THERE'S BARELY A FLOWER in sight in Patrick de Nangle’s London garden. Instead this astounding urban jungle is packed with foliage plants and towering tree ferns, which is all the more astonishing when you consider the modest size of his compact back garden.
Patrick first saw tree ferns growing at some botanical gardens in Hawaii, but it wasn’t until a trip to Bali that he realised he wanted to grow them himself at home. “They’d planted tree ferns with moss underneath, and I decided to create something similar here,” says Patrick.
“I buy them direct from a specialist importer, Lyndon Osborn, who designed the fernery at the Royal College of Art. They arrive as stumps so I dig a hole 40cm (15in) wide, mix in some compost and bark chips then sit the stump on the ground. Then I put a stake beside it and tie it to the stake. The stump will take root and start growing in a few weeks.”
Patrick has chosen two main types of tree fern to vary the visual effect. “There’s the Australian Cyathea australis, which is seldom grown in the UK, and the more familiar Dicksonia antarctica. Cyathea australis has a scalier trunk than the dicksonia, and I prefer that textured look. My rarest specimens are the black tree fern Cyathea medullaris, the elegant Dicksonia squarrosa, and the Norfolk tree fern, Cyathea brownii, which is massive and grows to more than 30 metres (98ft).
“Tree ferns are like a sponge – they need lots of water. You have to water them once a week in summer. I spray the whole trunk then hold the hose over the top of the plant and count for 50 seconds! I also feed them every six weeks, with a special tree fern food, and fish, blood and bone.”
The garden was just a lawn, weeds and astraggly lilac shrub when Patrick arrived here 12 years ago. “Rather than have grass struggling under the trees I took up the lawn and planted mind your own business (Soleirolia soleirolii) instead,” he says. “It makes a fine green carpet of tiny leaves that helps to frame the tree ferns, making the garden feel much more jungly.”
Patrick planted the soleirolia at 45cm (18in) intervals around the garden. “Within a year all the plants had joined up. It looked lush and green last winter because of the mild weather, but it can get crushed if you walk on it too much, which is why I’ve laid a path of paving stones.”
Besides all the exotics, a few traditional favourites help boost the leafy effect. “I’ve used hostas and ivies around the patio to create a sense of leafy abundance. I’ve used hardy, native dryopteris ferns under the tree ferns and glossy-leaved evergreen shrubs such as aucuba and fatsia.”
Because this fabulous city garden is so sheltered, none of the plants needs to be protected from frost – apart from the young tree ferns. “I don’t take any risks if they have soft young shoots,” says Patrick, “so I wrap them in fleece. But otherwise I’m able to leave the tender plants to their own devices. Last winter two bird of paradise plants (strelizia) even survived.”
Patrick dreams of one day taking the tree ferns back to his native Ireland to create a garden there. “The warm, balmy climate would be perfect for them,” he says. In the meantime he’s keen to spread his enthusaism for jungle plants by sharing any spares with his neighbours. “There are echiums and a tree fern in the garden at number 9, a big cordyline in number 7 and a row of Paulownia tomentosa along the back of the gardens,” he says. “They help to create a screen that gives us all a bit of extra privacy.”
A nearby roundabout is now home to one of Patrick’s Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis) and the road outside has a tropical twist too. “I planted a row of agapanthus along the street, where I saw the council about to put an area down to grass. They flowered for more than six weeks! Wherever I see a vacant spot of ground I wonder why people don’t do something interesting with it. It could be beautiful.” ___