Thursday, August 16, 2012

Down in the Jungle

Six hours in a crowded train with noisy children, broken air conditioning and no refreshments - not a pleasant experience! However the travel was broken up by three wonderful hours, visiting Will Giles' amazing exotic garden in Norwich. For those of you that have never visited Will's garden, this is undoubtedly one of the most exciting exotic gardens in the UK and all the more amazing because it is right in the middle of Norwich city centre. Will has now been developing the garden and his skills with exotic plants for 25 years, so this is no beginner's patch! The approach to the garden does nothing to prepare you for the jungle-like wonderland that opens up when you actually get there and find yourself surrounded by palms, waving bananas and a host of other exotic foliage and flower. I have known Will a number of years and visited his garden many times and once again this summer it was looking fantastic despite the summer's rains.

Colour and contrast in the main garden
Will's house - fight your way in with a machete!

Plants everywhere!

The approach to the garden is through a dense plantation, mainly of bamboos but including a number of other trees and evergreens. I remember seeing this area when it was first planted many years ago and the plants were small, the whole area looking very raw and bland. Although still predominantly green, there is much of interest in this area. The eucalyptus are now towering specimens and even the bamboos bend over the footpaths. Will has removed much of the lower foliage, displaying the colourful canes. In particular, yesterday I was impressed by a plant of  Liriodendron tulipiferae, the tulip tree which Will stools annually, pruning hard to the ground. Inevitably the result is a forest of vigorous growth with huge handsome green leaves. I also made a note to get myself a plant of Broussonetia papyrifera.

The garden entrance - pleasant enough but the surprise awaits!

Giant leaves of stooled Liriodendron
Naked stems of Phyllostachys Aurea

Juvenile foliage of Broussonetia papyrifera
 The main garden is an ecclectic mixture of colourful foliage and flowers. Although there are many tender plants and those with big foliage that most people would easily classify as having the exotic look, there are also many very ordinary but good garden plants that fit well within the ethos of exotic gardening. There is no lawn; this disappeared many years ago to make way for more plants and so the visitor walks on gravel paths with lush planting either side and often overhanging the walkways. There are shrubs, herbaceous perennials, huge specimen exotics, plus dahlias, cannas, many bedding plants and some we would think of as houseplants. The effect is voluptuous to say the least but so carefully contrived that the effect is electric.

Two giant plants of Tetrapanax papyrifera - one is 'Rex' - difficult to see much difference
Hemerocallis and Persicaria mingle with the exotics

Bromelliads, very much Will's favourites, thrive outside in the summer

A perennial black-eyed Susan (without a black eye!) Thunbergia gregorii - I think.

Mature Trachycarpus throughout the garden seed freely. Will says he's going to let them grow so that when he can no longer maintain the garden he will have a forest of palms to sit under!

The dahlia in this mixed border has been outside for years

The upper garden is an arid, Mediterranean style of garden, complete with small ruined logia, just the spot for a quiet glass of wine on a summer's evening. The planting includes the inevitable spikies, yuccas, phormiums, and a number of Agave. Amongst those are various cacti and succulents. Will tells me that although he takes some plants under cover for the winter, the majority of these stay outside all the year and many amazingly survived the tough winter of two years ago.

The arid garden and logia all built from local and recycled materials

I just love this huge dinner-plate version of Aeonium - forgotten its name

Typical arid planting
Throughout the garden there are examples of Will's building skills as well as his horticultural enterprise. Alongside the house there is a towering flint wall with a pond at the top and another at the bottom, the two being linked by a cascade that falls over the flint walls. Undoubtedly the most ambitious of the various constructions is the huge tree house which fills the crown of the huge oak tree which sits next to Will's house. Contrasted by the grander projects there is also great attention to detail with numerous small pieces of art tucked in amongst the planting.

The tree house - summer home for Jamie
One of the gardens sculptures with the top pond behind


So much to see

One welcome new construction this year is the huge new  polythene tunnel. Rather than have this sit empty during the summer, Will decided to plant it up with a variety of surplus exotics, which have not surprisingly performed better than some of those outside. After a very splendid lunch yesterday, which featured three types of potato and various vegetables grown by Jamie, one of Will's helpers, we sat and drank coffee in the sunshine in the polythene tunnel, surrounded by a mini rainforest! Reluctantly I set off to the station fortified for the second  three hours in a crowded train.

The new polytunnel
Caladiums - tricky to grow but thriving in the warmth of the tunnel

Colocasia esculenta 'Fontanesii'

Xanthosoma violaceum
Will Giles - exoticist extraordinaire!

Will's garden is open each weekend until mid October - DO go and visit if you possibly can! Full details on The Exotic Garden website or read Will's blog to learn more of the garden.


  1. Thank you! I've been reading Will's blog for years but there is nothing quite like a visitors perspective to really allow one to feel like they are, well, visiting a garden. Most enjoyable and I appreciate your enduring what sounds like a horrible train ride to take us there.

  2. A stunning garden and superb planting!! Will's garden is very inspirational and a total visual delight. We visited a few years ago and was hoping to this year but with lots to do we probably won't have time this year. Hopefully next year we will be able to. And love the sculptures and ornaments as well!

  3. I too have also been a while back when Wills book 'Exotic Plants for Temperate Climate' had been released and he very kindly signed mine. It was glorious then, we still hope to go again this year, it will be great to see all the changes he has made. Can't recommend it highly enough if your looking for inspiration.

  4. "Where to start?", is my question! So, the first photo that really grabbed me - the numerous containers lining the right side of the steps up...great combinations. I am always more into smaller spaces, not vast expanses. Of course, the arid garden and loggia are equally appealing to me, and that's fine with me, to take out and store some plants in the winter.