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Cornucopia - Books for exotic gardeners

Books for exotic gardeners
Nick Broughton

When I lived in Hong Kong in the 1990s, I thought often about the exotic garden I would create once I was back in Norwich. I envisaged lush foliage, subtropical plants and flamboyant flowers. But I had little idea what the plants could be.

My principal way out of this difficulty was to consult the relevant literature. This was quicker than embarking on a tour of gardens and, anyway, I did not know which gardens would offer major relevant insights. Now, several years later, I have read so many gardening books that hindsight enables me to identify the ones I found most helpful for making an exotic garden. For these, I give below the publisher and publication date with the author and title.

Books on exotic plants for temperate gardens have never been thick on the shelves. After William Robinson’s ‘The Subtropical Garden’ of 1871, there was virtually nothing until Myles Challis wrote ‘The Exotic Garden’ in 1988. Both are still worth reading. There was then another lull until Will Giles’ ‘The New Exotic Garden’ (Mitchell Beazley, 2000). This gave me a rush of blood to the head, as I learned about foliage plants such as alocasias and tree ferns and vivid flowering plants like cannas. This inspiring book is full of advice based on significant experience. His passion and enthusiasm shine more than in his later, larger, ‘Encyclopedia of Exotic Plants for Temperate Climates’.

I needed to know more about suitable brilliant flowers and so found my second invaluable guide, Christopher Lloyd’s ‘Colour for Adventurous Gardeners’ (BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2001). This really made me excited. More than any other book, this one showed me how I could bring hot colours into the garden without having to depend solely on tender plants from the subtropics.

My concept had always been to use lots of vivid flowers in a seemingly informal arrangement set off by bold foliage. This has led me to call my style “exotic cottage gardening”, in which I use a wide range of half-hardy, hardy and even tropical plants to create the effect. Several books that are not exclusively about tender plants have, therefore, taught me much. Others of Lloyd’s books, for example, contain valuable relevant information and all are enjoyable but none gets on to my hard-nosed shortlist.

‘Hot Plants for Cool Climates’ (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) by Susan Roth and Dennis Schrader brings useful American experiences – and has good lists of plants with specific attributes, such as architectural shapes, fragrant flowers or colourful foliage. This book teaches much on how to achieve effective form and is also full of practical advice.

‘Gardening on the Edge’ (Alison Hodge, 2004), edited by Philip McMillan Browse, is a splendid book for half-hardy plant enthusiasts. Individual chapters cover palms, proteas, woody plants and restios amongst others. Those chapters on ‘new’ introductions by our Chairman, Dr. Rob Senior, and on gingers by the late Edward Needham really inspire and inform choice. This book has depth and breadth and is applicable to many Zone 8b and 9 sites in the UK and Ireland, including our garden!

Two more books on tender plants are Martyn Rix’s ‘Subtropical and Dry Climate Plants’ and Kirsten Albrecht Llamas’s hefty ‘Tropical Flowering Plants’. Despite its name, the latter book includes many subtropical plants. I would not put it on my shortlist but it is a helpful complement to other books I mention here. The Rix book failed to grip me, although it has a worthy underlying premise, that climate change will enable us, perhaps even require us, to grow plants such as he includes.

For a single book on tropical plants, my choice is William Warren’s ‘Tropical Garden Plants’, one copy of which we keep here and another in our house in Java. Yes, we do real tropical gardening too, in a place where exotics are plants like dahlias and roses, for ‘exotic’ merely means ‘from abroad’, although we gardeners tend to use it to mean half hardy or tender.

Also useful are the two volumes by Rix and Roger Phillips called ‘Conservatory and Indoor Plants’. They have a wealth of information for exotic and half-hardy gardeners. Entries are a little too condensed and photographs sometimes too insipid for these books to make my short-list but they sit right on the dividing line.

By contrast with these works on more tender plants, Alan Hemsley focused on using hardy plants to create an exotic effect. His ‘Tropical Garden Style with Hardy Plants’ also includes plenty of half-hardy ones and he is particularly helpful about growing them in containers. There is not quite enough zing to push this book on to my shortlist but I have found it useful.

These are all books to read for inspiration coupled with practical advice. You would not read it to get ideas but no plant reference book really beats the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘A - Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants’ (Dorling Kindersley, 1998), edited by Christopher Brickell. Although in my edition, now superseded, the ratings for hardiness are sometimes over-cautious, the information is prodigious and the advice is essentially sound.

Monographs abound for the exotic gardener to consult but I am not going to name any here because your choice depends upon which plants you grow.

Although there are many more books which have illuminated the subject of exotic cottage gardening for me, in this article I have mainly referred to my shortlist of the few which alone would have enabled me to realise my Hong Kong dreams.

First published in the Half Hardy Group Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Nick Broughton

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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