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Education News

Gardening: Suburban savannah

After a trip to South America, Anna Pavord plans to bring a touch of paradise to a very English garden
Yesterday I was in the rainforest of the Pakaraima mountains on the borders of Guyana and Brazil. Today I am in Dorset, England. My body has made the trip back, but my mind hasn't caught up yet. For the past two weeks I've been working with a small gang of doctors among the Patamona people of the northern savannahs. Each of their settlements is five or six hours' walk from the next, so we walked and worked, walked and worked, seeing more than 900 people in seven makeshift clinics.

The Patamona have their own extremely effective plant-based medicines. Without disturbing any of that, the remote area medical team tries to deal with the things that the Amerindians can't. And along the way, we in turn learn a great deal about the things that we can't deal with. Such as going without food.

We carried in as much farina, rice and flour as we could. When that began to run out, the Patamona people showed us how to spin suppers from parrabees, which grew on palms and looked like bunches of brightly coloured dates. Like the Amerindian staple, cassava, they're poisonous until they've been properly prepared. When that time-consuming business is through, you have food that tastes like chestnuts with a dash of asparagus.

Lemon grass was another life-saver and grew in vast clumps in some cleared parts of the savannahs. It wasn't as vital as the parrabees that filled our stomachs, but when infused in the water that we boiled up on a wood fire early each morning it became one of the great treats of the day - especially if there was wild honey to stir into it. As we hauled ourselves up creeper-swagged pitches, as we picked our way like trainee tightrope walkers on logs across the Marmite-coloured rivers, we fantasised extravagantly about the time and the place of our next brew of lemon grass tea.

It is not a South American plant; the clumps we saw must have been introduced at some time by people from the East Indies. Finding the climate much the same as that at home in southern India and Ceylon, the lemon grass flourished. I brought back a few roots, but I've no illusions about making it feel as though it is at home here. It is tender, so will have to come inside for the winter. That means planting it in a pot - most of it. I'm going to try some down in the hottest border of the vegetable garden, just to see whether it grows more freely in open ground. Either way, it will need to be well watered. The clumps we saw in Guyana were practically drowning.

Sun or shade? Full sun seemed to suit the clumps we found growing in the savannahs. We never found it in the darker, shadier environment of the rainforest, so I would guess that full sun and a reasonably rich diet will suit it best. It doesn't get a rich diet growing in Guyana, but I'll be cutting it regularly and the plant will have to work twice as hard as it normally does, to replace what I'm taking away.

I thought briefly about using the lemon grass as a centre-piece in a summer tub, but it's not essentially a decorative plant. It looks a bit like a miniature pampas, leaves up to 3ft long, thin, sharp-edged. Like other grasses, it sends up flowering spikes, but nothing half as showy as pampas. So I'll have to turn to other plants to fill the tubs when the present blast of tulips is over.

I'm glad I got back in time to see them. The ensemble by the back door is wilder than anything that has ever happened there before. The background is provided by three big tubs of wallflowers, a mix called 'Persian Carpet', full of strange tawny purples and browns and buffs. Among these stand pots of tulips, the most outrageous being 'Queen of Sheba'. This is one of the best of the lily-flowered group, with rich, mahogany-red flowers, finely edged with yellow.

'Prins Carnaval' is one of the few tulips strong enough to take the company of 'Queen of Sheba'. It's a good yellow, beautifully flamed with red. It's scented, too, not as strongly as the wallflowers, but with a soft, fleeting smell rather like that of primroses. The third tulip, 'Avignon', is upstaged by the other two, though it is a subtler match for the wallflowers. It's buff in bud, deepening to a complex, soft milky orange. I've now moved the 'Avignon' pots together, with a good buffer of wallflowers between them and their outlandish neighbours. That is one of the huge advantages of pot gardening. You can regroup plants with the minimum of fuss.

But what plants can I turn to for a summer display in these tubs? When I left for Guyana, three window ledges in the house were already packed with young plants and pricked-out seedlings. The petunias have come on well, each plant in its own 3-in pot. 'Purple Wave', a free-flowering, vigorous trailing petunia, will do well in the tubs outside, perhaps interleaved with the small-leaved grey Helichrysum petiolare. The petunia is too boisterous to risk with the Lobelia richardii coming on now in pots inside, though it would look good with the intense blue of an ordinary bedding lobelia such as 'Crystal Palace'.

Lobelia richardii, an evergreen perennial, will probably partner the soft apricot-coloured double nasturtium 'Margaret Long', kept going from cuttings taken last year. Neither this nor the double-flowered red nasturtium 'Hermine Grashoff' set seed, so soft cuttings, taken like geranium cuttings, are the only way to propagate. The lobelia/nasturtium duo on its own might be too sleepy. And too droopy. The pots they are in will need an upright centre-piece. Antirrhinums, perhaps? Either bronze or deep burgundy. Or nicotiana 'Lime Green'? There are four trays of those coming on. It's so hard to throw away seedlings, even when you know you have pricked out far more than you need.

For the courtyard, there are a few Lotus berthelottii which, I hope, will pour themselves over the front of a big iron manger. The leaves are tiny threads of soft grey, and they are more important than the flowers, which come very late in the season, the colour of burnt caramel. With them, yellow daisy-flowered bidens (sown on 8 March) and perhaps some rudbeckia. The bidens will provide more than enough yellow. But the tulips will reign for another couple of weeks yet. I shall be sorry to see their season go.