The hosepipe ban may have been lifted – but it still pays to be wise with water.

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Brrr... is all I can say as this week has been so darn chilly! All the seasons seem to be completely out of kilter as we have experienced warmer days in the middle of winter – oh the joys of living on an island in a northern temperate climate!

As you may know, I like to grow plants that shouldn’t really grow in a Norfolk climate, but after years of travelling to hot places during the winter months I have constantly striven to re-create a more subtropical style here at the Exotic Garden in Norwich using a backbone of the more hardy exotic-looking plants with tender annuals and perennials planted out for the summer months to brighten up the gaps. Most years this works well, as the hardy plants give form and character to the garden right through the seasons, especially on those cold, dank, foggy days in winter.

Planting out overwintered tender perennials and vibrant annuals in late spring gives the garden an edge that screams tropical to me, especially when we do get those balmy nights and tropical summer days – alas, usually only a small handful every year and recently in the wrong season! Sometimes I wish I had been born at least 1,000 miles further south, but then this rather labour-intensive style of gardening wouldn’t be such a challenge, and maybe not so much fun either.

Anglian Water has now removed the hosepipe restrictions due to excessive amounts of rain. Nevertheless, it is still advisable to be wise with water. Because of the impending ban on April 5 (when it started raining in earnest) a decision was made to install a system that would use less water in the garden. Leaky hose uses about a tenth of the water a traditional overhead sprinkler systems uses. The black porous hose was looped, snake fashion, over the ground so that each section is roughly one foot apart to get the ground completely moist, though on clay soil it should be spaced further apart as it is far more water retentive. Since it was installed, it has had very little use due to excessive amounts of rain. It was excellent though for getting all the new planting bedded in and well rooted. I’m sure when we do ‘hopefully’ warm up again that it will work really well.

After many years of thinking about it, I also decided to have drip irrigation installed into the crowns of all the tree ferns, Dicksonia Antarctica. This works very well indeed as the trunks can now be kept moist thus producing much larger fronds. D. antarctica hail from cool moist forests and hate drying out for any length of time as once dry are very difficult to re-moisten, hence the fronds tend to become smaller year on year. I have experienced this myself, but now the oldest tree ferns are looking rather grand with their huge arching apple green fronds. These forest giants are underplanted with many other smaller ferns such as the ‘Common Male Fern’ Dryopteris filix mas and the more diminutive but very ornamental ‘Japanese Painted Fern’ Athyrium niponicum. Cyrtomium falcatum is another fascinating fern with dark green, glossy pinnate fronds which do not look like a fern, but more like a low growing holly. With these and many more, this corner of the garden is now very lush and verdant.

In total contrast to this, the Xerophytic garden has come into its own this year with deaths from past cold winters long gone, leaving a strong backbone of spiky things such as the tall columnar cacti Trichocereus pasacana and Trichocereus tersheckii redolent of cowboy films much loved by me as a little boy – in fact I think that’s where my liking for cacti and succulent things originally came from. I have a beautiful specimen Nolina longifolium with its massive flowing foliage which a few weeks ago proudly shot up a massive flower spike, but alas, the recent strong winds and rain snapped it off just above the foliage which is such a shame as it was going to be an absolute whopper!

The largest Agave that survived is A. nigra which is nearly 3ft across with dark greyish green leaf spikes. A. bracteosa is another stunning Agave with much thinner olive green leaves that are delightfully curled at the ends and very hardy indeed. Last year I decided to go down the Beth Chatto route and grow masses of Mediterranean plants of which many have silvery grey foliage that thrive in hot, backing weather (not that we have had any lately – I’m still hopeful though). The Curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, for instance has deliciously silvery gray linear foliage with the distinct aroma of curry when the temperatures climb. The Cotton Lavender, Santolina chamaecyparissus, is another highly aromatic plant with silvery white foliage topped in high summer with myriads of brightest yellow flowers that can be seen covered in bees on a hot summer’s day. Of course this garden would be missing something if it didn’t have some towering Mulleins – Verbascum species with their silvery green foliage and yellow flowers on tall stalks.

I mustn’t forget to mention the thick leathery leaves of Kniphofia with their dramatic poker-like flower spikes. Dianthus are also a must dotted around in drifts with their pink or white flowers and alluring fragrance that tantalise the senses.

This year, the desert garden is punctuated by the rigid stems of the Allium family with such monsters as Allium Globemaster on 3ft stalks topped with enormous rounded heads of intense deep violet measuring from six to eight inches across. One of my favourites, Allium Christophii, is now bursting into full glory with their loose heads of large lilac-purple star-like flowers.

Despite our rather inclement climate there is much to be seen in the garden at this time of year, in fact the cool weather makes many of the currently flowering plants bloom for a much longer period than if it was terribly hot.

Nevertheless, we are fast approaching mid-summer, so whatever the weather throws at us, do get out into your garden this weekend – but don’t forget to have your umbrella with you... just in case!

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