Let's start with some festive berries brightening up my December garden to send us all some cheery seasonal greetings:


Previously I mentioned that himself was hankering after an exotic garden down the slope on our Chalk Hillside, but during last year had been rethinking what “exotic” meant as he felt it was no longer practical (or ethical) to have a large number of large plants that needed lifting, transporting, and housing in heated structures to protect them from the frost for many months.  Over the past few years, we had struggled more and more to manoeuvre our expanding ‘hardy' banana trees (Musa Basjoo); the red banana ( ‘Maurelii'); and Brugmansia in their larger and larger pots up and down the garden.  The Cannas (Canna ‘Black Knights') had been divided and divided and turned into over 14 big pots of plants too.  No longer able to push them up the hill to the house to protect them in our front room over winter, they had spent the past three winters either in a shed in the garden or in a temporary structure in the garden (a bit of sacking/fleece/bubblewrap) – not at all pleasing to the eye.  The Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii' and Brugmansia had not survived this treatment. Still, the Cannas and Musa Basjoo had been fine until last winter, when the severe prolonged cold in December, followed by wet, followed by more severe cold finished them all off.

So we are on the hunt for “exotic-looking” hardy plants.  Himself finds it hard to pinpoint what he means by “exotic”, so every time we go to visit a garden I ask him to point out anything he thinks is exotic.    Whilst he still hankers after large leaves, he is thinking about other shapes of plants.  One he likes is the Italian Cyprus, ‘Totem', which I have purchased a pair of for him. (1.2m in their pots!)   Here he is at Wisley looking at their mature grove:


This is (obviously) a very Mediterranean plant, so I wondered if he would like other plants from there – but tiny silvery leaves to cope with drought is not his idea of exotic.  He is very taken with Palms, and there used to be one growing in a front garden on the other side of the road which was as tall as the bedroom windows, so we know CAN survive here, so I have bought him one, which is in a large pot in the most sheltered corner of the Mediterranean courtyard, so I hope it survives this winter!  


To help scratch his large leaved itch I have also got him a Pawlonia Tormentosa, which if you prune it to a stump each year will put out ENORMOUS pansy/heart-shaped leaves.  If you leave it, it makes lovely foxglove-like flowers in the summer – as you can see here from a visit to Denmans garden in early July:


Also at Denmans, we saw some very large Phormiums in a border – and he sees these as exotic too:


I bought two Phormiums (red-leaved ones) in Autumn 2022, which stayed in pots – one did not make it through the winter, and the other one is very sick.  So I invested in two more Phormiums this summer, which I have planted into one of the hospital beds I created this autumn, and will keep my fingers crossed they survive.  The brown and cream leafed one is ‘Maori Mix' and the Pink one is ‘Pink Flamingo':


If you look at this shot of a border at Denmans garden, you can see many different (mainly green) leaf shapes, which he felt was the sort of exotic/jungly look he was going for:


Unpicking this a bit, you have the Pawlonia – the lighter green leafed trees – some sort of cordyline/palm in the centre storey, something on the left that a Dryopteris fern would stand in for, and a yucca-type leaf at the bottom.  We already have yuccas growing successfully, as I showed you last year, and I have just bought a small like this one:


And put it in the hospital bed as well.  I feel though, that Yuccas, and indeed Phormiums look best when not crowded into a mixed border, and best of all when they are against gravel – this shades closer to the Mediterranean look rather than the jungle look – hot and dry and bright sun, rather than hot and humid with a canopy of leaf cover.   I will talk about the inspirational gravel gardens we visited next month.   We have gone with Phormiums rather than cordylines, as our friends and families' experiences with cordylines (particularly red-leaved ones) is that they are less hardy than Phormiums, and had not survived the “ordinary” winters never mind the winter we had last year.

The other thing we had been becoming aware of was that whilst we grew the bananas, and , they did not become large healthy plants – the banana's leaves were shredded on our windy hillside, and the Gunnera never reached the size of those which grew in properly moist and shadier spots – in our garden being in full sun in what amounted to a ginormous plastic bag (a bed lined with butyl liner) meant whilst it grew and survived, at no point could you walk underneath the leaves – the stems only getting to about 1m length, and the leaves less than 1m across.  So whilst I am buying small examples of various plants, as described above, if they don't thrive here, then we shall try something else until we find the right plants to give him the look he wants, plants that like living on a chalk hillside.  Any suggestions for suitable plants would be much appreciated.

I would be happy with Hemerocallis for colour; growing annuals like Cosmos for colour; Ricinis Comunis for big leaves; and Giant Fennel () for height.  I experimented with the Ricinis Comunis this year by putting them in a fallow vegetable bed – and whilst they were impressive, they only got to about 1.2m, so would not be as big and lush on our hillside as in rich soil:

ricinus comunis

I have collected cosmos seed from previous years to grow next year, and I have bought a packet of the Giant Fennel seed, so we shall see how tall it gets in our soil – the “ordinary” fennel and bronze fennel get taller than me, so I hope this will be the same.  I also bought seed of Helianthus helianthoides var Scabra “Burning Hearts” which looks like dahlias, but is a hardy perennial, although I bought a plant of it, before I could get it into the ground the snails had decimated it, so I planted the denuded stem, and will see if it comes back next year.  Here's an inspiring clump at Wisley:


Himself still hankers after dahlias though.  We visited a local specialist Dahlia Nursery in October to walk around their Dahlia field and get some ideas for dahlias to buy for next year.   This local dahlia nursery had always advised that their dahlias could be left in the ground over winter, with a pile of mulch on them, so we felt that we could incorporate some of these plants into our new garden.  However, talking to the nursery owner, they too had suffered with the extreme winter that we had last year, with the sudden subzero temperatures on December 22 wiping out almost all their lifted tubers.  Normally they lift them and dry them in polytunnels ready to take cuttings/sell to us, and the forecast overnight temps made them cover the tubers with hessian, but what we got – several days of severely subzero temperatures destroyed most of the crop.  Even the plants left in the ground didn't make it this past winter.   They had to rethink their approach and filled quite a lot of their show field with seed-grown unnamed dahlias to show us what you could grow from seed.  Here are some examples:

I have bought a packet of Bishops Children Dahlia seeds, and one of Collerette Dahlias to see if I can grow them from seed – not to flowering in one year I suspect, but we shall see.  From the HPS seed list I have also requested which is a species dahlia – fingers crossed I get it!  We also took note of several dahlias we wanted to order from them as tubers for us to overwinter – here are a couple of them:

That is Waltzing Matilda, and Pooh respectively.  Pooh in their ground is as tall as me!  If they don't survive in the ground with a good mulch on top, then, dahlias are off the menu too…..

Sheila May