My Front Garden

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Although the front garden is very small, it is still divided into two parts by a straight path from the gate at the roadside to the front door. Only the smaller of the two parts has been developed at all as yet, and it is far from finished. I have prepared the soil by digging it deeply, adding half a ton of granite chippings, over a ton of well-rotted horse manure and an unknown quantity of garden compost, with the incidental effect of raising the soil about a foot. Two sides of the bed are surrounded by a 2 foot 6 inch brick wall, and to keep the soil in I have laid a row of rocks around the other two sides.

My lunatic ambition for the front garden is to defy the climate and develop a sub-tropical appearance, especially in summer, and have plentiful flowers blooming in winter, and all with permanent plantings (I don't have time to grow plants that need to be taken under cover for the winter, nor to sow annuals every spring). This at a latitude of about 52N, about the same as Labrador and the centre of Lake Winnipeg (or in southern hemisphere terms, the Falklands).

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).

For the winter I am not content with the frequently recommended plants which simply have coloured stems in winter, such as dogwood (Cornus) 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.


The winter flowers I have made a start with, by planting winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), which is covered in bright yellow flowers from late November (theoretically - I noticed first flowers on 6th October 1997) until early April, hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen coum), which in their first winter (1996-97) flowered from late January until March but in their second produced only a few small leaves and no flowers, and the well-known snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) did not flower until late March in 1996, their first winter, but began the following winter with one flower in December, a second mid-January to mid-February, increasing to give a good display of quite large blue & yellow flowers by late March (too late really for my purpose); this relatively late flowering combined with their grassy, not very attractive leaves and somewhat spreading habit (overhanging the path and obscuring the yucca) has led me to remove them from the bed. Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) let me down, and Christmas roses (Helleborus niger) did not flower until March 1996, not at all in the 1996-7 winter and did not appear at all for 1997-98. Helleborus orientalis was not much earlier in 1996 but gave a good long-lasting spring display; in 1998 they began flowering in February and lasted until April, but suffered badly from greenfly during the unseasonably mild March and April. However, there are many other reputedly winter flowering plants still to try, mainly small bulbs but also a few shrubs.

Two very early miniature rhododendrons (varieties Cliff Garland (pink) and Bo Peep (cream)) flower very well but not quite as early as I had hoped - late February/early March and mid-March respectively in 1996, both in March 1997. They can be seen (long after flowering) behind the dragon arum in the photo mentioned below. I have now moved them to the rear garden. Rhododendron "Olive" is a more reliable late January-February flowerer, but none of the small early rhododendrons looks at all exotic in summer - on the contrary, they then look rather scruffy. I just acquired a Musa basjoo (Japanese banana), which has replaced them and seems to be settling in well. This should provide a far better background to the dragon arum and better companion to the palm and yucca (see below for descriptions of all of these), as well as making a major contribution itself.

Because of the very limited space, shrubs have to be reasonably small and earn their place throughout the year. This will rule out the winter flowering viburnums, camellias and probably also the winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) unless I grow it up an obelisk (as I have the jasmine). When I plant up the larger side of the garden I will probably try a suitable mahonia, such as Mahonia japonica, which has the unusual combination of large racemes of yellow flowers in winter and large glossy evergreen leaves. This will have the added advantage of providing a windbreak for more delicate plants.


For the sub-tropical appearance, my Chusan (or Chinese) palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) (87,260 byte picture taken 2nd September 1997) has just come through its fourth winter and is growing well (it certainly looks strange when covered with snow, as in this 132,822 byte picture taken 2nd December 1997), as is a variegated yucca (Yucca gloriosa variegata - 112,481 byte picture taken 20th October 1997). The yucca has grown much faster than I was led to expect by the nursery which supplied it, and in fact is now quite a bit bigger than the older plant (3 years older) in the nursery's own display garden - I must be getting something right!

The unusual red hot poker, Kniphofia caulescens (124,424 byte picture taken 2nd September 1997), 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. I understood that it was the only kniphofia with attractive leaves - the others all looking grassy (but generally having better flowers), but I have now come across mention of K. northiae which apparently has much larger leaves. Since K. caulescens needs dividing every few years to keep it flowering but K. northiae allegedly doesn't, I shall consider exchanging it for the latter in the hope of avoiding this chore and getting a better plant for the purpose, but first I want to have a look at one.

To help stop the soil falling through the gaps between the rocks I have planted some Sempervivens Commander Hay, a very large reddish variety of house leek, which looks like a small tender succulent (aloe type) but is completely hardy and spreading well. Each rosette of spiky leaves grows to 6-8 inches diameter before flowering and dying, having produced numerous offsets.

In addition to these "architectural" evergreens, I also have a number of unusual bulbs in place. The dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) is described as needing to be baked in summer, thriving in hot dry conditions, and producing a deep red spathe variously described by experts as 12 or 14 inches long. I planted one in March 1995, expecting it to flower that summer even if it then died. It did not show through the ground at all that year, so I thought it had failed completely. However, during a period of hard frost in February 1996 it pushed up a strong shoot, and eventually reached a height of about 4 feet, including the 24 inch spathe! That really made the neighbours look. It was (then) the biggest flower I had ever seen growing in the open in Britain. In 1997 the plant grew 5 feet tall and the spathe was 32 inches long. It's not the most beautiful of flowers, but it is certainly spectacular. This photo (93,631 bytes) shows what it looked like on 5th July 1996. It reputedly has the disadvantage of producing an evil smell (it kids flies into thinking it is a lump of rotting meat to persuade them to pollinate it), but I found it only produced much smell in very hot conditions, and even then not as bad as I had been given to expect - the neighbours didn't complain. During February 1997 it produced five shoots, because the bulb produced four offsets, which were noticeably smaller than the main shoot and did not flower. After they died down I lifted them all, so I could move the main plant a few inches and give the offsets more room to grow. I have put two of the smaller tubers in the rear garden, leaving a group of three. I found the original tuber had grown to about 8 inches in diameter, having started out not much bigger than a crocus. The two tubers in the rear garden are both growing, one looking likely to flower but the other very much smaller. The three in the front have between them produced (at the last count) 8 shoots, of which four look large enough to flower. Multiple flowers should lead to red berries to prolong the period of interest.

In addition to the flowers and berries, the leaves are quite an interesting feature. They are deep green, with 11 leaflets radiating from the top of the leaf stem. The centre leaflet is the biggest, up to 11.5 inches long, while the whole leaf is up to 19 inches across. Each leaflet is decorated with diagonal whitish stripes from the midrib towards the edge, giving a vaguely herring-bone effect.

At the same time I also planted two Himalayan giant lilies (Cardiocrinum giganteum). These grow quietly for a few years, producing a mass of large glossy leaves, then shoot up to a height of 8 to 10 feet to flower. Like most lilies, the flowers are grouped towards the top of the single stem, but these are white with a pinkish tinge, sweetly scented, and each flower is a six inch long downward facing (so you can see it!) trumpet. At this stage the bulb dies, but leaves behind a group of small offsets to go through the same process again. My idea was that by buying two of different sizes I would, after a couple of cycles, have flowers most if not all years. (I restricted myself to two because they are expensive.) Unfortunately, in the first year (1995) the larger bulb was used as a neighbour's cat's toilet, which killed over half its leaves, and the slugs ate the remainder. It did not reappear in 1996. The smaller bulb suffered much less damage of that kind, but did suffer chlorosis caused (according to the nursery, who I consulted) by the drought - they assured me it would not cause permanent harm. It was also over-exposed to hot sunlight, which caused some scorching. In 1996 it duly reappeared, about the same size as in 1995, and is noticeably bigger, with more leaves, in 1997. I have now moved it to the (now available) shade of the palm, and it seems to have produced an offset because it has a small shoot beside the main large one. Its natural habitat is under trees half way up the Himalayas. I am probably pushing my luck in trying to grow this plant, which cannot tolerate excessive heat, sunlight or drought, within a few feet of the dracunculus, which needs to be baked hard as it dies down during the summer.

Less spectacular, but still adding to the required look is a "pineapple" flower (Eucomis bicolor). This has a rosette of large strap shaped leaves and a single flower stem bearing a tight mass of green flowers with purple markings, topped with a bunch of green leaf-like bracts resembling a pineapple. One of its larger relatives, Eucomis comosa, Eocomis pallidiflora or (the largest and rarest but more tender) Eucomis pole-evensii would probably be a better choice, and I expect I shall get one or two.

Another strange rather than spectacular bulb in the same bed is the largest (I think) arisaema (Arisaema consanguineum). This has a single leaf per bulb, looking like an overgrown lupin leaf, with an arum type flower on the side whose spathe is green and white striped. It needs a companion or two in order to produce berries.

More spectacular but much less unusual are the crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis aurora). The leaves around the base and up the stem are nothing special, but the ring of large, brilliant orange bells topped by a bunch of green bracts is impressive. This photo (97,002 bytes) shows what they look like.

The same can be said of the orange flowered tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium splendens) and the (mistakenly supplied) larger pink flowered variety, all of which have black spots on their very large flowers. This year I tried out the tip of removing the stamens with the double purpose of extending the life of the flowers and avoiding the pollen staining the skin or clothes of anyone touching them (they are close to the path and the stain is brightly coloured and difficult to remove). It could hardly fail to achieve the latter objective, but an experiment of leaving the stamens on some flowers but not others showed it had no effect on the life of the flowers.


In 1997 the bed still looked half empty. Part of the reason is the fact that I followed the "experts" advice (almost) in allowing plenty of space for the two Himalayan lilies, one of which looks lost and the other no longer exists. Another loss was a "deep blackish purple" leaved phormium (Phormium x Dark Delight), which started purplish brown, turned all brown and disappeared entirely. I have now replaced it with two clumps of Hosta sieboldiana "Elegans". The Japanese banana (Musa basjoo), which is reported to be able to survive British winters with a little protection, or to grow to produce flowers and (inedible) fruit if the trunk is thoroughly wrapped up for the winter (a large chimney pot filled with straw is recommended), should be much bigger than the pair of dwarf rhododendrons it has recently replaced. The rest of the reason is simply that I have not yet planted all I want to. I find it surprising how many of these large plants I am able to get into such a small bed.

I am also considering planting some hardy calceolarias here. They are not very big, but the strange pouched flowers are normally associated with indoor plants in Britain, so I am hoping for an exotic effect and that they will act as ground cover. At present most of the soil surface is covered only by a mulch, which seems totally at variance with my sub-tropical ambitions. A group of giant onions (Allium giganteum) is a possibility; they produce a 4 inch diameter globe of lilac flowers on top of a six foot stem, or the more expensive Allium "Globemaster", which is much shorter but has 8 inch diameter purple flower clusters.


The larger (but still tiny), roughly square, bed on the other side of the path is currently mostly a very poor lawn, with narrow borders all round. The border alongside the path is mostly filled with winter flowering heathers. I may take cuttings from them to keep for ground cover and winter flower, but I am not sure they are really suitable because they do not look at all exotic.

A second side contains three different large flowered day lilies (Hemerocallis). I have taken pieces from each of them temporarily to the rear garden, so I can plant them again after I have dug over this entire bed to prepare it for new planting.

The corner furthest from the gate has a Lavatera. This provides a good show of large pink flowers for many months, but is not at all exotic looking, so it will go. I have another at the back of the house which I shall retain. Cuttings are very easy, so I can always propagate more if I want them.

The remainder is filled with self sown marigolds (Calendula) and foxgloves (Digitalis) and some young polyanthus and sweet williams (Dianthus) which I was given. I may retain a few of the polyanthus for their winter flowers, but the rest will go. They fill the space happily until I am ready to begin preparing the whole bed.

I shall prepare the soil much as I have the other bed, digging it thoroughly and digging in as much grit and compost/manure as I can get. In this case, however, I do not intend to end with a level surface. The plan is to have (possibly) a very small pond, a low-lying bed for moisture loving plants and maybe a mound, possibly supported by a tiny dry stone wall, for moisture hating varieties and to provide shelter. The layout design is not yet complete.

In the pond I am proposing to grow Zantedeschia aethiopica "Crowborough" (the so-called florists arum) and a tiny water lily, with Lysichiton americanum (skunk cabbage) in shallow water or adjacent boggy patch and possibly a Dierama pendulum (Angel's fishing rod) beside it.

There are many other plants under consideration for this bed, but I shall have to recognise that there simply won't be room for all of them. Two in particular, Agave americanum and Gunnera manicata (Brazilian giant rhubarb), would each fill over half the bed if they grow successfully. The gunnera is more likely to remain below its potential size because of the climate and the difficulty of providing enough water. The agave (said by some to be the only one which could be considered for permanent outdoor planting in Britain), is only hardy when very large, so it would be necessary to spend far too much money on a big plant. Since it can grow to eight feet or more across, it would almost fill the bed on its own. In fact, Andrew Withey grows the smaller Agave parryi (in an exceptionally well-drained bed) outside in Reading, just covering it with polythene at times in winter to keep the rain off, so that may be an alternative if I can provide adequate drainage.

As a substitute for the gunnera, I may settle for a genuine ornamental rhubarb, perhaps a red flowered Rheum palmatum, which is still a very large, impressive plant, or another smaller species of gunnera, but I may not be able to resist the temptation of growing the giant itself.

Paulownia tomentosa, the foxglove tree, is an impressive tree in flower, but much too large for my garden. However, it produces much larger leaves but no flowers if it is cut almost to the ground every year in early spring. I have seen it grown like this (in Architectural Plants nursery), but it still takes up too much room for me. In his book "Exotic Gardening in Cool Climates", Myles Challis recommends not only cutting back like this, but also restricting it to a single stem, taking up much less space and producing even larger leaves. I may well try it. Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven) and the giant elder Sambucus canadensis "Maxima" are recommended for growing similarly for the same reason, so I may also try them, perhaps the three adjacent to each other for their contrasting large leaf shapes.

A must for this bed is the giant New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, which always reminds me of a huge iris with six to eight foot leaves and even taller flower stems. I am also planning on using the elegant tall grass Miscanthus sacchariflorus, or something like it (unless I succumb to temptation again and grow a Phyllostachys bamboo) and, against the house wall, the rather tender climber Clianthus puniceus for its spectacular "lobster claw" red or white flowers. An alternative to the latter which may prove easier to grow is Passiflora caerulea, the only species of passion flower hardy enough to grow outside here.

Other possibilities to be considered (but there definitely won't be room for them all) are the royal fern (Osmunda regalis), Yucca recurvifolia, Musa basjoo (Japanese banana), Crinum x powellii, a cordyline (so-called cabbage palm), Melianthus major, Veratrum nigrum or viridi, a rodgersia, a ligularia, Hibiscus syriacus, Fatsia japonica, Aralia elata (angelica tree, or Devil's walking stick), the paeonias, Astilbe rivularis, Hedycheum (ginger lily) and Acanthus mollis latifolius.

Various writers and other gardening experts say that all bamboos look exotic, but they do not in most cases strike me in that way because so many of them have quite small, ordinary looking leaves. Exceptions are the phyllostachys group, because they are all very tall (15-20 feet) with attractive bare stems, and Sasa palmata because it does have big leaves and generally looks a stereotypical luxuriant jungle growth, although "only" 6-8 feet tall. Unfortunately both types have problems in a small garden. The phyllostachys, because of their height, tend to sprawl and so take up rather a lot of space, but unlike many bamboos are not particularly invasive.

Sasa palmata goes the other way, being less tall and less inclined to sprawl, it is very invasive. Myles Challis recommends it in his book, saying the roots are not very deep and easily cut back with a spade, but at Architectural Plants, who sell it, I was warned against it! Since Myles Challis also recommends the giant knotweed, a close relative of and very similar to the notorious Japanese knotweed, and the giant hogweed (Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed are both on the list of three plants it is illegal to plant in the wild in Britain because they are virtually indestructible), I think I shall take the cautious approach and reluctantly avoid it. An acceptable if less visually attractive compromise is perhaps the clump forming Semiarundinaria fastuosa, which has moderately large leaves (six to eight inches) and grows 15 feet high with a very upright habit, but I shall check further on the suitability of phyllostachys.

Of course, in addition to these major plants, there will be a need to grow smaller plants for ground cover between them and to provide splashes of colour. Again there are many suitable possibilities. Examples are trilliums, especially Trillium grandiflora and Trillium chloropetalum, Incarvillea delavayi, Fritillaria camschatcensis (which has virtually black flowers), Colchicum "Water lily", Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens (like a black grass with lilac flowers), Smilacena racemosa, the toad lilies (tricyrtis species) and Podophyllum peltatum.

The top of the small dry stone wall, if I build it, will be suitable for those plants which insist on exceptionally good drainage. Three examples are the small prickly pear cacti opuntia compressa (=humifusa) and opuntia cantabriginensis and the small cactus Maihuenia poeppigii (all of which will need winter protection from too much rain). It will also perhaps provide some shelter for more tender plants such as the musa and crinum to grow at its base.

Among the deciduous specimens I shall plant numerous winter flowering small bulbs of various types (snowdrops, tulips, daffodils and crocuses all have winter flowering varieties), and I may find room for another winter jasmine grown inside an obelisk to limit its spread to about a foot, like the one I already have. Iris unguicularis cretensis is another possibility. The yellow flowered Iris danfordiae and other reticulata irises I shall avoid, because it is difficult to persuade them to flower again after their first year, particularly when they are not growing in an alkaline soil.

As a final touch, I want something suitable to partly cover the surrounding wall. Since this is not very high, built of red brick and topped by grey concrete capping, something self-clinging is appropriate, probably a large-leaved ivy such as Hedera canariensis or Hedera colchica 'Dentata' (Persian ivy).


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