||Tropical and exotic-looking gardens
The perceived image of the tropics is of hot, steamy jungles comprising large-leaved palms and trees clad with orchids and bromeliads, all striving to reach the little bit of light that manages to fight its way through the high tree canopy. With deserts we have visions of dry, wide-open, rolling sand ridges and strategically placed cacti, succulents and boulders. Beautiful images, but can we re-create them in a coastal garden?
Creating a rainforest garden
The idea of capturing the sights and smells of a rainforest or jungle can be very appealing. This style of garden should be free of conformity and man-made restrictions – experiment and let your imagination take over. Living near the sea poses one or two issues, but a jungle coastal garden is entirely possible. However, cramming it into a tiny garden might be rather more of a challenge!
In recent years, garden centres have increased the range of plant styles stocked, with an ever-growing array of unusual imports from foreign nurseries. The choice, therefore, is wide, but the keys to succeeding with them lie in reducing their exposure to the elements and not allowing them to languish in icy, muddy soil for long periods in winter. Heavy rains and waterlogged roots can be much more serious than salt in the air or even occasional extreme cold spells.
Of course, you do not need to devote your whole garden to the rainforest. Carefully placing even a single specimen of a large exotic-looking plant can dramatically alter the look. Painting fences and other structures in new colours, or using colourful ‘accessories’ such as ceramic pots and jars, or interesting driftwood, or even ethnic artefacts (such as totem poles or some other carved items) can further enhance the tropical look.
Finally, if space is limited, you can quite easily create a tropical look by using containers. An Agave in a large urn, or a banana in a patio pot, can give any deck or patio a beautiful tropical makeover.
Plants to choose
Grasses, bamboos, bananas, cannas, gingers, palms … the list of plants suited to jungle-like situations is huge. Most will tolerate some salty air, but, if you live right on the beach, you should maybe stick to growing grasses and bamboos.
Annuals usually do quite well in coastal gardens, as they last only a single year and are unlikely to suffer from long-lasting wind or salt damage. The choice is somewhat limited when it comes to large, exotic-looking annuals, as most are grown for their flower and colour impact. Watch out, however, for three excellent plants. First is the tampala (Amaranthus tricolor), which is great for subtropical bedding schemes and comes in stunning reds, maroons and oranges.
The second annual is the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). It is a magnificent, bold, foliage plant with large hand-shaped leaves of a greenish copper, with red veins and stalks. It makes a bold statement in the border, but be aware that its seeds are poisonous and plants should not be grown where children can get to them.
The third annual is the tobacco flower (Nicotiana sylvestris), which has delicate, white, tubular flowers that are highly scented, particularly in the evening. It sometimes overwinters like a perennial in sheltered, mild gardens, but it is never as good, nor as vigorous, in subsequent years.
The Aeonium, although a succulent, is actually an exotic, lush-looking perennial or small shrub with glossy, soft leaf rosettes. These plants adore being close to the sea and loathe being in cold, shady places in a heavy soil. Another exotic-looking succulent for the maritime garden is Beschorneria yuccoides. An evergreen perennial, it produces rosettes of large, fleshy, sword-shaped leaves and pinky red flowers on long stalks.
Enthusiasts of cacti and succulents often display them in pots and keep them under cover. They make marvellous plants for greenhouses, conservatories, sun rooms and bright, sunny windowsills. In the garden, however, they are a very different proposition and can make a dramatic statement if grown successfully.
Naturally, many succulents come from the dry areas of the tropics and subtropics, where high temperatures and low rainfall have forced them to develop ways of collecting and storing water in order to survive long, dry periods. Succulents also occur as inhabitants of coastal areas, as well as on saltpans, which are exposed to high levels of dissolved minerals.
In gardens, these tender plants are striking and easy to care for and will tolerate the hottest and driest of summers – and, gratifyingly, without the need for endless watering.
The key to succeeding with succulents, as with the rainforest plants, is to remember that they are generally tolerant of cold conditions, as long as they are dry. They will quickly perish if they are both cold and wet, so it is best to avoid growing them outside in low-lying areas. Think of the cactus-strewn clifftops around much of the Mediterranean; the plants are fully exposed to the elements, but no water languishes around the roots.
Choose a sheltered part of your coastal garden; even better, take advantage of the microclimates in the garden by planting in the shelter of a sunny wall. Not only will this block the wind, but it will also retain some of the sun’s daytime warmth into the nighttime. Walls also shelter plants from driving rain, so the soil tends to be drier here.
Plant out your subjects in mid-spring, so that they have as long a time as possible to develop a good root system before the following winter arrives. Good drainage is important, so add plenty of grit to planting holes.
There are a few tricks to protect plants in really cold areas. The first rule is to keep them in a container and bring them inside for the winter. Secondly, you should have plenty of cuttings as a backup. And thirdly, if the plants need to stay outside for winter, you can use horticultural fleece, bubble wrap plastic, or paper, cloth or straw as a temporary blanket covering for the plants during cold spells. This should only be temporary, however, as cacti and succulents will suffer if excluded from light and fresh air for more than a few days at a time. Also, if you use bubble wrap, remove it every morning to get rid of condensation on the inside, as if the plants are in contact with this for a long time they will eventually rot.
The most effective ‘desert gardens’ use lots of sand or gravel, with various cacti and succulents planted in drifts, coming out of the desert-like surface. Such plants associate well with a whole range of other dramatic architectural plants such as phormiums, bamboos, ornamental grasses and other spiky plants, to create a really unusual garden.
Weeding around cacti is always going to be a problem, as you do not want to get too close to their spines. Therefore it is best to lay down a weed-smothering membrane over the bed or border, cut holes in it to plant your plants, then cover the membrane with either gravel or sand.
Plants to choose
The hardiest cacti and succulents will survive outdoors all year round in the most protected of sites. Look for Agave parryi, a compact plant with grey-blue leaves some 12in (30cm) long. Aloe striatula has tall, dark green leaf rosettes and produces tall, orange-red flower spikes; A. aristata, on the other hand, is not so tall and forms a dense cluster of stemless rosettes.
Delosperma cooperi is a succulent perennial whose spreading, fleshy leaves will die back in a cold winter, but reappear in spring. All throughout the growing season it produces lilac daisy flowers.
Carpobrutus deliciosus has long, greyish-green leaves on creeping stems and pink-purple flowers, with edible, spherical fig-like fruits.
In addition there are some forms of Echinocereus, Lampranthus, Opuntia, Sedum, Sempervivum and Yucca that can withstand winters outdoors in temperate countries – as long as there is some protection from the cold and wet.