This sloping S-shaped plot is full of exotic flowers and jungly intrigue. Owners Juli Madwick and Mike Ford show us around
This quirky, exotic garden in Nottinghamshire is a tranquil haven filled with towering palms and big-leaved banana plants. It’s hard to believe the south-facing plot offers fine views over a classic English landscape and the crenellated ramparts of Belvoir Castle!
“It’s easy to be transported somewhere far more exotic,” says owner Julie Madgwick, who gardens here with her builder husband Mike Ford. “The garden looks fantastic in late summer but we have faced up to some challenges along the way.”
The couple moved here more than 20 years ago, in 1996. “The house was empty and run-down when we moved in, so we had to address that first,” explains Julia. “Then we turned our attention to the garden and discovered the soil was solid clay – you could make teapots out of it! We began by clearing away a dilapidated pigsty, aviary and multitudes of weeds. We kept some of the existing roses and fruit trees and put in a few different plants, but at the time we didn’t have much sense of design direction.
“Inspiration finally struck when we visited the exotic garden of the late Will Giles, who created a subtropical garden in Norwich, on a similar sloping, south-facing plot like ours,” says Julia. “Initially I was told I couldn’t grow exotic plants in heavy clay, but that was like showing a red rag to a bull! I was determined to turn my half-acre garden into a tropical paradise like Will’s. But it certainly took a lot of effort to make the soil more workable.
“We started off by rotavating the soil and clearing some of it into a mound in the front garden, where we’ve planted cannas, cordylines, hemerocallis and bananas. We incorporated bulk loads of horse manure into the garden beds – and continue to do so every year – topped with a compost mulch. Now it’s beautiful soil; very rich and moisture retentive.”
The planting has evolved as they’ve gone along. “With each new planting area, we’ll start with an architectural plant in the middle, such as a tetrapanax or alocasia, to give height and structure,” explains Julia. “Then we’ll surround it with other plants with big leaves or tropical-coloured flowers, graduating the height down to ground level.
“Fiery-coloured fuchsias, begonias, crocosmias, dahlias, alstroemaria and pelargoniums all work really well,” says Julia. “We plunge-plant many more tender species, still in their containers, among the more hardy ones so they can be lifted more easily at the end of the season for overwintering.
“Splashes of cool blue agapanthus and salvia offer a bold colour contrast. This creates a truly lush, tropical look. I never want to see bare soil; it spoils the effect completely.”
For foliage interest there’s colourful coleus. “They’re wonderful foliage plants and are really easy to grow from seed,” says Julia. “We also use alocasia; you can buy their roots really cheaply from Indian supermarkets to grow on. They come in all sorts of colourful leaf patterns.”
To keep a sense of order throughout the garden, Julia has a good tip: “Keep the lawn mown with tidy edges, and sweep the paths to provide a neat framework for the exuberant planting.”
Greenhouses are essential to overwinter the more tender exotics. “We now have four, each with its own name so we know which one we’re talking about!” laughs Julia. “For instance, ‘Pigsty’ is where the messy work is done; ‘Julia’s Room’ contains my potting bench; and ‘The Dome’ is where we keep our permanent display of plants, together with a wood-burning stove. It’s a great place to enjoy a bottle of wine in winter.”
The geodesic dome took six weeks to build. “We bought it secondhand and collected it as a series of glass panels, with no instructions,” says Julia. “There were nine different sizes of glass and 11 different-sized metal struts, and they only fitted together one particular way!”
The couple grow many of their plants from seed and cuttings. “We also sell them on our National Garden Scheme open days,” says Julia. “Last year our stocks were boosted after a trip to a cactus nursery. We discovered it was closing down that same day, so we came away with everything they had left. We even returned with a mini-digger to rescue the two mature palm trees at the entrance!”
Water is a key part of the garden’s aesthetic. “When we unearthed an old millstone and water tank, Mike used them to create a trickling fountain in the front garden,” says Julia. “This circulates water along a manmade stream bed that snakes right through the garden, widening out into ponds along the way. We’ve created a decked pier supported by large, rustic gateposts and telegraph poles as a viewing platform. We like bold, iconic structures – it’s certainly not a twee garden. The neighbours must wonder what on earth we’re going to do next!”
OWNERS Julia Madgwick and Mike Ford • LOCATION Honeytrees, Nottinghamshire, NG13 0EG • GARDEN SIZE Half an acre, 90 x 18m (295 x60ft) • SITE South-facing slope • SOIL Heavy clay • FEATURES Exotic planting; glass houses dedicated to various climatic zones • VISIT Open for the NGS on 4 August 2019 (10am-5pm). Adults £4. Refreshments and home-made teas. Also by appointment until 30 September 30. See www.ngs.org.uk