How to create a brilliant exotic garden in a cool climate
You don’t have to live in a tropical climate to have an exotic garden.
Or even just the exotic border. You don’t have to rip your whole garden out and re-plant with banana palms – you can create a mini-jungle atmosphere in a sheltered corner.
1) An exotic garden can work with your architecture
Exotic gardens in the UK date back to Victorian and Edwardian times when plant hunters scoured the world. They brought exotic plants back to Britain, the United States and Australia.
And Victorians moving around the world ‘for the Empire’ took their architecture and their gardens with them.
So an exotic garden or border can also be described as ‘traditional’, especially if you live in a Victorian or an Edwardian house.
Modern houses and extensions also work well with exotic plantings because the strong sculptural shapes and bright colours contrast well.
2) Pack your exotic garden with plants in layers
Stephen also has a YouTube channel, with Matthew Lucas where they talk about plants, called The Horti-culturalists.
Melbourne is hotter than the UK in the summer, but has some very cool winters, so many of the plants in Stephen’s own garden would work in the UK or North America.
The garden is called ‘Tugurium’, which is Latin for hovel. He bought the acre of land with compensation money for losing all his possessions in ‘the 1983 fire’. This was a devastating forest fire that swept through this part of Melbourne, taking 300 lives and destroying much property.
There was no house or garden – not even any topsoil – when he moved in. He created the garden from scratch. It regularly featured in ‘Gardening Australia’ when Stephen hosted the programme.
Create a jungle ‘canopy’
Everything was created on a tight budget, so he was only able to build a small house. A neighbour commented that it was a shame that such a ‘hovel’ had been built so close to him. So Stephen named the house and garden ‘Tugurium’ as his response.
Stephen’s one acre garden is packed with plants. He actually holds four National collections in the space.
Trees and tall shrubs, many of them hardy in winter, create an upper ‘jungle canopy’. They are underplanted with ferns and smaller plants, just as would occur naturally in the jungle.
Go for big borders and lots of layers to get the jungle look. For many people there is a distinction between a ‘tropical’ garden and a ‘jungle’ garden. A jungle garden relies almost wholly on layers of foliage, rather than flowers. Find out more about how to create a jungle garden here.
3) Find the tropical corner of your garden
Stephen says that every garden has its own patches of micro-climate. Experiment to see where less hardy plants do well. It’s often much warmer near the house, for example.
‘Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works,’ he says. ‘The worst that can happen is that a plant dies, which will create something that’s very precious in a garden.’ He pauses. ‘An empty space.’
4) Choose plants with big leaves and/or strong shapes
Stephen recommends mahonia as a good shrub for an exotic look. Forget about its suburban reputation. Combine it with bamboos, ferns and other jungly-look plants.
5) Combine lush planting with bright colours
Dahlias originally came from Mexico, but are now considered quite ‘traditional’ in English gardens. Take them back to their colourful roots by using them to create exotic garden beds.
Many people are put off dahlias because they are tender and you are usually advised to dig them up and store them in winter. However, not everyone has to do this. See Don’t dig up your dahlias in winter – here’s what to do instead.
And cannas will also look good in the exotic garden. Like dahlias, they are reasonably hardy in most parts of Britain, provided you protect their roots/rhizomes with a thick layer of mulch in autumn. For tips on choosing and growing cannas, see Everything You Need to Know About Cannas or my What You Need to Know About Cannas video interview with Stephen.
Begonias and fuschias are also flowers we take for granted. They,too, can look remarkably exotic in bright colours and the right context.
6) Keep frost-tender exotics in pots
Some exotic plants won’t survive a Northern hemisphere winter, but will do well in pots outside in the summer. You can bring the pots in to an unheated but frost-free greenhouse or conservatory, or protect them with fleece in a sheltered spot.
7) Contrast leaf shapes
Vary your leaf shapes, contrasting big sculptural leaves with tall slim plants like bamboo, advises Stephen. Bamboo grows well in the UK – sometimes too well. Make sure you don’t buy the spreading type as it will take over your garden. It can be a nightmare to get out again.
8) Visit exotic gardens near you
Christopher Lloyd re-started the trend towards exotic gardens and borders when he ripped out his mother’s rose garden in 1993. He replaced it with the ‘exotic garden’. It’s planted with cannas, dahlias, verbena bonariensis and the relatively hardy banana palm Musa basjoo.
Henstead Garden in Suffolk is also an ‘exotic garden’, named as Garden of the Year by Alan Titchmarsh in 2015.
The Salutation in Sandwich is now closed. Its former head gardener, Steven Edney, has an unusual tropical garden in the Kent countryside (open for the NGS).
His neighbour, Philip Oostenbrink shows how the exotic look can really work in small gardens. Philip is also the author of a very good book on this style called The Jungle Garden. He talks about it, and the principles of how to create today’s jungle garden look here.
And the RHS has several exotic garden areas, such as those at RHS Rosemoor in Devon.
Lastly, pay a visit to a good exotic plant nursery. My favourite is Architectural Plants, which describes itself as the’ home of the tropical and jungly in both big and small plants.’
I find Architectural Plants an inspiring nursery to visit. Plants and arrangements are beautifully presented.
7) Read the best books on exotic gardens
Before he died, Christopher Lloyd started his last book, Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. It was finished by his friends, and is considered one of the best books on exotic gardens you’ll find.
Note: these are affiliate links to Amazon, which means you can click through to buy. If you do, I may get a small fee but it won’t affect the price you pay.
And Will Giles’ book Exotic Plants for Temperate Climes is rated highly. It’s a useful directory of plants that will survive in your garden but will add an exotic touch.
If you’re interested in growing exotic fruit and vegetables, A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono won the Guild of Food Writers’ Book of the Year in 2011.
And, although it looks as if it may be only available second-hand or on Kindle, Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw is worth getting your hands on.
And you can find more of Stephen Ryan’s gardening advice in this post on clever ways to improve your garden.
To find out more about wonderfully tropical cannas, see Everything You Need to Know About Growing Cannas.
8) Rock the exotic garden inside your home
Phalaenopsis orchids, bromeliads, cacti, air plants…
The ‘jungle’ look is very popular for indoor plants – strong, structural shapes and bright colours look good in modern interiors. And for tips on styling your home to get that jungle look inside, see How to Decorate with Indoor Plants – latest trends.
Let me know of any good exotic gardens, nurseries or books near you, and I’ll add them to the list.
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