While many gardens will be exhausted come the end of summer, visitors will still be flocking to the legendary Long Border at Great Dixter, which blooms non-stop from April to October, and to Dixter’s wonderful Exotic Garden, which is at its best in September.
This inspiring garden in East Sussex, created by the late, great Christopher Lloyd, is famous for looking good over a long period. Peering over the old walls you are greeted by a spectacular and unexpected sight: a green canopy of tropical-looking plants soaring for the skies from the confines of the old cattle yard. This fantastical autumn show was created by Lloyd and head gardener Fergus Garrett in 1992. Bored with the roses that grew here in formal beds, Lloyd decided to pull the whole lot up and try something tropical.
‘The word exotic conjures up visions of the bizarre,’ he wrote in his book Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners (BBC Books). ‘To me it means something beautiful, colourful, curious, full of mystery, an alien world that we walk into and are transported to peculiar and unfamiliar surroundings.’ He and Garrett have certainly achieved that.
The Exotic Garden is intriguingly encased by tall yew hedges, over which gargantuan leaves spill. Paths lead through the hedges; and the denseness of the lush planting lures you in. You soon find yourself in a paradise of bizarre foliage, some of which you must push aside to make your way forward; headily scented flowers bloom in the shady depths; and up above the sun makes stark silhouettes of palm fronds and filters through the giant emerald leaves of bananas. The towering plants make you feel small, giving this miniature jungle an Alice in Wonderland feel.
But most exciting is the fact that this is September! For many of us, it’s a fight to extend the season after the floriferous hurrah of summer. Exotic planting is a great solution. I was at Dixter to attend Garrett’s annual Exotic Gardening Study Day, to find out how to go about it.
What is an exotic garden?
Does an exotic garden have to be a jungle of foliage or can it be a terrace of Mediterranean plants? Must there be bold parrot-like colour? And do I have to stick to one season?
‘An exotic garden can be anything you want it to be,’ said Garrett, during the talks that made up the first half of the study day. ‘For Christo and myself, it had to be bold and inviting. We had seen exotic planting done flatly in neat rows that you could only view from a distance; we decided to create something you could walk in amongst, be immersed in: a reminder of the tropics that felt like stepping into a Rousseau painting. We also knew that we wanted the garden to climax in September and October, so we chose plants that look good then, but there are exotics for every season.’
Find out how to turn a small garden into a courtyard jungle
People can be put off exotic gardening in the belief that they cannot grow subtropicals, such as agave, banana and ginger, outside. ‘Anybody can grow an exotic border,’ said Garrett, as he led the group around the gardens pointing out hardy plants that have an exotic look. ‘You can create an entire exotic garden without using one tender plant.’ He highlighted Fatsia japonica (castor oil plant), which is tough as old boots, but looks like it might grow in a jungle.
Likewise, he says, ferns, hostas, figs, bamboos, Paris polyphylla, Bergenia ciliata, yuccas, euphorbias, sarcococca and clerodendron are frost-proof but look exotic.
Growing tender plants is not difficult, as long as you plan well and have a greenhouse (or warm windowsill) and a dark store at your disposal. Bulbous tender plants (such as Colocasias and cannas) can be stored in a cellar or garage.
Christopher Lloyd loved colour in his Exotic Garden: ‘No pastel shades for me here but instead dazzling reds, oranges and magentas,’ he wrote. This is provided by dahlias (such as ‘Moonfire’ and ‘Hillcrest Royal’), bright annuals (such as Ipomoea lobata), purple sprays of Verbena bonariensis and, last but not least, a wonderfully greedy amount of cannas. Lloyd so adored cannas that he named one of his beloved dachshunds after them.
Canna (and her companion Yucca) can be seen in old photographs, keeping Lloyd and Garrett company while they plant out the Exotic Garden. The stars of the show include Canna indica ‘Purpurea’, ‘Wyoming’ and ‘General Eisenhower’.
Find out how to use colour in your garden design
Making the most of foliage
For me, the best thing about the Exotic Garden is the use of foliage. Amid the beautifully cool palette of leafy greens, silvers, maroons and whites that dominated the garden in 2014, your eye was dazzled by the ingenious contrasts: the huge ebony leaves of Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’ hovering over fresh green maidenhair ferns, for instance, and spidery papyrus alongside the arching straps of Setaria palmifolia.
‘Don’t put a Tetrapanax beside a green castor-oil plant because the leaves are too similar,’ warns Garrett. ‘The idea is to cleverly combine different shapes, shades and textures of foliage to create an extraordinary jungle.’
The tropical calendar
What to do in each season to maintain your exotic border:
Spring Add compost and dig borders. Enrich the soil with fertiliser, such as blood, fish and bone, every few years.
Summer Put the main plants in the ground in early June, leaving room for them to spread. A few weeks later, plant the under-canopy.
Autumn If frost is predicted, bring tender plants indoors or wrap in straw outside. Cut back foliage and mark plants left in situ with canes.
Winter Some exotics (such as Rhodochiton atrosanguineus) can be sown indoors now. Plan your border on paper, combining plants that contrast well visually, work together size-wise and require the same conditions.
Ten exotics recommended by Great Dixter
Canna ‘Erebus’ AGM
A dreamy canna with long glaucous leaves and pink flowers. H1.5m (5ft)
Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan’ AGM
This variegated grass is a staple at Dixter. H2m (6½ft)
Reminiscent of bamboo, the giant reed grass produces glaucous strappy leaves. H4m (13ft)
Begonia luxurians AGM
Incredible foliage, but the palm-leaf begonia is tender, so bring it in before the frosts. H2m (6½ft)
Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’
Stunning black leaves. Grow in pots sunk into the ground and overwinter indoors. H1m (3ft)
Musa basjoo AGM
The Japanese banana dominates the canopy at Dixter. You can grow plants from seed to full height in 5-10 years. H5m (16ft)
Melianthus major AGM
The honey bush has wonderful glaucous foliage. Wrap in straw over winter. H3m (10ft)
Dahlia ‘Ann Breckenfelder’ AGM
Scarlet petals marked yellow. Store tubers in soil indoors over winter. H1.5m (5ft)
Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’ AGM
An annual climber, sow this morning glory in spring for bold blue flowers. H3-4m (10-13ft)
Hedychium densiflorum ‘Assam Orange’
One of the hardier gingers, this has orange flowers and great foliage. H1.5m (5ft)
Many of the plants are available from Great Dixter’s Nursery, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex TN31 6PH (greatdixter.co.uk, 01797 254044). The garden is open until end of Oct, Tues to Sun and Bank Holidays, 11-5; the nursery is open all year round.