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Garden Tour: A Stunning Tropical Garden Before and After

A plain and not-very-private back garden is now a lush and secluded retreat thanks to some imaginative planting

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‘In leafy Hertfordshire I don’t often get asked for exotic, jungly planting, so it was a real pleasure to work from quite a different plant palette,’ says Fiona Green of Green Tree Garden Design, who transformed this now-verdant back garden. With a balmy, holiday retreat feel to it, the space is proof that ordinary, moderate-sized gardens don’t have to follow the herd when it comes to garden design.

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Garden at a Glance
Location Hertfordshire
Garden size 44 sq m
Property A Victorian terrace
Designer Fiona Green of Green Tree Garden Design

Photos by Richard Brown

Before Photo

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“Before the transformation began, the garden was fairly uninteresting,” says Green. “Laid to lawn, with nothing really in it.”

Before Photo

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Garden designer and landscape architect Green was actually brought on board after the owner had made a start on the renovation. “The garden was a bit of a bombsite – the owner, Malcolm, had started constructing a brick path through the garden, and had brought in lots of soil to create raised beds along either side of it,” she says. “But he was stuck for ideas on where to go next and how to achieve the vision that he had in his head, which is where I was able to help.”

Transforming the space became a team effort. “Malcolm did much of the hard landscaping, including the path, the beds and the small patio at the rear, with input from me, and I did all the planting,” says Green.

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Exotic, jungly planting was the order of the day. “We wanted the emphasis to be on leaf texture and luxurious foliage, not flowers,” says Green.

The plant to the right with fan-shaped, spiky leaves is Trachycarpus fortunei, also known as a Chinese windmill palm. The lush fern, Dryopteris affinis, adds a British woodland element to the mix.

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Another priority for Green’s client was privacy, and this was achieved with some clever evergreen planting. And while the plants aren’t any higher than the existing boundary fences, the result is very much a sense of getting away from it all. “Malcom has a very busy job and wanted his garden to be a real haven, somewhere he could relax,” says Green. “It’s a very narrow space and it was overlooked by the houses on both sides, and while he got on very well with his neighbours, he didn’t necessarily want to see them when he was in the garden.”

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No lawnmower is required on Sunday mornings in this garden. The original lawn went, as Malcolm didn’t want any grass or formal planting. His preference was for a softer style of design, rather than hard edges and straight lines.

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The decision to go for a tropical planting scheme was a result of Malcolm’s travels. “He had spent time living and working in the Middle East and Africa, which I think had a great influence on him,” says Green. “He was very clear that he wanted an overall ‘green’ planting style with plenty of focus on contrasting leaf textures rather than flowers.”

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The secluded seating area at the back of the garden gets sun in the morning. “This area is a real haven. It’s secluded and tranquil and the perfect place to sit with a book or the paper and a drink,” says Green.

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Malcolm actually put up the diamond lattice trellis. It helps frame the seating area and also provides a striking contrast to all the lush greenery.

Discover more ways to add interest to your garden

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The path is made of reclaimed brick. The red hue contrasts beautifully with the evergreen planting, and the pairing of these two elements gives the garden a Victorian palm-house feel.

See more gorgeous ideas for garden paths

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Though it’s still relatively rare for her to get requests for tropical-style gardens like this one, Green says planting preferences are changing. “Most of my clients still want a mix of all-year-round interest, with plenty of flowers, but structural planting is becoming popular and I often use it as the backbone to softer planting schemes.”

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One of the things Green really enjoyed about this project was working with different plants, as well as using stalwarts like the big-leaved, shade-loving Fatsia japonica and the perennial grass Panicum virgatum.

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Most of the planting in the garden is new, the exception being the Dicksonia antarctica – an evergreen tree fern, seen here in the pot. “It’s one of three that Malcolm already had,” says Green. “I put the other two alongside the path at the back of the garden by the patio where there is plenty of shade. This one gets lots of sun, but seems to cope OK.”

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A watering system on a timer was installed to help keep the planting irrigated and to cut down on the time needed to tend the garden.

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A few challenges did have to be met to complete the garden.
“The soil needed quite a lot of manure adding to it to aid fertility and water retention,” says Green. “And sourcing good-sized palms, particularly the Butia capitata (jelly palm), which is from South America, took a while, too.”

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This garden is brilliant proof that you can take an ordinary outdoor space and turn it into something exotic. “I really love the finished garden,” says Green. “I had a cup of tea with Malcolm a couple of times, sitting at the patio at the back, and you could barely make out the neighbouring houses. In this space you really feel like you are somewhere tropical and faraway.”

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Rocky borders add to the raw and natural feel.

Have you gone tropical in your garden? Share your photos and experiences in the Comments section.
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