The Final Countdown


Twenty days to go and the countdown to my NGS garden open weekend is well underway. In truth the garden does not need another twenty days to look its best; it’s there already. I am mildly concerned that it will peak too soon, but there’s no holding it back now. Recent weather has been exceptional, providing perfect conditions for the kind of plants I like to grow. Their rampant growth has been accelerated by copious watering and regular feeding, an ongoing labour of love during this heatwave. Many gingers, cannas and salvias are already well above head-height and producing wondrous flowers. Early clematis have been little short of spectacular. This weekend I will be staking and deadheading to maintain some semblance of order.

As for me, I do not feel ready at all: my ‘to do’ list is starting to keep me awake at night. Opening one’s garden, as anyone who’s done it knows, requires planning, elbow grease, nerves of steel and a great support network.


So what can you expect to find if you visit The Watch House on August 4th and 5th? There will be two gardens to enjoy this year; the Jungle Garden (top of post) and the Gin & Tonic Garden (above). Each one is a small courtyard measuring no more than 20ft x 30ft. Visitors will be welcomed in via the workshop, where, fingers crossed, I will have a handful of plants for sale and there will be delicious teas, of course.

The first section of the garden you’ll encounter is a narrow passageway dominated by a long wall of Trachelospermum jasminoides underplanted with ferns. The current proliferation of white flowers may be gone, along with their sensational fragrance, but the simple green corridor creates the perfect decompression zone between the harsh brightness of the street and the dappled profusion of the Jungle Garden. Returning visitors will recall this space is quite tight, and I can report it will be even tighter this year. My lack of restraint, combined with the best growing year I can recall*, means that there is barely room to swing a cat#. I make no apology for the cramped conditions as this is precisely the look I am aiming to achieve. My inspiration for this garden is a heady blend of Henri Rousseau’s avant-garden jungle scenes with the sounds and seclusion of a Marrakeshi riad. Gardens are, after all, a personal indulgence, and mine is very much so.


The main event in the Jungle Garden is foliage. Big, small, plain, variegated, filigree or frond-like, I rely on leaves to create structure, enclosure, drama, shade, interest and an overwhelming sense of immersion. Green is such an incredible colour, at once soothing and invigorating. Green is the colour of life and, like life, I can’t get enough of it. That said, I have been experimenting by introducing more variegated foliage plants, trying out several varieties of zonal pelargonium and coleus (solenostemon). I think the results are good, but I shall be interested in visitors’ reaction to these more extrovert additions. The garden is home to too many species and cultivars for me to list here, so I will be updating my plant list over the next couple of weeks in order that visitors can identify all that capture their imagination. What I hope people will take away is that much can be achieved in a very small space, if it suits you. I like that the tropical atmosphere is so unexpected in the centre of a busy, English, seaside town. This garden is especially magical on a warm night, when I can almost imagine I’m in the tropics, surrounded by exotic scents and unexplained sounds. For opening my hope is that the ginger flowers will be in their prime, along with dahlias, salvias and begonias. I am growing several new varieties of colocasia, including the lovely ‘Maui Gold’ which produces chartreuse-yellow leaves on ivory stems.


The Gin and Tonic Garden is accessed via a narrow path further up Thanet Road. This is a much sunnier garden, especially in summer, and is home to an eclectic mix of flora. So far it seems to suit plants from hotter, drier climes such as the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Canary Islands and Australia. Protected from easterly winds by the bulk of the house, there were many more winter survivors here than in the Jungle Garden, including the spectacular Geranium maderense which seeds itself freely here. The Gin & Tonic garden is a small but pretty space, demonstrating what can be achieved in just 12 months. I have bigger plans for this garden when my budget allows, including replacement of boundary fences and the introduction of columnar trees to screen the houses behind. Visitors will spy a specimen of Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’ which I am trialling to assess whether it could be the perfect candidate. In time, inspired by Islamic paradise gardens, I want to create a more formal, less cluttered layout. Such a plan would require the removal of my greenhouse, which will be painful since I have waited so long to get one.

If the weather is fine I will open the doors to the small garden room which is where I write. Beyond the garden room is my library, devoted almost entirely to books about plants and gardening. It’s incredible how many books have been published on these subjects and the shelves are filling up far faster than I anticipated. Alas, no time for reading during the summer months, so new arrivals will be perused later in the year.

Now that the heatwave is firmly entrenched I am keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t come to an end before my big weekend. If it does turn out fine and you are planning to visit, I’d recommend coming at the beginning or end of the 12pm-4pm period as it may get very busy indeed. Well behaved dogs are welcome but space in the garden is extremely limited, so perhaps leave your Rottweiler at home. The nearest parking is in the Crofts Place Car Park directly off the High Street, 30 yards away, otherwise it’s only a hop, skip and a jump from Broadstairs train station or the nearest Loop bus stop. If you’re a reader of this blog do come and say hello: I’ll be the one in the flowery shirt. And if you’re too far away to hear the beat of the jungle drums there will be a pre-opening video tour, I promise. TFG.


Five Facts about My garden

  • The Watch House is not one house, but three. It is an amalgamation of numbers 3, 5 and 7 Thanet Road. The oldest part is 200 years old. Before there was a house here, this plot of land was an orchard belonging to one of the houses on the High Street.
  • Beneath the Jungle Garden are vaulted undercrofts, which means there is no soil. What you are experiencing is basically a roof garden. Everything is planted either in containers or raised beds. Local legend has it that tunnels built by smugglers run from the undercrofts to the beach, although I have found no evidence of these. The name ‘The Watch House’ stems from the idea that smugglers kept watch over the English Channel from the top floor windows.
  • The Jungle Garden was created ten years ago. Prior to that the garden comprised a bomb shelter, a range of privies and a large expanse of crazy paving. Nothing remains from that original layout, except the boundary walls.
  • Frost is a rare occurrence in my garden, but we did not escape The Beast from the East which wiped out several tender plants and damaged others. There were days when I found myself sweeping up snow laced with sand and shells, such was the force of the wind off the sea. As you will see, all was not lost and there is very little evidence of the carnage four months on.
  • Depending on their tenderness and growing habit, half-hardy plants are overwintered in the greenhouse (unheated), workshop (also unheated) or the garden room. A surprising number, including the rare Isoplexis sceptrum, make it through the winter without any protection, but benefit from low rainfall and extremely good drainage.

For more details about the opening, please visit the National Gardens Scheme website.

* since May at least!

# for this reason we will be asking that you leave large bags at the entrance.