next year. During the winter period is often when we get stuck into many of the hard landscape type jobs, partly to keep active and be outside when the weather is cold, but also to save the warmer summer period to enjoy cultivating the plants.

Last winter saw the veranda completed, a new deck and some new fencing erected, jobs that may have been better done in warmer times but I am glad we did them when we did.

This coming winter will no doubt have several winter projects to keep us active as well. As yet we haven't decided quite what the schedule will be but there's another section of fence to build, and more digging for the new koi pond, there is still quite a lot of soil, clay and chalk to dig out. (We will put together a series of photos on the work so far at some point).

We haven't yet finished getting the garden ready for winter, there are still a lot of fallen leaves to tidy up, pruning and removing of dead annuals to undertake, but nearly all of the plants that needed to be moved to a winter home have now been moved, so we will get stuck back into the larger jobs again soon.

November is a strange month in the garden in lots of ways, we haven't really finished this gardening year, but are not ready to start the next, plus its the first month of cold gloomy days.
Roll on Spring!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Frosts

A tropical garden conjures up images of palm trees and warm tropical islands. However we must remember that in the UK we have this pesky season called winter. The last couple of nights have had the first frosts in the garden, not too heavy or significant but it does mark the change of the season. Only yesterday bedding begonias still stood upright still clinging to the last of the Autumn sunshine, however today they have mostly drooped over.

Despite the frosts Hedychium 'Devon Cream'
is still putting on a show.
We have various thermometers and sensors in the garden, to help monitor what our conditions are, we are able to cross check these to the weather station at Luton Airport (which is on an exposed hill to the South of the town and is usually a degree or two colder than the garden). Last night our main sensor recorded a low or -1.0C, which is not too harsh, especially as today is sunny and temperatures are up to about 5 or so at mid morning. Another sensor recorded a slightly warmer minimum of +1.2C.

The exact temperature is likely to be different in various parts of the garden due to a variety of factors, some parts of the garden have more overhead cover, or are close to a wall or fence. Whilst this may seem inconsequential, cover or larger structures can make the difference of a degree or so, and be the difference between life and death for marginal plants.  We try to ensure that each plant is given a spot best suited to it, so some of the more borderline palms are planted with a canopy over the top or next to a wall (Chamaedorea microspadix and Chamaedorea radicalis for example).

All of the permanent plants in the garden can cope with temperatures far lower than last night, although some such as gingers will lose the top growth until the Spring returns and warms the soil again.

Last nights frost therefore isn't a serious event in the garden, but does mark the change of the season, and now we begin the long slog until Spring and the new gardening year ahead.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Building the Veranda

Before work had begun.
Just over half way down the garden is a large wooden outbuilding. This had been used by a former owner of the property as a carpenters workshop. We are fortunate that this building, as well as having an electrical supply, is well insulated and doubled glazed - a real benefit in the British climate and allows us to overwinter some of our more borderline hardy plants away from the cold and snow we would often expect.

The area in front of this building had been towards the end of the list of jobs to undertake, and we finally got started in the summer of 2009. This meant clearing the existing shrubs and removing roughly a ton of old gravel.

Due to over commitments the work to build an extension to the building was delayed until the Autumn. The following photographs tell the tale the work undertaken.



The finished result has created a relaxing place to sit and wile away a few hours surrounded by exotic plants.


A History of Alternative Eden

This blog is the story of our exotic garden, located in Luton, United Kingdom it has been our home for nearly 6 years. The intention from the start was to create an urban oasis, a secret and hidden place that felt like it should not belong in the UK. A garden created with towering bamboos, palms, and many unusual and exotic plants to give the illusion of being somewhere many thousands of miles away.

The garden is still relatively young, it has been in existence for only six summers, and as we pack away and tidy up in the Autumn of 2010, we felt this was a good time to reflect upon what we have created so far.

The beginning
Prior to 2005 we had a very small garden, 30 feet long by 12 feet wide, despite its small nature this was home to a number of exotic plants even then, bamboos, palms, cordylines, acers and grasses. We had outgrown the house and outgrown the garden, so over the winter of 2004-05 we set about looking for a new place to call home.

One of the key requests to the Estate Agents was to find a property with a large urban garden. Perhaps really we were looking for the right garden that had an acceptable house! By the spring of 2005 we had found our new home and having moved in we were able to begin the transformation from overgrown and unloved outdoor space to our tropical paradise.

View of the bottom section of the Garden in March 2005
When we moved in the garden had been neglected for a number of years, there were numerous self sown sycamore saplings, brambles and budleja shrubs growing throughout the garden. The old shrubs and trees had been left to grown unchecked and had more than outgrown the space available to them. We began with a significant amount of clearance, removing conifers, and chopping back trees to more sensible sizes. The intention was always to keep anything garden worthy, especially some of the slightly larger plants. From that initial garden several older specimens still exist, a large Yew tree, and Phormium tenax help define the first part of the garden.

First plantings
Like many people new into the hobby of exotic gardening we had to learn as we went along, we had to find our own style and learn which groups of plants we were particularly keen to grow, as well as which plants would thrive in our location. Some garden centres and nurseries make very confident statements about hardiness that do not take into account all of the conditions a plant will have to endure in a British winter.

The area near to the Yew with some of the first few plants in
Summer 2005

Initial plantings were mostly centred on structure, some of the first bamboos went into the garden to break the garden up into the garden rooms that visitors enjoy today, others to help hide existing garden outbuildings and sheds - a useful and necessary part of a garden but not something one would want as a key focal point. Some of the first palms (Trachycarpus fortuneii and Chamaerops humilis) were planted, and now established are starting to take off.

Hard Landscaping
We were fortunate that despite the garden having been neglected for a number of years prior to our ownership it had been a loved family garden in the past. A significant amount of interesting hard landscaping had already been undertaken, walls, embankments, pergolas, and even a church style gateway had all been erected. Some of these have needed minor repairs but fortunately were in generally good order and of good quality. We have added features such as the Koi pond and associated patio area - which when we moved in was an old pig sty, a new middle patio area has been added to create a enclosed courtyard style garden, and a covered colonial style veranda was added to the front of a large existing outbuilding. Many of these features will be covered in more detail in future blog postings.

The Garden in 2010
The Jungle hut - Summer 2010.
We are now at a stage in the gardens life that it is starting to look how we envisaged it six summers ago, the story of this exotic garden is in reality only just beginning, we hope you will enjoy this journey with us as we continue to develop and enhance our tropical oasis.