The Tropical Border – 4th Year

Tropical Border (1)

When I started the tropical border in 2012, it was hardly deserving of the name

Tropical Border (2)

but a year later it looked more the part.

Tropical Border (4)

And by 2014 many of the plants were enormous and the bed did have a whiff of tropicality about it.

Tropical Border (17)

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.

Tropical Border (24)

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 here) but this was a year I needed it least.

Melianthus major

Certain plants have flourished however.  For example, I moved two Melianthus major from lost-at-the-back to front-of-stage.

Melianthus major (2)

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. Yes, they do.

Ensete maurelii

One of my red Abyssinian bananas has been less successful.  I planted out the two Ensete maurelii too early this year.  The ‘small’ one shrugged off its cold, rude awakening and now towers far above my head.

Melianthus major (1)

Whereas the ‘big’ one withered and, confusingly, is now the ‘small’ ensete.  It sits pathetic and hardly visible, skulking at the back.

Tropical Border (18)

And that’s a shame – its huge, sail-like leaves would have filled that 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.

Musa sikkimensis

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 gradually replace all of the basjoo.

Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ (2)

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.

Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’ (1)

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.

Colocasia esculenta (2)

I’m a sucker for Colocasia esculenta – also aptly known as elephant ear.

Colocasia esculenta (1)

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?

Salvia uliginosa (2)

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 a 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 for which I apologise.

Salvia uliginosa

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 is shorter and self-supports.  A fabulous plant – please 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 in the ground all year round.  I don’t lift, dry and store the tubers.  But they do need support.

Plant Supports

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 to form a circle.

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'

This year, and for various reasons, I’ve removed some plants from the border: spider daylilies which, though beautiful, took up too much space for a relatively short flowering season; Gaura lindheimeri removed itself… by dying; Salvia patens I needed elsewhere in the garden; Fallopia japonica ‘Milkboy’ didn’t suit; and Lilium pardalinum fell victim to despicable lily beetle and its odious offspring.  But there are newcomers and above is a new addition to the front of the border – Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’.  Hardly ‘tropical’ but it looks the part.

Persicaria filiformis

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.

Persicaria filiformis (2)

October 2014

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?

Fuchsia 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt'

Knee-high at the fore is a sterling fuchsia, F. ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ … but not frost hardy.  I dig up mine and protect over winter. You could just as easily keep it in a pot.

Canna ‘Red King Humbert’

Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ has been a resident from the beginning

Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ (2)

but actually I like the dark foliage more than the distinctly non-red flowers.  Like the dahlias, I don’t lift these in the autumn either.

Canna coccinea (2)

I prefer C. coccinea.

Canna coccinea (1)

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.

Arundo donax

I will also split the Spanish reed (Arundo donax).  It didn’t produce as many stems as I’d asked for but… hey ho.

Tropical Border (30)

I haven’t been ruthless 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.

Tropical Border (25)

So whilst year 4 has seen some setbacks, I’m quietly relieved.  When I plan and plant up in the spring, it is difficult to know how a particular plant will perform. Will it under-achieve and leave a gap; or burgeon and swamp the neighbours.

Tropical Border (3)

But I enjoy the uncertainty of my 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, sometimes failing, 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.


43 thoughts on “The Tropical Border – 4th Year

  1. Inspirational and very informative as I’m just embarking on creating a tropical border. Interested to see you keep your plants in the ground. How did you prepare the ground and what do you mulch with over winter?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jan, I prepared the border initially by digging in plenty of well-rotted manure and garden compost – the original soil was heavy clay. Thereafter, each spring, I’d scatter pelleted chicken manure over the area too and in the autumn, after cutting back, cover the whole bed with garden compost mulch, of which I had a large supply. I didn’t leave all the plants in situ over winter. The big red bananas and colocasia, for example, I lifted but dahlias especially were very happy left in the ground. The border also needed a lot of water. I added soaker hose to make watering easier on such a big site. Hope that helps but I’m happy to answer further questions. Best, David


  2. Whilst stuck on the sofa poorly I’ve made some good use of the time recording the plants in your tropical border. I am planning a hot border for next year. I wondered how invasive the Spanish Reed is? Does it clump or roam free?


    • Hi, I was warned by a couple of people when I introduced Arundo that it was invasive but actually I haven’t found it so at all. My plant has formed a large clump with more stems each year – it doesn’t send out long, annoying runners. Having said that I wouldn’t want it to get into the ditches and pond margins where, like in the Med, it might take over. There is also a variegated form (Arundo donax Variegata) which I also have but it seems slower to get under way. I haven’t featured it yet as it is still too puny. Hope that helps. Dave

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am coveting all those plants with leaves large enough to see from a distance. Little tiny desert-adapted leaves may look beautifully delicate and airy (and I do love them for that), but sometimes you just want a massive hunk of greenery to be dazzled by. The tropical border is looking spectacular, Dave. It’s been fun to see it grow every year. I didn’t realize before how gigantic those Bishop of Llandaff dahlias could get! (I think I would crave cookies endlessly if any of my plants smelled like peanut butter.)


    • Hi Stacy, well I guess that makes us even. I’ve certainly craved your weather, skies, clouds, garden – with delicate, airy planting – hummingbirds and spectacular scenery enough over the years. Nick (below) reckons the melianthus smells more of beef and onion crisps than peanut butter but either way it is distracting to have my stomach gurgle away as I’m working. Dave

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love it Dave, what a triumph, despite some pesky plants refusing to grow as they were meant to… As for your notes, I am delighted to say I already had 1 and 2, and given I am already a persicaria addict have happily added 3. I love that Musa sikkimensis, much more character. And my note 4, or actually 2, is those plant supports. Thank you, I have never known what thickness to try and so have never got around to it. Though I am in a life-long battle to eliminate all plants that require support. Except dahlias. Obviously.


    • Glad to be of service Janet! I can’t take credit for the plant supports. The original design came from half a dozen made and given to me by my Dad in law. You just need something big, strong and round to wrap the bars around to get the half circle (one of Margaret’s hands did that for me up at the farm). M.sikkimensis is a good plant but I suspect it too would get shredded where you are? Good luck with your life-long battle … and addiction. Dave


  5. What a spectacular border. And how interesting to see its evolution and read your thoughts about it. A real Masterclass. I especially love that combination of dusky foliage with scarlet and purple and have a similar thing going on with Physocarpus ‘Diablo’, V. bonariensis and Hesperantha ‘Coccinea’.


    • Thanks for that and I like the idea of your planting (tho’ I had to look up the 1st and 3rd). I’m so very pleased that readers have enjoyed my border (almost) as much I have done creating it! Dave


  6. I love it, Dave and it really has developed well in only four years. I am surprised that you can overwinter some of these tropical plants that wouldn’t survive the winter here in my very free draining soil whereas I know most of yours is quite wet. Well done!!!


    • Why thank you Christina. As for the overwintering, I don’t think I’ve lost anything I’ve left in the ground *scratchesheadtryingtoremember* – least-ways in the tropical border other than the gaura. Our soil is very wet but that bed is better than most i.e. it doesn’t sit in the puddle that might be covering the rest of the garden! D

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic. Amazing. Love it.
    The only thing I can think of to improve it would be to make it bigger! Instead of walking along the bed wouldn’t it be nice to be walking down a grass path between two tropical beds?


    • Hi Frank, you are a wise man, sir. And I agree totally. I should love to develop a tropical garden that one could walk through (and under huge nodding leaves) but I’ve got enough on my plate without doubling the size of the area I’ve already got. I’d like to ‘do’ a tropical garden in my new house where I could wander in amongst the plants. (I’ll post about it at some point no doubt)! Glad you like the border, Dave


  8. Stunning border, Dave! Love the bold colours. I’m a bit envious that so much gets to stay put, we’re just too cold for that. I am a sucker for the filler flowers, salvia and verbena. They may seem like too much to you, but I love them!


    • Hello Eliza, I may eat my words re leaving dahlias and cannas in the ground if we get a very severe winter. But I do mulch heavily and I’ve read that some gardeners in Northern England do the same too and their dahlias survive … so fingers crossed. I’m afraid I like the verbena a little too much – it’s everywhere!!! Dave


  9. Thanks for the pic of Persicaria filiformis. Mine has grown enormous this year but only just started to produce flower spikes. I thought they looked a bit pathetic so am encouraged that maybe they still have a way to go. Love the foliage too. I always think the markings look like bats in flight.
    Your tropical border looks fab.


    • Hi Rusty, it is a great plant I think … and not at all ‘tropical’ of course. As my stock increases, I shall use it elsewhere. The foliage is lovely and you’re right about bats in flight! Dave


  10. I can’t think why my garden doesn’t look like this. No frosts, plenty of warmth and 1400mm of rain. A few problems, along the lines of our springs being so dry and soaker hoses so horrid and lacking the patience or skill for staking and those banana leaves getting shredded by ocean winds, but really, I must try harder; I just love this.


    • Hi Janna, ah those winds. They do wreak havoc don’t they? I wish my border was far more sheltered than it is. Since I wrote this post, the wind has got up and knocked it about a bit. But the curved steel plant supports do work pretty well. I have no patience for staking either. And you simply have to teach soaker hose who is boss (like I didn’t). Dave


  11. My baby Melianthus is making its first flower.
    I’d be wary of planting Spanish reeds – we inherited them in our Porterville garden, and while I love them as home to the weaver birds – they lived behind a wall and got steadily pruned back, to the wall!


    • Hi Diana, thanks for the warning. A couple of other people have warned me about the arundo too. I’m hoping that as it is well away from any water course it isn’t going to take over. I certainly don’t want it in any of the drainage ditches or ponds. I will keep a beady eye on it! Dave


  12. After growing a Canna this year I am now thinking of a more tropical look for my tiny garden next year. Thank you for so many wonderful ideas. Good luck for next year.


    • My initial reaction, Nick was “don’t be absurd!” But actually I had another sniff and you’re right – there is a beef and onion smell there (but I’ll stick with peanut butter if you don’t mind). Dave


    • Thank you CG. There are a couple of extra plants in there which I didn’t mention as they are still hardly visible. It’ll be interesting to see whether they’ll make an impact next year. Dave


  13. Melianthus major is worth a place (or places) in any border. love it so much we have 5! Our tetrapanex is going for a walk. I’m hoping to propagate the young ones….what do you think?
    Lovely border looking better every year, Dave.


    • Thanks though I hate that you have 5 melianthus and I only have 2. Give me time. I WILL catch up. Tetrapanex does like a stroll doesn’t it? I dig up my suckers, pot and either use them in a BIG planter or give them away (to help their onward conquest of our fair planet). I’ve dug up several and they all survived – just get as much root as you can. Dave


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