Drove over to Charing, not far from Sissinghurst in Kent, on a beautiful evening for a talk by Fergus Garrett, Head Gardener at Great Dixter, on the Exotic Garden he and the late great Christopher Lloyd started together about 14 years ago soon after Fergus came to Great Dixter.

The idea to dig up the former rose garden came from a visit to Kingston Maurward in Dorset, inspired by their Balustrade Border planted up with the likes of bananas, castor oil plants and the giant Nicotiana sylvestris. It caused a lot of controversy at the time – traditionalists threw up their hands in horror, no doubt, at Christopher Lloyd’s audacious plan to dig up the rose garden designed by Lutyens and replace it with sub-tropical plants! Cannas, dahlias, Tetrapanax – Christopher Lloyd wanted a lush, tropical feel to this garden which, being enclosed by the ‘hovel’ and by hedges, has the feel of a ‘room’ rather than a straight-on border.

Inspiration came from the US: California and Denver – gardens seen there and plants which manage to survive their very cold winters.  It is most definitely not a mediterranean look of dry exotics, which flower earlier anyway, but more of an exotic look designed to flower later in the summer and on into early autumn. This excludes certain exotic-looking plants, such as cardoons or Eryngium as they peak early and would be brown and unpleasant-looking come Sept./Oct when the garden is supposed to be at it’s height. With this idea of aiming for everything to peak in Sept/Oct, they have used great foliage plants such as Gunnera, Arundo Donax (in splendid isolation in the cattle trough!), Yucca (which also has terrific flowers, of course), Euphorbias, Fatsia japonica, Aucuba, Phormiums (again, great foliage and good flowers), hardy banana, Paulownia tomentosa …. The non-hardy bananas get wrapped up in-situ for the winter, the cannas and dahlias are lifted – the cannas are kept under glass and split in spring (new plants are sold in the nursery – the dahlias, overwintered in the cellar, are grown on under glass ready for planting out in early June.

Cannas, suggested Fergus, should be chosen first for their foliage – which must be interesting, and second for their flower.  Gorgeous slide of Canna Gen Eisenhower with dark leaves and red flower. Dahlias include ‘David Howard’ – dark bronze foliage with orangey-bronze flowers and the huge and exotic ‘tree’ dahlia ‘Imperialis’ for it’s enormous flowers and foliage.

The eye is made to work in the Exotic Garden as our gaze moves from one strong foliage shape to another.  Connections come through the use of colour and shade – light/dark/light/dark and through the intertwining of plants with a link effect rather than ‘dotted’ around.

Cacti and succulents do have their place in the drier areas under the hedges.  Everywhere there are climbers which are planted out mid-June including Ipomea. Verbena bonariensis self-seeds and has to be ruthlessly pulled out – too much and it can upset the careful balance and become overwhelming – and it is all about balance – which is part of creating the visual picture and the feeling and mood of the garden.

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