Jodie Jones discovers a tropical paradise in Surrey
At less than a year old, the new Exotic Garden at RHS flagship garden Wisley, in Surrey, hasn’t had time to reach its full potential, but the progress made by Curator Matthew Pottage and his team is already impressive.
In late 2016, they dug up the Jubilee Rose Garden to turn the space into something totally tropical. “The exotic idea evolved because we had a sub-tropical bed on Seven Acres, which looked incongruous against that backdrop of oaks,” says Garden Manager Emma Allen, “but we were excited by growing some more tender and unusual things outside. The Jubilee site allowed us to create a self-contained garden, enclosed by hedges, which we could turn into another world.”
The design was developed in-house and much thought was given to how it related to adjacent garden areas of contrasting style, including the Cottage Garden and Battlestone Hill. A pair of 2.2m-wide York stone paths intersect to form a cross that divides the 45m by 25m site into quarters and provides the main access routes into the garden.
At the centre of the garden, the pineapple stone fountain is a modified version of the stock Double Lotus design by Haddonstone. The space is further subdivided by a concentric series of circular paths ranging from 1.2m to 1.5m in width, and surfaced with grey Cedec gravel. All the paths are edged with grey engineering blocks to unify the look. “We always make paths that are firm and wide enough for wheelchair access, but here the extensive hard surfaces have a dual function, because they absorb the sun’s heat, which then radiates back to give the plants an extra boost,” says Allen.
Size matters in an exotic garden. “We want it to be a really immersive experience, so as well as using big foliage plants, we took care to make the beds big enough to have real impact,” says Allen. Some mature specimens were planted early in the project, including large musas and a 4m trachycarpus, which was craned into position in June, before the paths were laid. “The priority there was to take care no machinery rolled over ground that would end up forming planting beds, because that would have really compacted the soil.”
The one major issue was uncovered when the pool was built in March. “We were taking our levels from the fountain, and it was only at that stage that we realised how off-true the site was. It didn’t matter when it was all lawn and roses, but something like this has to be bang on.” This meant the project took rather longer than expected. Landscaping ran into August 2017, but the planting settled in well.
The planting plan places an emphasis on striking foliage and bold flowers, including ricinus, dahlias and fuchsias. “Essentially we took old-school Victorian bedding and used it in a different way,” says Allen. “We also had a good hedychium collection, so we’ve planted them out and left them through this first winter to see how they get on.”
Cannas, dahlias and abutilons are also being left in situ through winter, with a generous mulch of composted bracken to provide insulation without excessive nutrition on the rich soil in this area. “Generally they can cope with a short hit of freezing weather. It is winter damp that finishes things off,” says Allen. “Our soil is very free draining, so we are happy to push the limits on what will survive.” Bananas and Butia yatay are also being overwintered in situ, well wrapped in straw and either hessian or fleece.