The Tropical Border – 4th Year

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

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but a year later it looked more the part.

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

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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.

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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.

Melianthus major

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

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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.

Ensete maurelii

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.

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.

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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.

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 use to gradually replace 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.

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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 known aptly 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 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.

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 grows less tall but self-supports.  A fabulous plant – make a note.

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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.

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 forming a circle.

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'

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.

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.

Canna ‘Red King Humbert’

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

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but actually I like the dark foliage more than the distinctly non-red flowers.  I don’t lift these 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Tropical Border – 3rd Year

Mid September already?

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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.

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Only a little while since I wheeled out Colocasia esculenta

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and hefty red bananas (Ensete maurelii).

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

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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).

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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.

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

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

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A month later and it had plumped up a bit.

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Lilium pardalinum looked splendid.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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