BBC Gardeners’ World – Your Questions Answered

Before I begin, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who posted a comment following the garden’s appearance on Gardeners’ World last Friday. It’s been uplifting reading the many kind, appreciative messages that have popped up here and on other forms of social media. I am delighted that so many people have found my garden interesting, inspiring, curious or simply pleasant to look at. After all, that’s that what we strive to achieve in a ornamental garden: a pleasing picture. The BBC’s cameras captured the essence of the garden, giving viewers a genuine sense of what it’s like to potter about in my little green tropical ravine.

As our nation becomes more and more urbanised, tight pockets of flora and fauna will increasingly be relied upon for repose and recreation. Bounded by reasonably tall buildings, my garden is an example of what can be achieved and of the challenges to be faced in town and city gardens. If you have a small garden, let no-one suggest it’s an easy gig … but let me convince you that it’s a rewarding one.

The weekend following my appearance on Gardeners’ World turned out to be bittersweet. My ironwood tree (Lyonothanus floribundus subsp. aspleniifolius), which everyone so admired on screen, blew down during the gales that swept across Kent on Sunday. Friends tell me that there were trees and fences felled across the county, with one of our local supermarkets losing its roof. Little changes make a big difference in a small space. As you can imagine, the toppling of this beautiful tree has already had a dramatic impact and will take some time to address. I should feel more bereft than I do, but I knew this moment might come and must have subconsciously prepared for it. This cloud has a silver lining, even if I can’t see it quite yet.

Along with the comments, after the programme came a whole host of questions. I have been trying my hardest to reply to them all individually, but please accept my apologies if I have overlooked yours. Since many were along similar lines I thought I would share the answers in a post in the hope they might satisfy a broader audience. Let’s start with an easy one:

– What is the name of the species fuchsia that featured on the programme?

If you’d asked me a fortnight ago, I’d have told you confidently that it was Fuchsia splendens. It was purchased from a well known fuchsia specialist as Fuchsia splendens, and I have been tending to it lovingly ever since. Various expert visitors have also recognised it as Fuchsia splendens. However, a BBC researcher questioned my naming whilst working on the final cut and so now I am starting to doubt myself. Whatever its name, it’s a beautiful, treasured plant which I’d highly recommend for a semi-shaded spot. Not winter hardy but Fuchsia splendens survives for me in an unheated greenhouse.

– Is your garden open to the public?

Yes it is! I open the garden annually for one weekend in support of the National Garden Scheme. This incredible organisation, the likes of which exists no-where else on earth, orchestrates the opening of thousands of special, personal, private gardens every year. I am proud to be included in the famous Yellow Book and looking forward to meeting more of you August 3rd and 4th when I open the garden next. My expectation is that the garden will be busier than normal this year, especially if the weather is fine, so please be patient and make the most of Broadstairs during your visit.

Click here for more details on the NGS website.

– How do you keep your tropical plants alive over the winter?

Let’s clear one thing up – my garden is not tropical (I wish!). It’s probably not even technically subtropical, but I have a microclimate that helps me to create that illusion. Many plants we consider tropical or exotic in the UK are in fact species that grow in the cooler parts of warmer countries, for example at high altitude, hence they are hardier than their looks might suggest.

That said, even these are likely to require some winter protection and I won’t mislead you by suggesting this does not involve some planning and hard work. Most of my plants are in pots, so those that die down in winter, such as lilies, dahlias, gingers and roscoeas are stored in the workshop from December. They don’t require light or water during their dormant period and can be left alone until early spring. The workshop is unheated but frost free and well ventilated.

Plants that require temperatures above 15ºC to stay in good shape, in which I count coleus, streptocarpus, papyrus, sparmannia, philodendrons, tillandsias (air plants), aechmeas and some begonias, come indoors. They occupy every windowsill and ledge I have at my disposal, as well as crowding into my garden room. I don’t let them go back outside until June or even July, when the nights are reliably warm.

Plants that don’t die down in the winter but need basic frost protection – geraniums, plectranthus, nerines, succulents and tropical ferns – are stashed in a small unheated greenhouse. If it gets exceptionally cold then I may cover them with some fleece, but rarely is that necessary.

It is a lot of effort, especially in spring and early winter, but I’ve never been interested in low maintenance gardening.

– How can I replicate the jungle look in my own garden?

In milder parts of the UK we are spoiled for choice, with nurseries, garden centres and specialists offering a good range of exotic-looking plants. Typically we think of big leaves when we speak about jungle gardens and these are offered by bananas, castor oil plants, gingers and trees such as catalpa and paulownia. However I have found it’s just as important to consider texture, shape and colour when choosing foliage plants. Flowers are perhaps less important than in a traditional English garden, but are nevertheless essential for creating little ‘moments’ during the growing season.

In colder parts of the UK the same plants can be grow outside during the summer months but will need protection for longer. Hardy shrubs such as fatsia and aucuba give a jungly effect and are useful for creating permanent structure. This is important as no-one wants a garden that is completely bare during the winter.

Wherever you live you should be prepared for a jungle garden to excel in the summer and autumn and make provision for an alternative winter and spring display. I do this by planting a huge quantity of bulbs and attractive evergreen trees.

– Where can I buy coleus seeds and plants?

It is surprisingly tricky to get hold of coleus in the UK, especially named varieties. Seeds are easy to germinate and widely available from all the major seed companies, mainly in mixtures. Plants grown from seed have a tendency to go to seed themselves, especially if the summer is hot or they are not watered regularly. The best place to shop for named varieties is Dibleys, who send out rooted cuttings from April.

If you’d like to read more about the trials of sourcing good coleus, you may enjoy this post I wrote last year.

– Have the BBC asked you to present again?

Let’s just say ‘not yet’, but if I was asked, the answer would definitely be ‘yes’. With all the encouragement I have received I’ll be endeavouring to record more videos this year and will be posting them to my very underused YouTube channel.

– Why is one of your gardens called the Gin & Tonic garden?

It’s called the Gin & Tonic garden because during the summer it catches the sun at precisely the time I need a G&T. That’s not all day I might add!

– Where can I buy the Catalina ironwood tree that featured in the show?

Architectural Plants in Chichester is my ‘go to’ supplier for trees, not that I have space for any more. They are a great source of unusual and large specimens. Pan-Global Plants also offer Catalina ironwood trees for sale. Despite my unfortunate experience this weekend, this is a great tree for exposed coastal conditions since it is native to a series of rocky islands off the coast of California. TFG.

The Gin and Tonic Garden