The Garden at Number 32

PUBLISHED: 13:36 07 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:57 20 February 2013

One of the resident cats enjoys the warmth of sun on gravel

Photo: Jan Barwick

One of the resident cats enjoys the warmth of sun on gravel Photo: Jan Barwick

Hallucinogenic, poisonous and thoroughly exotic plants are all on the 'must-have' list for these North Devon gardeners.<br/><br/><br/><br/>Words and pictures by Jan Barwick

Hallucinogenic, poisonous and thoroughly exotic plants are all on the 'must-have list for these North Devon gardeners.

Words and picturesby Jan Barwick

Number 32 Allenstyle Drive is a modest bungalow on an unassuming estate in Yelland. Nothing particularly marks it out from its neighbours, but once you go though the side gate and into the garden beyond, everything changes. Its like youve suddenly been transported into a miniature sub-tropical world thats as far from the average North Devon garden as its possible to be.

Primary school headteacher Steve Morgan and his wife, Dawn, have been resident here since 1997, having arrived with the concept of designing a subtropical garden after a visit to John Vanderplanks National Collection the previous year had ignited an interest in passion flowers. It was hardly a case of starting with a blank slate. A tired lawn cracked and crazed from the underlying heavy clay (the estate was built on the worked-out remains of Brannams Pottery clay pits), unattractive concrete paths and raised beds and a corner dominated by what in effect was a builders yard, meant plenty of work before they even had a reasonable starting point.

In all we had about 70 tons of stuff removed, said Steve. It took five years to completely clear the site, starting up near the house then gradually working down, putting in new paths, redesigning the beds and building a pond. We had the idea of a garden where there are no fillers, where everything is a lead plant, and particularly going for giant stuff with an exotic feel.

Things have evolved, and what they now have are areas with a distinctly subtropical focus where the big-leaved things and exotic blooms take precedence, and others that have more of a cottage garden or prairie style, with massed colour from plants like rudbeckia, echinacea and agapanthus. Gravel paths connect the different areas, there is no lawn at all but instead plenty of small secluded areas, some with seating, to allow you to enjoy the garden in small bites.

The wildlife pond provides a rich habitat for amphibians and other aquatic life and has dense plantings of gunnera, reed mace and variegated Arundo grasses, with water lilies on its surface. Its also noteworthy for the colourful lobelias that the Morgans brought from the Midlands. There was a mix of Pink Elephant, Pink Flamingo, Cherry Ripe and various others which we tried growing in other parts of the garden, but they didnt do well because we had so many slugs. So we wondered about growing them in the pond where the slugs couldnt get them after all weve seen them growing as marginals. They absolutely love it in there and come back year after year.

Near the greenhouse, and partially camouflaging it, huge banana plants rear graceful fronds. The Morgans grow both the hardy varieties Musa basjoo and M. sikkimensis, and the more tender Ensete ventricosum forms Montbeliardii, Maurelii and Hiniba, which dont grow as high or as vigorously but have more colour in the leaves. Weve always lifted the ensetes at the end of the season and over-wintered them in pots in the greenhouse, said Steve. Theyve got small root balls so theyre easy to manage. Normal practice is to leave the musas outside and wrap them in straw for the winter, but weve tried not wrapping them and they grew really tall and produced masses of leaves, which goes completely against received wisdom.

Growing amongst the bananas is one of Steves favourite plants, the huge and exotic-looking aroid, Colocasia esculenta, the black taro. Most years we dig up a couple of bits and overwinter them inside, but this one stayed out, produced runners and now its become half a dozen. In another bed dominated by the giant leaves of a rice-paper plant, Tetrapanax, an unnamed arum lily of the sort you find in the houseplant section of big garden centres thrusts numerous maroon-coloured flowers through a dense mass of variegated foliage. This has been here four years and its flowered every year and increased enormously in size, in spite of the cold winters, which its not supposed to do. Here too is another unusual species, the voodoo lily, Sauromatum venosum. An amazing plant, but it throws up a flower in early summer which smells absolutely revolting because it attracts flies for pollination. I cant work in the greenhouse when its in flower... A mixed blessing then.

Other exotics in the garden have rather more sinister attributes than just an unpleasant smell, and Steve freely admits that we could do a lot of poisoning with the things in our garden. The red castor bean plant, Ricinus communis Carmencita, is an impressive specimen, beautiful but potentially hazardous owing to its toxic ricin content. And the Morgans favoured Brugmansia plants have dangerously hallucinogenic sap used in certain societies for shamanic rituals. Steve inadvertently experienced this at first hand after a wodge of foliage brushed across his face, leaving a taste in his mouth. I washed my mouth out straight away but still experienced terrible vivid dreams for the next couple of nights!

Brugmansia needs to be treated with caution, but theyre beautiful plants, extremely easy to grow from cuttings and the two we have that do well here Grand Marnier and Variegated Sunset have fantastic scent as well.

But its the passion flowers that hold the strongest place in the Morgans hearts. Although some plants are outside, the collection, which numbers somewhere around 40 different varieties showing many subtleties of colour, scent, form and habit, is principally grown in pots in the greenhouse where they can be loved, cosseted and protected from winter cold. Last winter an exploding fuse blew out a pane of glass on one of the coldest nights when temperatures plummeted to -9C and several were lost, although there were surprising survivals, like Passiflora racemosa Buzios, which is supposed to throw in the towel at anything below 7C but emerged unscathed. Steve says hes had numerous disasters with their passion flowers in the past, but continues the love affair because they are so rewarding.

Although they are completely untrained in horticulture, Steve and Dawn have developed a level of expertise that makes a visit to their garden a real learning experience, particularly as they are so willing to share their experiences of growing the unusual. One of the reasons we open the garden is that we can spend a whole day talking to people about plants. What a luxury that is.

32 Allenstyle Drive is at Yelland, five miles west of Barnstaple on the B3233. Turn left at the Yelland sign into Allenstyle Road, then first right into Allenstyle Drive. The garden is open through the NGS on 28 and 29 August and 4, 11 and 18 September from 10.30am-6pm.

Gardeners promoting biodiversity

Plant heritages will host a one-day conference at Bicton College on 8 October on the role gardeners can play in promoting biodiversity. Keynote speakers are Liz Charter, Chief Biodiversity Officer for the Isle of Man, and DR Ken Thompson, whose work on urban gardens forms the basis for this book No Nettles Required. There will also be a questiontime panel, displays and special interest groups, The meeting is open to all.
Cost is 15 including lunch. Please book by 30 Spetember: Diane Rose, Orchard House, PArsonage Farm, Uffculme, EX15 3DR, 01884 840545

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