An exotic oasisMary Argent
The Alan Boswell Insurance and Financial Services Group occupies a large sixties office block, box shaped and boring - you know the type well. It is to be found in Thorpe Road in Norwich, should you wish to find it. The car park at the front of the building has no adornment except for a background of high conifers and evergreens. Our coach arrived at this tidy concrete expanse, and I was surprised to realise that this was one of our garden visits, as there appeared to be nothing to see.
At the side of the high hedge we climbed narrow concrete steps, into a steep wild area populated with golden bamboo, pampas, agave and eucalyptus, dressed like the foyer of an auditorium, or the anteroom to a chamber. The winding track took us past a small plot laid out as a dry hot area, with opuntias and aeoniums set in gravel, like a tiny desert, backed with bamboo for protection.
Another turn, under a huge actinidia tree laden with kiwi fruit, and we were into the theatrical production itself, a small steep garden that exploded with enormous and densely packed exotic plants. Gunnera and cabbage palms, Swiss cheese plants, gingers, bananas - they all crowd around the old house, which is itself almost entirely hidden by creepers. The house has an ancient front veranda decorated with souvenirs oriental carvings, Chinese lanterns, a blue witch ball, adding to the strange exotic atmosphere. Although this part of the garden is a flat terrace, the tall lush plants bring twilight on a sunny day with glimpses of sky, reminding us of a dense jungle.
Will Giles stood broad faced and smiling with a neat blond beard, like the Saxon warrior who has given up plundering to till the land. He told me that he bought the house and garden in 1982. South-facing, overgrown with brambles, it was a very steep square plot enclosed by flint walls, with an oak and a pear tree and little else. The soil was sandy gravel. He planted shelter to create a hot spot and began to experiment with what he could grow.
Will shows how you can take small houseplants and grow them to great size in outside conditions. In between our native trees, holly and horse chestnut, he puts deep purple coleus, tricolour tradescantia, multicolour croton, tillandsia, bromelliads, tree ferns, castor oil plants, papyrus, black-eyed Susan, brugmansia, plectranthus, the list could go on and on.
You follow a path that twists and turns up and down through dense alleys dotted with hot red dahlias, fuchsias, and red begonias, to a long tunnel of iron hoops, clothed with scarlet runner beans, deep purple morning glory and golden hop. The effect is fantastic and original.
The bones of the garden are also remarkable. Past the tea bar, housed in a wooden summer house, you will see a substantial tree house suspended over your head. Here the garden rises up almost vertically by narrow steps. You pass a headless Goddess in a grotto on a brick terrace by a waterfall. Then on to a circular pond at the same level as the house roof, to a densely shady area of old holly, horse chestnut, fern and bergenia. Flint walls, old bits of stone carvings and some odd tiles all add to the magpie feeling.
A garden so clearly illustrates the personality of the gardener, and it is perhaps an even greater expression of personality than it is a mere indication of climate, weather and soil. Wills original turn of mind and his ingenuity with plant choices is charming.
This small garden is a lesson for any gardener. In taking the ordinary and creating the extraordinary it shows what imagination can do. One gem I spotted - it may be well known to you - was a clematis smothering an old flint wall in a shady area. Clematis 'Alba Luxurians' was covered with single white flowers, four petalled, each petal dabbed with green. I am told it can be over-assertive, but I think I will try it in one of the difficult areas in my garden.
First published in the Essex Group Newsletter, February 2006
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 23
© Copyright for this article: Mary Argent
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.