Tropical prints are 'in'. To be regarded as fashionable right now you must parade in swathes of foliage or flower or both. And it's not just what you wear - our new bedroom curtains are a 1970s throwback, featuring palm and banana leaves.
We chose the curtains to complement a balcony scheme which I will plant over the next few weeks. Inspired by a recent visit to the Ernest Hemingway home and garden in Florida, I will soon pot up a green arrangement of plants which rely primarily on their foliage to thrill.
In Key West, Hemingway created a wide first floor verandah circling his home. Glazed doors from every room allowed his family to appreciate the lushly planted garden from a height. Palms, bamboos, figs and bananas garland the property, creating a luxurious green scene.
Incredibly many thousands of miles away in many parts of our small, damp and colder island we can replicate the Hemingway plot with a mix of exotic-looking, hardy greenery. And, as our fashionable friends are pointing out, architectural styles of planting are on their way back in. Gardens which don't rely on flowers for interest can be extremely satisfying if you prepare properly and achieve the right mix. Below are my top five exotic favourites which will thrive in Ireland and add a touch of the jungle to your backyard.
1 Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
If you’re going to go all out exotic with a planting scheme, the one plant you need to have is a palm tree. This species of Chinese origin was first introduced to these islands in 1843. It must have appeared so alien to those used to common, gentle shrubs and flowers. It likes a moist but well-drained soil, in sun, and could reach heights of over five meters with a hairy brown trunk and bold dark green foliage. However, it prefers a sheltered spot as it can’t take a windy site.
2 Japanese hardy banana (Musa basjoo)
For the true taste of Florida and the Caribbean, why not have a go at growing a banana tree? Technically this is a herbaceous perennial, but if placed in a sunny, sheltered site (with some midday shade), and fed and watered regularly, it will shoot up, producing paddle like leaves of over a meter in length. After some dramatic summer flowers, it may produce some fruit, which won’t be edible. Take care of the plant during all but the mildest winters by mulching the roots with farmyard manure and wrapping foliage with horticultural fleece or dressing in a coat of insulating straw.
3 Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)
I’ve just finished planting groves of these bamboos in a garden in southern Cork, and, as long as the receive plenty of water, they will thrive. When mature, they form large clumps with evergreen foliage. Their stems, which start off a green colour, take on an black oriental, lacquered look with age. They arch gracefully if you give them enough space and, provided you water regularly, they can do well in pots.
4 False Castor Oil plant (Fatsia Japonica)
This commonly grown shrub, which is native to Japan and South Korea, is an excellent choice for difficult, dry and shady areas. In fact, it’s almost indestructible. Reaching a height of up to 10ft when happy means that you could certainly meet its gaze at first floor height. Its leaves are large and glossy, in the shape of the palm of your hand, and it produces creamy white flowers towards the end of the year. It will look wonderful in a large pot or urn, and if it gets too big, just chop it back and it regenerates beautifully.
5 Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia Antartica)
Originating in Australia and Tasmania, this dramatic plant has become a firm favourite with Irish gardeners — first in the Victorian era with dedicated plant people and again, about 15 years ago, by TV garden designers on makeover shows. And it’s easy to see why, given its wonderful crown of foliage on stout almost spongy trunks. In a sheltered spot, it’s easy to cultivate. Hardy to minus 10, both the trunk and the foliage require plenty of moisture and you will be rewarded with regular foliage misting with lush fronds which unfurl dramatically from the central stem each spring. Edge of woodland-type shade is its preferred position and great examples can be seen throughout grand Kerry gardens such as Kells Bay and Glanleam on Valentia Island.
● Early potatoes, planted around St Patrick’s Day, should be ready to harvest around now. Enjoy them. For the crops still swelling underground, continue to ‘earth up’ the shoots.
● Harvest salad crops now and sew more to ensure a succession of fresh leaves through the summer.
● Sew runner beans directly into the warm ground now.
● It’s warm enough (we hope!) to plant out tomatoes, courgettes and sweetcorn. But keep an ear on Jean Byrne’s weather forecast in case she tells you they need a swift covering of fleece one evening to protect against late frosts.
● Use cabbage collars to prevent a cabbage root fly attraction when planting out.
● Pinch out side shoots from tomato plants and feed once you spy the first fruit.
Recently taken over by Arboretum garden centre, the National Garden Exhibition Centre at Kilquade, Co. Wicklow, has permanent show gardens to inspire small plots. gardenexhibition.ie