Wednesday, 25 September 2013

A fantasy landscape in Norfolk - Will Giles' Exotic Garden - guaranteed to lift your spirits in the autumn

Exciting tropical foliage abounds at Will Giles' Exotic Garden in Norwich
When you visit the Exotic Garden at the heart of Norwich in Norfolk, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've accidentally wandered onto a movie set or through the back of the wardrobe in one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. It's an amazing and exhilarating surprise to find a subtropical landscape like this in the middle of an East Anglian city - all due to the efforts of creator, Will Giles, who has amassed a collection of plants that you'd normally expect to find in a completely different climate zone.
At the highest part of the Exotic Garden, Will Giles has created a xerophytic landscape
September and October are the ideal months to visit this magical one-acre garden hidden at the heart of one Britain's ancient cities because that's when the huge range of hardy exotics normally associated with the tropics reach their peak. Will Giles has been gardening here since 1982 and used his ever-growing knowledge of exotics to ensure that fast growing plants like cannas, colocasias and ginger will given an "impenetrable jungle of foliage and flower" by late summer. 
Hardy exotics grow alongside English favourites at the Exotic Garden
Hidden behind high hedges and trees, this south-facing slope in the middle of the city was no more than a ground-elder choked wasteland when Will Giles acquired the site back in 1982. But thirty years of committed experimenting and planting have ensured that today's Exotic Garden is a mini tropical rain forest environment, where tree canopies provide protection from sunlight and carefully chosen leaf colour and texture - usually found only in warmer climes - ensures that any visitor is transported to far-off lands.
Once inside this garden, it's easy to be transported to the tropics. Everywhere you look there is colour, form and a sense of the unusual. Look up and you will notice many species of unusual palm, tree ferns and even banana plants from Abyssinia; gaze straight ahead and you will see brightly coloured cannas and tantalising angel's trumpets (Brugmansia); while downward glances will reveal a collection of exotic houseplants at ground level, planted out annually to ensure their survival in Britain's increasingly unpredictable climate.
The Desert Garden, added in 1997 and flourishing today
The latest addition to the Exotic Garden is the xerophotic landscape, added in 1997 at the highest part of the terrain when Will converted a wooded area into a well-drained desert garden for plants that require very little water (but which have successfully survived our recent wet summers!). Here you will find a large collection of cacti, succulents and agave, interspersed with sedum and other English plants to give colour and form. All set against the backdrop of an Italianate loggia and thick flint walls.
The dramatic tree house at the Exotic Garden affords fine views over Norwich
Be sure to visit the dramatic treehouse in this garden (above) - perched high up in the boughs of an old oak tree and affording views over the city rooftops - but also an important reminder that you are not in the heat of the tropics. It would be all too easy to forget your real location when you are wandering through this remarkable garden! The view from here will also allow you to see the scale of the planting in the landscape below.
Inside the tree house at Will Giles' Exotic Garden
Will Giles has travelled the world and has several books on exotic plants to his name. He's also an accomplished photographer - and certainly made me nervous when he said he looked forward to seeing my shots (but I plead appalling light conditions in defence of the pictures here and urge readers to see his blog for many astounding photographs of his garden). The Exotic Garden is open every Sunday until 20 October, from 13.00-17.00. Admission £4.50. Also open to parties by appointment. The one character missing from this plot is Aslan, but for those of you lucky enough to meet the owner, I'm sure you'll agree that his gentle bearded look is reminiscent of the mythical lion in the fantasy world of Narnia.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Tremenheere, Cornwall - is this the new Garden of Eden?

Tremenheere has fantastic views over Mounts Bay and St Michael's Mount
With views like this over St Michael's Mount (above); a hillside plot above Mounts Bay; and a tract of land that includes hills, streams and thick woodland areas, Tremenheere in Cornwall is about as close as you'll get to a blank canvas on which to paint a visionary garden. The artist behind the scenes is  local doctor Neil Armstrong, who purchased 11 acres here in 1997, and is now creating a masterpiece that promises to be a great British green space of the future. This garden is already unique because of its position and unusual climate - but give it another half century as the plants mature - and you'll have a genuine Garden of Eden.
Neil Armstrong shares William Robinson's vision that gardens should be "wild"
Tremenheere (pronounced Tre-men-ear) is about two miles from Penzance and nestles between the villages of Gulval and Ludgvan. You won't find a great Cornish mansion at the heart of this garden, because there's no house here at all, just a wonderful landscape. And it was this that attracted owner, Neil Armstrong, to this unusual hillside plot. He is a great admirer of Victorian garden designer and writer, William Robinson, who lived at Gravetye Manor in Sussex. Both share the vision that gardens should be "wild", and Armstrong believes that "form and foliage should be king"; with "drama and poise arising from line and foliage alone".
There's glorious greenery everywhere at Tremenheere
The site is perfect - the climate is sub-tropical and the structure of the land provides good protection from the sea winds - and thanks to Armstrong's planning, you'll encounter many unusual plants here including cacti, agaves, palms and striking architectural plants - perfect for the contours of the plot. When I first visited this garden in 2010 I didn't get the chance to meet the owner, but on my return last week, I was lucky enough to have a private tour. He's certainly on the right track with this garden and there's something about Tremenheere that spells serenity, even though it's still a masterpiece in the making. He has already installed several unique sculptures on site - works by British sculptor, David Nash and Japanese artist, Kishio Suga - although in reality, the main artist here is the owner.

There are just two buildings here - the oval skyscaper building (right), designed by James Turrell, and originally commissioned for viewing the solar eclipse in 1999, with its fantastic hilltop position, and the new cafe and office building at the entrance to the garden. Both have been conceived to blend in with the remarkable landscape. 

Don't go to Tremenheere and expect to find manicured borders or ideas for your plot at home - this is a garden where you have to think for yourself - it's about walking unfettered in a magnificent landscape, absorbing the atmosphere and being at one with the environment. Just three years after my first visit, this garden is already showing signs of change and Neil now has plans to extend the garden further at the rear and create a prairie planting scheme for next season.
Tremenheere is open daily throughout  the summer season, from the end of March through to the beginning of November. Winter hours are more restricted, but check the garden website for full details. Indeed, part of its charm for me when I first visited in 2010 was that it was so rarely accessible to outsiders. But secrets such as this should be shared and I'm glad this garden is now firmly on the map for visitors.                
David Nash sculpture at Tremenheere
                                                      For more garden visit ideas click here.