When I started the tropical border in 2012, it was hardly deserving of the name
but a year later it looked more the part.
And by 2014 many of the plants were enormous and the bed did have a whiff of tropicality about it.
This year it has continued to mature and, on the whole, I’m pleased. I’d hoped for more height in places (if only to hide the satellite dishes) and less shirking from some of the team.
The weather didn’t help. The 2015 Sussex spring was cold and stormy; summer got off to a goodish start but then turned wet, blustery and cool. I’ve recently added an automatic watering system (see ‘The Tropical Border and How I Learnt to Hate Soaker Hose’) but this was the year I needed it least.
Certain plants have flourished however. For example, I moved two Melianthus major from lost-at-the-back to front-of-stage.
These handsome, elegant plants have responded to the increased light and grown tall. They will die back in winter but the roots are relatively hardy. And best of all? The leaves smell of peanut butter.
One of my red Abyssinian bananas has been less successful. I planted out two Ensete maurelii too early this year. The ‘small’ one shrugged off its cold, rude awakening and now towers far above my head.
Whereas the ‘big’ one withered and, confusingly, is now the ‘small’ ensete. It sits pathetic and hardly visible, skulking at the back.
And that’s a shame – its huge, sail-like leaves would have filled the central space nicely (it peeks up in the middle of the above photo). But I am tiring of the hardy banana, Musa basjoo (above left). The slightest breeze shreds the leaves, which also discolour and are prone to brown spots.
On the other hand, I’m impressed with this new addition – Musa sikkimensis. Reputedly only second in hardiness to the basjoo, the leaves don’t tear as easily and they have attractive dark red bands. It is growing fast and has produced several stems: stems which I’ll shear off and use to gradually replace the basjoo.
Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ is another large foliage plant which gets bigger and better each year. Initially, I made a schoolboy error and cut it down to ground level in autumn.
I’ve since learnt to leave the naked, winter stems alone: they survive low temperatures and new growth now starts with a foot or two head-start.
I’m a sucker for Colocasia esculenta – also known aptly as elephant ear.
It is one of my favourite plants; wagging gently in the wind or holding a perfect tracery of dew. There are three in the bed (including a young, even larger form – Colocasia gigantea) and eventually they will all unfurl well above the under-storey?
Because Salvia uliginosa isn’t reliably hardy for me, I normally lift and trundle it off to the cold frame. But I left them in situ last year – under thick leaf mould – and they sailed through our mild winter to become vastly bigger plants. So vastly big that I carted off loads to the bonfire. Which was a crime.
Uliginosa is another favourite of mine but conditions here are too generous for it. With plenty of chicken manure and regular watering it quickly shoots up to six-foot plus and then sags. In other parts of the garden, where I treat it mean, it grows less tall but self-supports. A fabulous plant – make a note.
I use three dahlias: D. ‘Twyning’s Smartie’ is a non-stop flowering marvel.
As is Dahlia ‘Twyning’s After Eight’ which I added last year. Dark foliage accentuates pretty white flowers with a golden centre. Another note maybe?
And my third dahlia is the doughty D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’. All of my dahlias are singles (for easy bee and butterfly access) and stay put year round. I don’t lift, dry and store the tubers. But they do need support.
For which I use two dozen of these: 10mm diameter, 3 metre long steel bars bent into shape. They work well: either singly or as pairs forming a circle.
I’ve removed some plants altogether: spider daylilies because they took up too much space; Gaura lindheimeri removed itself by dying; Salvia patens I needed elsewhere; Fallopia japonica ‘Milkboy’ didn’t suit; and Lilium pardalinum fell victim to despicable lily beetle and their odious offspring. But above is a new addition to the front of the border – Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’. Hardly ‘tropical’ but it looks as if it should be.
Also at the front are several Persicaria filiformis. I started off with one small plant (a rich gift from the boys at Alternative Eden) since when, as it gently self seeds, I’ve built up my stock. They now hide the ankles of taller bed-fellows. It does flower very late – just before the first frost.
The flower spikes are subtle but more noticeable than this photo suggests. Apart from the late-flowering caveat it is useful, attractive, hardy and trouble-free. Note number 3?
Knee-high at the fore is a sterling fuchsia, F. ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ … but not frost hardy. I dig up mine and protect over winter.
Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ has been resident from the beginning
but actually I like the dark foliage more than the distinctly non-red flowers. I don’t lift these either.
I prefer C. coccinea.
Dead-heading prolongs the show, it stays in the ground year round and it doesn’t need support. Win, win, win. I split my fast growing clump last year and now have two. Eventually I’ll have three.
I will also split the Spanish reed (Arundo donax). It didn’t produce as many stems as I’d asked for but hey ho.
I haven’t been sparing enough with Verbena bonariensis. I added it as a filler when the border still had gaps but there is way too much. I’ll be ruthless next year – an almost imperceptible lattice would look far better, I think.
So whilst year 4 has seen some setbacks, overall I’m quietly relieved. When I plan and plant up in the spring, it is difficult to know how a particular plant will perform: whether it’ll under-achieve and leave a gap; or burgeon and swamp the neighbours.
But I enjoy that uncertainty of the exotic border; its change from year to year; its continuing evolution and my ongoing experimentation; learning the foibles of the plants that call it home and meeting their various demands. I fiddle, tweak and interfere; add new plants; divide, move and take out others … and wish for double the space. One day I hope to match the image in my head with the Priory reality. I’m almost there … but not quite.
Maybe in year 5.