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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?