Sunday, September 6, 2015

Will Giles - exoticist extraordinaire

Fortunately I have never had to post an obituary on this blog until now. Many gardeners will know, Will Giles sadly died on 2 September 2015, having battled with cancer for two years.  I have known Will for about 20 years, visited his garden on many occasions and enjoyed his hospitality, quirky humor and impressive knowledge of plants. When I first knew Will he was running a botanical illustration business and his exotic garden was a hobby. As the digital age took over, botanical illustrations were less popular and Will's garden developed, becoming in many ways his business as well as his passion. Sadly I did not get to visit Will or his garden this summer.

Coffee in the polytunnel with Will - last time we met.

Walking round Will's garden in the summer was like a whirlwind world tour in a couple of hours with plants from all round the globe, growing successfully in the middle of Norwich city center.  Huge banana trees punctuated the skyline with rustling bamboos, whilst Spanish moss and epiphytic  bromelliads hung from old apple trees. Colorful cannas jostled with agapanthus, heleniums, persicaria and brilliant gerbera. And everywhere amazing foliage; Ricinus, colcasia, coleus, tree ferns, grasses and houseplants such as monstera. If it was big, bold and exotic, Will would grow it!

Will was also a great architect and builder adding many whimsical structures to his garden. His tiny rustic summerhouse was originally in the neighbouring garden and due for demolition but Will reprieved it and with the help of several local heavy guys moved it into his garden. Although I was invited, I never actually slept in his tree house, although I admired this amazing structure, nestled amongst the branches of an old oak tree with amazing views over the Norwich rooftops.  Then his grotto and cascade, starting at a round pool at the top of his garden, water falls over a mossy wall of old flints into a basin at the bottom, two storeys below. 

My own favorite was the Italianate loggia set amongst his Mediterranean garden, built at the top of the hillside behind his house.This garden full of spikies and cacti deserves a special mention. Trying to grow arid plants in the wet and cool British climate is a huge challenge but one that Will met with his usual enthusiasm. Even when the tough winter of 2011 killed many specimens, he wasn't daunted but replanted with a newer, tougher range.

Will was also an artist. Throughout the garden, there are small pieces of artwork, sculptures or just quirky items, like the headless and armless statue of a lady,  tucked in a niche. And of course arranging plants in beautiful combinations is an art itself.

I have no idea what will happen to this beautiful and iconic garden. Already it has closed. Such a garden relies on a heavy input of labour and a huge investment, maintaining exotic plants, coaxing them through the winter and replanting many each season. I doubt there is anyone who would have the time, energy, knowledge and cash to continue with this. If this garden disappears, it will be a loss but the even greater loss must be Will Giles, a great gardener and good friend.


  1. A wonderful, heartbreaking post. Thank you for the photos. I met Will or visited his gardens, but his books had a big influence on me.

  2. I had heard, and still appreciated reading a post from someone who knew the man well. Your beautiful photos are a testament to what he built. I pray it will live on.

  3. Amazing place! I would never guess its correct location.
    Thank you for your tribute to its creator. Great man.