A tribute to Will Giles

View to house, balcony, sunflower, hot tropical borders
View to Will’s house, balcony, sunflower, hot tropical borders

Imagine my surprise when i saw a banana in the garden around the time of the death of a hero of the UK’s exotic gardening world who died on 2nd September 2015.

Giles divided his time between working as an illustrator, looking after his garden, which he opened to the public every summer, leading RHS tours in the Caribbean, Japan and Madeira and, latterly, writing books. His publications include The New Exotic Garden (2000) and the Encyclopedia of Exotic Plants for Temperate Climates (2007), which has details of more than 1,500 plants that can be grown outside in Britain and other places with temperate climates.

Will Giles, who died of cancer aged 64, was a freelance botanical artist who developed a passion for exotic plants and created a spectacular tropical paradise, in the centre of wind-swept Norwich, a stone’s throw from Carrow Road football stadium and the old Colman’s Mustard factory. Giles’s illustrations appear in practical gardening books such as the RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening and he made frequent appearances on television and radio gardening programmes. Yet he had no horticultural training, claiming that he had been “too thick to go to horticultural college”.

In 1982 he bought an undistinguished four-bedroom Thirties red-brick house with a half-acre south-facing garden. The garden had a 60ft drop from top to bottom; under its previous owner had become a riot of brambles, nettles, self-seeded sycamores and tall weeds. “I fell in love with the place straight away,” Giles recalled. “I knew it would be perfect for my dream garden.” Working from dawn till dusk, he cleared the ground, and over the following years a raised terrace, vegetable plot and herbaceous borders emerged around a circular lawn.

The Musa Basjoo is a hardy herbaceous perennial that tends to survive in our frosty climes. Known variously as Japanese Banana, Japanese Fibre Banana or Hardy Banana, it’s a species belonging to the genus Musa. It was previously thought to have originated from the Ryukyu islands of Japan, but is now known to have originated from southern China.

Normally I protect the stems with hessian and bubble wrap but over the years I have tended to not bother due to the hardiness of the plants. Moreover, they are easy to buy an2015-09-30 14.08.05d propagate with new stems (or pups) coming up from the roots to produce lots of new plants each spring. I think I have about 15 of these baby bananas and will have to replant them near the terrace for next year.

So after about six years of producing an exotic or sub-tropical garden each year, 2015 was the year to harvest a banana. I think the wet muggy weather helped the Musa Basjoo bear fruit as the exotic garden tends to reach its zenith in September. Other hardy perennials, which go well with the Musa and which also enjoyed a boyuant summer are Arundo Donax and the white variagated version of this glossy grassy plant.

The Verbena bonariensis  wasn’t so high these year and didn’t self seed so well. The Canna Durban didn’t show well nor did the Dahlia David Howard which got attacked by a plethora of slugs – many of which i threw over the wall. They go well with Melianthus major and Phormium Sundowner.imgres

The red banana Ensete v Maurelii – The Red Abyssinian Banana –  is not hardy and is often used, gratuitously, as an annual and composted each season but it is a sad decision to give up on these beautiful plants. However, they require overwintering in a warm greenhouse and if you haven’t the space, well, you haven’t the space. I found that they go well with the ginger lily Hedychium ‘Tara’.

This is the last year for an informal garden as the beds need making more permanent and a water feature is planned for next year. I have planted more Japanese bamboo, more ferns and added the prehistoric Tetrapanex Paprifier Rex – the T-Rex plant with huge leaves. My last tree standing is the grandiose Pawlonia Tomentosa which also has huge leaves if it is stooled.

Will was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and dealt with the devastating news in his own private way. A celebration of his wonderful life will be held today at The Exotic Garden on 4 October at 2pm and Will’s close friends, colleagues and associates are invited to attend.





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