Country & Garden: Urban Jungle: Arsenal: it's a jungle
Saturday 11 September 1999
"Y'know - the old black and white desert scenes with a few big palms in the background behind the tanks - they looked so unusual. We used to go on holiday to Devon and Cornwall when I was a kid and everyone called cordylines palm trees. I think that's where it all started. Now when I go into my garden I want to feel like I'm going on holiday," he explains.
Fifteen years ago, Pat brought back some seeds from a holiday in Portugal. They had dropped from a date palm, part of an avenue lining the walkway to a "posh" casino. "I put them in my pocket and forgot about them. When I got home I found them and put them in an ice-cream box with a light bulb and baked them for three months. Three of them sprouted, so I stuck them in a pot. The really cold winter of 1986 killed two of them, but I've still got one," he says, pointing to a three-foot phoenix palm.
The gardening bug had bitten Pat and although he had been told there was "no chance" the plants he wanted to grow in his garden would survive a London winter, he started to experiment and created what is in effect a "palmoretum".
He started to bring back plants in his luggage from most of his holiday destinations: Turkey, Greece, Crete, Tenerife, Lanzarotte, Gran Canaria. He once baffled the entire Israeli airport security with a plant which sprang out of his suitcase while they were searching it. "I couldn't resist these plants. You just couldn't get them over here then. It's different now - loads of people are bringing them in." Some survived and some did not ("more luck than judgement," he thinks), but it is remarkable how much will last through a London winter. The bird of paradise (strelitzia) Pat brought back from Tenerife four years ago has adapted well and this year flowered profusely. It is in a pot placed inside another pot with some fleece between the two to insulate the roots. He has a sago palm (cycas revoluta) which is left outside all winter after having its fronds cut off, and then brought inside in May to "give it a kickstart".
His jelly palm (butia capitata) with its instantly recognisable backwardly- curved leaves is 10 years old and only two foot tall. "It's been a long wait. That's one of my dreams - an eight-foot jelly palm, but at this rate I'll be dead before it gets as big as me," he says.
He is growing the bushy chamaerops humilis (Mediterranean fan fern) as "three-foot high ground cover" through which his Mexican blue palm (brahea armata) and Washington palm (Washingtonia) peep out happily.
Pat also has a beautiful 25ft eucalyptus nitens, which looks permanently out of focus because of the contrast between the rounded juvenile leaves and the longer, more mature ones. Various bamboos, yuccas, phormiums and a fig - sold to him as a dwarf but which must be at least 20ft - add to the composition. Recently Pat became interested in archaic tree ferns and they are doing really well in a shady area.
His plants all look exceptionally healthy and as we progressed round his garden, he explained how he cares for them. Protection during the winter is crucial for the less hardy, even though in central London there will hardly ever be a heavy frost, let alone prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures. Regular watering and his own "magic juice", made by worms from kitchen waste in an old dustbin, are two further reasons for his success.
His garden is a jungle, but it is also very creative: all the plants have been put together with an instinctive understanding of form, texture and leaf colour. "I've got nothing against flowers" says Pat, implying that they are not exactly a priority. But he does keep a square yard outside the kitchen window, which is dedicated to anything he picks up on one of his more local jaunts which will flower. He has a pond teeming with koi carp up to two foot long. They are like monsters from the deep, occasionally breaking through the duckweed blanket, which is introduced each summer to keep the water clear and hide them from a possible passing heron.
Pat's knowledge has been acquired by talking to other gardeners and nurserymen rather than digging into "how-to" books, but crucially, he has an intuitive understanding of how plants grow. "All these palms and things are so easy to keep. I can come out here any time of year and it'll always look good. Being here is like being on holiday every day," he says.
I left Pat's garden feeling as if I had been on a short break myself, nourished by his enthusiasm, and headed to the airport to catch my flight back to Islington.
Joe Swift can be contacted at The Plant Room, 47 Barnsbury Street, London N1 (0171 700 6766)
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