A rumble in the Jungle

Ernest Hemingway had a love of boxing, and cats, the six-toed variety, whose relatives to this day laze around his magnificent Cuban-inspired tropical garden in Key West, Florida.

As the moggies purr on the other side of the pond, here in the UK’s premier exotic garden, dachshunds pad around in nose-dipping homage to their former owner who designed an exotic garden.

In a recent trip to the Florida Keys I was struck by similar aspects to each garden and saw the two proud gardeners – in the ring – battling it out for horticultural supremacy. A rumble in the garden no less?

Who are the contenders? Fighting for the Yankees we have stocky Hemingway, American novelist famous for ‘For whom the Bell Tolls‘. And in the UK corner Christopher Lloyd, a once feisty mid-weight, who took no prisoners with acerbic wit and social pruning at Great Dixter.

The trip to Hemingway’s US home, and a love of exotic gardens, has obviously triggered a fertile comparison of these two very differently designed tropical spaces where we see Miami manliness stand tall against Great Dixter‘s feminine side.

One in Florida, one in East Sussex. Both co-joined by a worldly variety of huge plants. One is a home for cats, the other for dogs: both species offering 4-legged punctuation to the design.

Nobel prize winning novelist Hemingway incredibly had a full-size boxing ring in his garden, embraced his feminine side with cats in abundance – and even a pet cemetery that exists to this day.

So who will land the knock-blow when they mix it up in the Mixed Border? In the Key West corner Hemingway had more height perhaps but in the right corner Lloyd could out-dahlia any man who shuffled, like Muhammad Ali, into his hardy perennials.

For Lloyd, a life-long contrarian, his pet pet was the dachshund – a dog easy to hide in the vegetable garden among the marrows. The original two pets were called Dahlia and Canna captured the friendly (perhaps prickly) spirit of Great Dixter, famed for disposing the ancient roses that inhabited the original Lutyens’ garden.

On our trip to Key West, bougainvillea gave zesty Cote D’Azur brilliance, from a place in the south of France where Hemingway visited often. I wonder, consequently, about the influences forming the  ‘Old Man and the Sea’ author’s oceanic garden space. He had early experiences of nature, and was a journalist before the novels.

In ‘Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners’ Lloyd demanded “big lush leaves and strong shapes are what I imagined to form the bones of my Exotic Garden. Shapes are everything, but colour is also important.” And let’s face it, if Christo had kept the old rose garden, when pruning in his old age it might have been a case of ‘A Farewell to Arms’.

Hemingway’s writing was famously curt and un-flowery. “Use short sentences,” Hemingway wrote. “Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” Christo also had a crisp, journalistic style with a fresh, original, critical approach. Both wrote, occasionally, as if they were in a boxing ring, thumping the hell out of pansies and the ‘helebore bores’.

Stylistically, in Miami the seasons are less changeable with the climate requiring no overwintering. The musa Basjoo stems rising into the heavens and creating tropical tunnels where the cats snooze under dark green ferns. A perfect place for Hemingway to write ‘To Have and Have Not’.

In contrast, Lloyd with his head gardener Fergus Garrett, had an annual pallet requiring a tumultuous June planting of over-wintered tender perennials and annuals. Out came the cannas and softer plants, strategically placed assuming the leaves would expand dramatically.

At Dixter the dizzying fireworks peaked in September with Brazillian Verbena Bonariensis, deep red Castor Oil Rincus plants, the glowing orange of Dahlia David Howard. And then the stronger in situ Musa Basjoo, Arundo Donax, Euphorbia Mellifera, Phormium Sundowner, Tetrapanax Paprifier Rex and the stooled Paulownia Tomentosa.

Both Hemingway and Lloyd loved the elephant ear ‘Taro’ plant or Colocasia Esculenta, Hemingway preferring the huge green leaved variety, while Chriso liked to watch the sweat on C. esculenta ‘Black Magic’ drip like Rocky Balboa’s nose.

As the Spanish bullfighting captured him, during the Spanish Civil War his wife took over garden. The influence of Pauline, is expressed in the swimming pool she had built for $20,000 replacing, to his consternation, the boxing ring.

In their garden the fight for territory, was something Ernest explored in his novel ‘The Garden of Eden’ around the female and male roles in 1940s American society. In the garden she won a knockout blow with the swimming pool. But perhaps the erect, fleshy huge bananas were a sign that he lodged an iron fist back into her southern fried chin.

Particularly so as Hemingway and his contemporaries fashioned the literary climate with F.Scott Fitzgerald, and even James Joyce, a famous drinking partner.


Now these fantasy sparring partners deceased, le exotic remains the topical rock n’ roll of horticulture with an array of sub-tropical plants being able to survive wintery British temperatures.

But the original template for such modern gardening perhaps stems from the botanical gardens, the ships that made transnational travel possible. And the seeds sown and cultivated across the world.


So who would win the World championship?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *