The Tropical Border – 4th Year

Tropical Border (1)

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.

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.

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.

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 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.


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

Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ (2)

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.



The Tropical Border And How I Learned To Hate Soaker Hose

Like last year, I gambled on a fine spring by planting up the tropical border early.

Tropical Border (1)

In mid-April, to a comb-and-tissue-paper fanfare, I dug up the big red banana (Ensete maurelii) from its winter-greenhouse-home and wheeled it into position.

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And then I did the same for the ‘small’ one.

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Each year I add a deep leaf-mould and compost mulch; as well as a generous scattering of pelleted chicken manure.  Beneath the mulch and marked by canes are over-wintering dahlias, cannas and what-nots.  I mark their position so that I don’t slice through a big, fat dahlia tuber whilst planting a banana.

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Within a day or two of planting, temperatures took a dive and I gave the red bananas a little protection.

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Pretty, huh?  Next out, were my three colocasias and various other bits and bobs.  But in retrospect I should have left all these non-hardy perennials in the greenhouse for another month.  April and May 2015 were bitter at times; and all of these plants suffered from that harsh, grim spring.  But if leaves shrivelled and blackened, plants shrank and glared, they all survived.  No thanks to me.  Last year an early planting paid off; this year it didn’t.  I’ll eat patience pie next year and plant them out in May.  Probably.

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Over the past four years, I have spent a large chunk of my time on Earth watering the tropical border.  To make life a little less drudge, I decided to lay soaker hose throughout the bed.

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Have you ever used soaker hose?  I hadn’t.  Good grief but how I hate soaker hose.  (Hate isn’t strong enough a word).  There’s probably a knack to laying it: a very simple, straightforward, commonsense knack.  But if so, it fluttered above my head just out of reach, chortling.  As per the instructions I laid it out under hot sun to make it warm and pliable.

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Contrary to the instructions, that made no difference … whatsoever.  It kinked and twisted and – as only an inanimate, unreasonable, spiteful thing can do – made me apoplectic with sweary rage.

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Drawing on a superhuman patience I didn’t know I possessed, I slowly wrapped the untameable, kinky coils around plants and pegged it into place; un-kinking as I went.  (I should have buried the blasted thing but there were too many established plants here to dig trenches).

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Eventually, to my great surprise, the horrible job was done and to my greater surprise still, it worked.

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Later, I smothered the hateful hose pipe under barrow-loads of compost to hide it from view … and memory.   And to reduce evaporation.

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I connected the hose to a timer and for an hour every summer morning, water is pumped up from an adjacent well to soak these thirsty big boys.

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The hardy bananas (Musa basjoo) were thrusting impatiently out of their winter jackets

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and so I released them.  Last year, growth started almost immediately and the border quickly plumped up.  But not this year:  April, May and even June passed by in a blur of inactivity.

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Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’

It is only in July that the plants have fully woken

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and the border has come to life.

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It is still early in my ‘tropical’ season and some plants aren’t half their eventual height and width.

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Or at least I hope they’re not.  I’ll show you the border’s progress in a few weeks time and detail the plants I’ve used; those I’ve moved; those I’ve added and those I’ve removed.  And we can hope by then, if nothing else, that those beastly satellite dishes will be lost from view.   Along with the damnable soaker hose.