Friday, 31 March 2017

Gardens to Visit - Abbotsbury - Five ways to make your garden look tropical

Rope Bridge at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens - The Rope Bridge
If you long to create a tropical paradise in your garden then Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset has lots of examples of what to plant and how. There are plenty of plants that look exotic but that are hardy enough to be grown in most places in the UK, so whether you're in urban Birmingham, suburban Surrey or rural North Yorkshire, read on to find out how you can turn your garden into a jungle - or a post-apocalyptic vision!

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset benefits from a mild sheltered location on the English South coast, where the gulf stream feeds warmer air from across the Atlantic and makes the winters milder than they would otherwise be. This makes it possible to grow some exotic plants that wouldn't ordinarily survive in the British Isles. There are fine examples here of plants from Australia, Africa, and Asia, but many of them have hardier equivalents or dopplegangers that can be grown in harsher conditions in the UK, to create a very similar effect.
There are limitations - your specimens might not grow as big as those living in the privileged environment of Abbotsbury, and given that they might be secretly dreaming of a hotter and sunnier garden hundreds of miles further South, they might take longer to get themselves established. You might need to protect some from the worst winter cold or wet, by improving the drainage or wrapping them in fleece during really cold spells. Some might need a sheltered spot to reduce the effect of those colder winds we tend to get. But there are many plants that can lend your garden an exotic atmosphere that are hardy enough not to shrivel and die at the first sign of a bit of frost.  
So what can you plant in your garden that will give you at least a slice of life in the tropics? Here are a few ideas that suggested themselves to me as I explored Abbotsbury:
Trachycarpus tropical planting at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
Trachycarpus are hardy but exotic looking
1. Palms.
You enter Abbotsbury through an avenue of towering palms which are planted either side of a raised wooden walkway, and immediately create an exotic impression. The effect is created again just after entering the main garden, this time at a lower level with dense planting of palms on either side of the path. Any palm will engender thoughts of far away places since they are absolutely the antithesis of an English country garden. To bring this effect home with you, plant Trachycarpus fortunei in the sunniest part of your garden. It's hardy enough for most British gardens but looks as tropical as any other palm.
2. Large Leaves

Rhododendron falconeri with large leaves
Rhododendron falconeri - monster leaves
Gunnera - large leaves already!
Many of the plants that contributed to the tropical style at Abbotsbury had a couple of things in common. The first was that many had very large leaves. Whether it was the Rhododendron falconeri originating from the Himalayas or the Musa (banana) from Africa, the sheer scale of the foliage creates a kind of jungle effect from sheer lushness and fullness of planting.  However, Rhododendrons need acidic soil, and most will get very big eventually so are not suitable for many gardens. Bananas are not hardy and need a lot of preparation work to get them through a British winter. Instead, to get the large leaf effect you can plant Gunnera (see section 5) or Fatsia Japonica (see section 3), which likes a shady and sheltered position but has large leaves like giant hands and looks as if it has been transplanted from a thick woodland in Japan.

3. Glossy leaves
Fatsia japonica helps create a jungle effect
Fatsia japonica - helps make your own jungle!
Another property that helps these plants look exotic is glossy leaves. In a hot climate, they help retain moisture and reflect heat, and while they may not need to do this as much in your garden, the visual association is easily made, and sleek glossy leaves give the impression of a plant that is at home somewhere tropical. The aforementioned Fatsia is a good example. So are cannas, which need to be protected like bananas, but being smaller can be grown in pots or lifted in autumn, and brought indoors for winter.
4. Supersize plants

Echium, tall and exotic at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
Echium - tall and exotic
Some plants look exotic simply because they seem bigger and more impressive than others you might grow. There are plenty of familiar plants that produce tall flower spikes in summer, such as foxgloves, lupins or delphiniums, but they seem relaxed, loose and restrained and therefore at home in a cottage style garden. In comparison, Echium, Eremurus (Foxtail Lily) and Eucomis (Pineapple Flower) all seem to grow straighter and taller, and acquire a bolder and quirkier appearance. These Echiums at Abbotsbury are taller than me, and their hairy foliage (another moisture retentive adaptation) also indicates they are at home in warmer parts. Note that there are both hardy and not so hardy varieties of Echium, Eucomis and Eremurus, so make sure you choose a hardy one, but they will all lend your garden a tropical air.  

5. Something unusual
Gunnera, at Abbotsbury Subtropical gardens
Gunnera emerging, looking quite bizarre!
Sometimes what you are seeking is indefinable but you know it when you see it. Wandering through the gardens at Abbotsbury I was looking for ways to take the exotic look away with me, identifying what features struck me as embodying the tropical style. It's not always possible to quite put your finger on it. Pseudopanax ferox (toothed lancewood) looks exactly as it's common name suggests, with long spiky spears of leaves. Not to my taste but would make an impression for sure. However, when I came across this grove of Gunnera manicata, I was taken aback. Gunnera, in a boggy, sheltered site will grow leaves up to two metres across, looking like a giant rhubarb. If you have enough space for one, nothing will create a jungle more effectively. But at this time of year those leaves are only just opening, so what confronted me was not a lush, green, tropical jungle of massive arching stems supporting leaves you could make a hammock from, but a post apocalyptic image of emerging stems. They appeared as if they had been destroyed some time previously, and were now starting to climb, zombie like, back out from the ground into a sparse Jurassic landscape. I spotted a chaffinch but would not have been too surprised at that instant to have seen a voloceraptor. 

Whether you pack them in densely to form a mini jungle or plant them more formally in a colonial style, there are plenty of plants that will help you turn your garden into something more exotic. If you have ideas for other plants that will do this, please share them using the comments box below. And I'm sure there are more gardens to visit with great examples of tropical and exotic plantings. Please let me know if you've been to one, it would be great to hear about them. 


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  1. I think the Himilayan honeysuckle, Leycesteria Formosa, wouldn't look out of place in an exotic garden.

  2. Hi Iain, that's a great suggestion. It definitely has an exotic look with the colourful bracts hanging down, and it's fully hardy too!