The Tropical Border – 3rd Year

Mid September already?


It seems just a few short weeks since I lugged a large Musa basjoo out of a greenhouse;DSM_3231

since I stripped the straw protection off those I’d left outside.


Only a little while since I wheeled out Colocasia esculenta


and hefty red bananas (Ensete maurelii).


Hardly any time at all since I manhandled this particular fellow into position.  Well, two of us manhandled.


April 2014

But all that was months ago – way, way back in April.  Spring was very mild this year and I gambled on getting the tropical border under way earlier than usual.  (Frosts are common at the Priory during April and even into early May).


May 2014

The gamble paid off – we had no late, hard frosts and by the end of May, daylilies, cannas and dahlias were pushing through a thick, compost mulch.  A mulch which I had generously scattered with pelleted chicken manure.


By early June, spider daylilies were blooming, including ‘Stoplight’.


But overall the bed was still fairly sparse.  Tropical borders are late starters.


A month later and it had plumped up a bit.


Lilium pardalinum looked splendid.


They flower for several weeks, look rather exotic and so sit well in this border.  I like them a lot … but not enough.  I shall remove them in the autumn.  As pretty as they are, they’re a martyr to lily beetle.  However many red beetles and ghastly grubs I picked off, later on they became infested; tatty, yellowed and horrid.  Some plants simply don’t make the grade.   But then this a learning curve for me; I find out what works by experimentation.  Sometimes disappointing experimentation.


Unlike the lilies, Dahlia ‘Twyning’s Smartie’ most certainly does work and has earned itself a regular centre-stage spot. The biggest, this one, was left in the ground over-winter, heavily mulched.  All the dahlias left in the ground performed better than those I lifted, stored and replanted.


‘Twyning’s Smartie’ produces a staggering amount of flower – each one different.  It is a reliable, non-stop stalwart, thuggishly shouldering to the fore.

DSM_Bishop of Llandaff

Mid July and another star performer has entered the fray – Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’.


Regular dead-heading should ensure flowering through to the first frost.


With two dahlias performing so very well, I’m hoping for a third.  I’ve added another to the mix – D. ‘Twyning’s After Eight’.  Though still small they’ll make a bigger impact in 2015.  Incidentally, I only grow single dahlia varieties.  I do like some of the ball and cactus forms but bees and butterflies don’t.

DSM_Tropical Border

Also by July, and at long last, my bête noire – those satellite dishes – were obscured, if only partially.  Thank you tropical border.  Thank you so very much indeed.

DSM_Tropical Border_2

Early August and Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ and red bananas add height and dark foliage.  Arundo donax – the Spanish reed – adds yet more height, but produced fewer canes than I wished for.  I have two of the variegated form (Arundo donax ‘Variegata’) – though you can’t see them.  They are at the back and only a couple of feet tall.   I can dream that they’ll tower next year.


Canna coccinea is a brilliant plant.  Hardy, handsome and stout enough to stand without support (which is all any one of us can hope for).  I have one big clump and it really should be spilt.  But I’ll struggle to find space for the new plants.  I only have so much room. 

DSM_Salvia uliginosa

I will however always find space for Salvia uliginosa.  If you don’t grow it, please explain why.  You really should.  I adore it.  Though hardly exotic, it flowers for months, doesn’t need dead-heading and grows to six or seven feet.  Did I mention that I adore it?  Even if it does need staking.

DSM_Salvia uliginosa_2

Bees love it too.  But it isn’t necessarily hardy, at least at the Priory.  I lift and store mine in the cold frame.  I feed and water prodigiously but I’ve read online that it is happy in a dry garden.  Which considering its common name, bog sage, I find surprising.  Most sources suggest propagation by cuttings but I find the easiest way is simply to divide the root ball.


There are some big foliage plants in the border:  Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ is putting out bigger leaves each year.  I like ‘Rex’ but it does sucker like crazy.  In a confined space this can be annoying although you’ll have plenty of presents for friends.  It does fine in pots and is hardy enough to leave out over winter.


There are also two Melianthus major plants here – though you can’t see them.  They are toward the back and completely swamped.   I’ll pull them forward next year.  And the colocasias haven’t made much of a statement either – they too are towards the rear.  I’ll need to re-tinker the planting – as I do every year.


There is no denying that a tropical/exotic border is a lot of work.  Large, non-hardy plants must be planted out in spring and dug up again at the end of the season.  Dahlias will flower dementedly – if you deadhead.  Enormous Amazonian leaves will unfurl – if you feed.  The border will look lush – if you water.  But I’ve had it with hour upon hour of watering.  Next year, I shall criss-cross soaker-hose throughout the bed.  Such an obvious solution – and a little worrying that it hadn’t occurred to me before.


Colocasia esculenta peeping out, right

Hurricane Bertha proved that some of my staking was inadequate.  My friend Jill (who tended the gardens whilst I was away in Germany) had to single-handedly hoist huge, flattened plants back upright and lash them to posts.  She did a marvellous, heroic job.  Thanks Jill.

DSM_Tropical Border (2)

The border last week. Battered and banana leaves ripped by the storm, it’s just about hanging on

If you want to grab a visitor’s attention; if you wish to be enthralled by enormous jungle plants; if you long for lush green and outrageous colour for several months, then do try a tropical/exotic border.  I can’t think of any other part of the gardens that gives me quite so much pleasure.

Roll on Year 4.


40 thoughts on “The Tropical Border – 3rd Year

  1. Absolutely beautiful, my family’s been unable to look away. I’m wondering how many of the Dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” you have in there and do you plant them singly or in groups. Would you mind telling?


    • Hi Gregory, thank you. There are half a dozen “Bishop of Llandaff” in the border and they are planted singly. But they are now big tubers. After just a couple of seasons, and with plenty of water and feed, the plants’ top-growth is impressive and so is the annual increase in tuber size. ( I don’t mind telling in the least). Dave


  2. Pingback: Love Me Tender: my own tropical jungle | Nine Hundred Minutes

  3. Love it. Gloriously in-your-face, and yet still tasteful, not an easy trick to pull off! Though the work involved makes me shudder… I suppose one of the advatages of having to dig so many of the plants up each year is that it makes it easier to re-arrange things, and its certainly going from strength to strength. I like ‘Smarty’, and ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is a longtime favourite. I bought tubers from Peter Nyssen this year and they were excellent.


    • Thanks Janet. It is quite a re-shuffle each year but a much trickier one than I had imagined. Allotting enough space for each plant is particularly difficult as almost all the plants are getting bigger every year – some of them considerably bigger. Plus it’s hard to gauge spacing when most are still underground and invisible during the planting up period! It’ll need a major overhaul next year anyhow. I’ve gone from cramming loads in to fill blank spaces to having so many plants that many are cramped and suffering. Keeps me on my toes, I s’pose. D


      • I’m appalling at gauging space at the best of times, which is why I seem to spend so much time moving plants around. I tend to comfort myself with the thought that close planting of perennials is very “now”. I like being happily deluded.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. That looks amazing David. Love the way it develops year on year.
    Mine is only in its first year – although I have had the plants for longer in some cases, and I agree with you when you say “I can’t think of any other part of the gardens that gives me quite so much pleasure” I look at my patch and go “you are bonkers, but I love you” Although heaving it all into the greenhouse …. well thats another matter!


    • Hello Karen, thanks. I really enjoy that slow evolution year on year too. There are far too many plants in it now, by which I mean variety – I don’t suppose I mentioned half of them in this post. And yes, isn’t it bonkers? But visitors (me included!) seem to like it. The only plants I shall retire to the greenhouse are 2 red bananas, 3 or 4 colocasias – and the salvias go into the coldframe. Apart from those I’m thinning, I shan’t lift any dahlias – so not so very much lifting and transporting as in some years. Which my back is grateful for. I hope year 2 is good for you – keep at it! D


  5. Looking fantastic, such a great range of foliage of varying shapes and shades, and lots of vibrant flowers to add the icing to the border, as it were. Big and bold and brilliant indeed. You should be very pleased. I had my eye on acquiring Dahlia Smartie this year – and a replacement for my sadly missed Twynings After Eight – but then we were a bit distracted and I missed the window for ordering up any new dahlias. Maybe next year… ?!


    • Don’t you hate distraction? Drives me wild. I’ve been after Twyning’s After Eight for several years and finally bought some from Crocus last autumn. The tubers were tiny and shrivelled – so I won’t be buying from them again! But two of the three plants pulled through. Do try Smarty – I certainly think it more vigorous and floriferous than many other varieties I’ve tried. Dave


  6. That border is a stunner. I love the lilies but I can understand why they have to go. I’ve grown lots of gladioli on the cut flower patch this year but they’ve been martyrs to thrips. Gladiolus murielae on the other hand has been fantastic, with the added bonus of beautiful fragrance. So I’m ditching the homage to Dame Edna if I have the plot next year and will do more of murielae. Your photos make me feel like a gardening fraud. I’ve spent way too much time in front of a computer this summer and not enough time growing and tending. I need to do something about that for future years. Love that dahlia. Lou


    • I had to check Gladiolus murielae but instantly recognized it from seeing it on bulb packets. I did buy a pack a few years ago but they never came to anything. Nada. So don’t worry, I too am a gardening fraud. Can’t grow toffee. But I shall retry as they are lovely and you’ve resold them to me. I hate to think of the Dame’s homage being whittled away though. Dave


  7. Wow. Really.
    I may scrap all my plans and just copy yours, although I’m missing the magic compost which seems to bring on so many of the good results. Your work has paid off handsomely.


  8. Your border is fantastic! It has all come together nicely and certainly has the wow factor! You must be so pleased after all the heaving the pots in and out of shelter over the winter, it was certainly worth it


  9. Absolutely wonderful to behold. Terribly impressive too. I agree about the experimentation. Nothing like trying new things out, and if they don’t work it’s not a disaster, it just makes room for a different experiment the following year.


  10. Well worth all the hard work of lifting and replanting, something I think only professional gardeners can be bothered to do. The Canna is great, I have it too but it only grows to about a metre and a half in my dry soil.I’m with you regarding the lily beetles, they are disgusting and take away completely from the pleasure of the lilies.


    • And the lily beetles take a while to home in on a plant. For the first couple of years the pardalinum were fine so I thought beetles didn’t like them. Oh well. Worth a try. They are one of my most implacable foes. Dave


  11. This is a showstopper! What is your mulch and your underlying soil, when you lift at the end of the season do you wrap the Salvia uliginosa or just place in a pot then in the cold frame? I haven’t grown it before and have no explanation but would very much like too!


    • Hi Julie. My soil is heavy clay though I have improved it somewhat over the years. I have added well rotted manure in the past but had run out this year so used chicken manure pellets instead. I add at least a couple of inches of my garden compost in the autumn after I’ve cleared the bed and more still in the spring. I make a lot of compost! Yes, I lift the salvia and pot up in a large pot for the cold frame having broken off bits and pieces if needed for new plants. The latter, potted up, go into the cold frame too. Hope that helps. And I forgive you a lack of explanation! Dave

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I must confess the idea of a tropical border in an English country garden did not appeal, I’m just a stick-in-the-mud, but it has really worked (as you have!) This year you can see the impact it is making and it teaches me to try to be braver in the garden. Amelia


  13. It looks fabulous, Dave! So lush and beautifully proportioned. What a good thing you now have two greenhouses — one for you and one for the banana. Cannas were new to me when I moved here (Vermont not being a great place for tropical plants), but I’ve mostly seen them in municipal plantings where they’re a little … sad. Not the exuberant party monsters you have there.


    • Hi Stacy, yes. I know what you mean re cannas. I’m not keen on many of them but they can lift a border, I think and especially if they have good foliage. But the C. coccinea is a real star – pleased I found it. Actually, I share a greenhouse with most of the bananas and tropical stuff. Otherwise who would I talk to through those long winter months? Dave.


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