Article Copied from the American Rhododendron Society Blog

Print date: 4/17/2024

Gardens East and West

20 June 2014 @ 09:26 | Posted by John R. Gosden

Although my first job was with the rubber plantation industry in the then Federation of Malaya (now West Malaysia), I lived in houses provided by my employer, and had not yet become interested in gardening, and I now regret the opportunities I missed. However, I did fall in love with the people, culture and climate of SE Asia. After 8 years there, politics and personal reasons made it necessary to leave and return to the UK.

I went to Edinburgh, and the first garden of my own belonged to a ground floor flat (apartment) in a moderately salubrious part of the south of the city, only a five-minute car ride from the genetics laboratories where I was working for a Ph.D. The flat had a small garden area outside the front windows, only about 70 square feet, with a manhole cover over a drain access in the middle. Here was my introduction to gardening, a love that has grown over the last 35 years to become a consuming passion. I began (doesn’t everyone with no gardening background) with annuals - quick returns in color and scent. These rapidly lost their attraction, and, in view of my limited space, I turned to alpines. I even made a garden in a cement bowl, to put on top of the manhole cover! I think my rock garden must have been one of the smallest ever, and my enthusiasm for acquiring new plants rapidly outgrew the space available. I can remember working round the garden by torchlight (like most postgraduate students, I was working all the hours there were in the lab) trying to plant something without digging something else up. Also, despite the poor soil and vicious climate, plants persisted in outgrowing their allotted space. Something would have to be done. Fortunately, this episode coincided with the completion of my Ph.D. and submission of the thesis. I could now look for a job.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) offered me a post as a research scientist in its Clinical and Population Cytogenetics Unit (now called the Human Genetics Unit) based in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. On the strength of the offer, I started to look for a house with a proper garden. This I found about 7 miles south of Edinburgh, in a village called Eskbank. The fact that the MRC unit was on the north side of the city, requiring a commute across the city twice a day, seemed less important than that the house had a garden of nearly an acre, which had been almost totally neglected for about 3 years. The garden was entirely surrounded by a high stone wall, and I immediately had visions of all the exotic trees and shrubs I could grow in that sheltered space. There was also a conservatory on the north side of the house, and a lean-to greenhouse on the south-facing wall of the garden. The climate in that part of the east of Scotland is cold and dry. Frosts can occur in 10 months of the year (only July and August are reliably frost-free) and it has been known to snow in mid-June! Rainfall is low, only 25 or so inches per year, falling mostly in the winter months, and there are frequent cold winds. Temperatures in the worst years, like 1981-82, can go down to -17°C (0°F).

Tall privet hedges (so high they had to be cut from a stepladder) divided the garden internally into three areas. The front garden, to the west of the house, had two broad areas of lawn on either side of the gravel drive, with a broad bed down the north wall. Then there were the "side garden", to the north, and the "orchard" separated from the rest by a concrete path, on the south of which was one of the hedges, with another tall wall on the north. The side garden had a small lawn, but much of the space was occupied by a raised area (perhaps intended for a pool), on top of which 2' X 2' concrete slabs had been laid, alternating with open squares of earth, to make a chess board. Hybrid tea roses had been planted in the open squares, adding further to the Alice in Wonderland effect, though most of the roses had died. The remainder of the garden was largely choked with scrubby Michaelmas daisies (I really don't like most composites). When these were cleared, it revealed a vast quantity of snowdrop and Chionodoxa bulbs, so many they had been pushed out to lie on top of the soil, which augured well for the success of other bulb species.

The raised area was the first to be tackled. Rather than try to remove this structure, I took away the concrete slabs, added quantities of gravel and turned it into a raised bed, to form the center of a rock garden, building up screes and cliffs around the perimeter. I thought that alpines would do well in the local climate. I started with the commoner sorts - Aubrieta and so on, but rapidly became enthused by dwarf bulbs and corms - Narcissus, Tulip, Crocus, Cyclamen, Iris and Galanthus. I also grew a lot of gentians, and primulas, both alpine species on the rock garden, and the beautiful Barnhaven polyanthuses for the ordinary garden beds. Right at the top of the rock garden, against the wall, several species of Juno iris (I. magnifica, orchioides, bucharica) survived for several years, but never increased.

By this time I had been introduced to the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC), whose members were generous both with plants and advice. I am especially grateful to the late Dr Simson Hall, who was not only a keen rock gardener, but also passionate about all flowering shrubs and bulbs, and in particular rhododendrons. It was he who introduced me to the late Euan Cox, founder of the rhododendron specialist nursery Glendoick Gardens, and in turn Euan was happy to take me on guided walks round his beautiful woodland garden outside Perth. My rhodoholicism started with the dwarf species and hybrids grown in and around the base of the rock garden and neighboring areas. These began with the Lapponicums, like R. russatum, scintillans, microleucum, chryseum and hybrids, 'Blue Diamond' and so on, which I was sure would be hardy in the east of Scotland. But I soon (as do we all) began trying to push the limits of what I could grow, so added species like the beautiful R. moupinense (always one of my favorites in all its color forms, white, apple blossom pink-and-white and rose pink) and hybrids like 'Cilpinense', as well as its other parent R. ciliatum, plus the gorgeous R. yakushimanum. You will notice, I am still using the older names - I don't have the energy or mental agility to learn a whole new set! Many rhododendrons, like R. leucaspis and its hybrids, though perfectly hardy in themselves, flowered so early that their flowers were destroyed by frost almost every year.

I planted a whole lot of dwarf conifers, and the ease of these and the dwarf rhododendrons made me consider a suitable plan for the remaining section of the garden - the so-called orchard. This was an area of about a quarter acre containing a few old and diseased apple trees in rough grass, with a row of large lime trees (Tilia europea) down the west border, backed by a brick wall. With the help of Joe Sharp, an ex-coal miner (most of the mines in the district had closed) I cleared the apple trees, trimmed the grass, and erected a chain-link fence across the eastern third of the area. This included a lean-to greenhouse against the south-west-facing wall), and I intended to use this part for fruit and vegetables. The remainder would be a tree, shrub and bulb garden. I had already learnt that herbaceous plants take a deal of care, for which I could not spare the time. I made an exception though for hellebores, as their rich and somber flowers are so rewarding in the depths of winter, and last for weeks. Reading Jan de Graaf's books had fired an enthusiasm for lilies, and I was growing many of these, as well as rhododendrons and other plants from seed. Much of the seed came from the various seed exchange schemes - Alpine Garden Society, SRGC, ARS and so on, but I had also collected berries of many Sorbus species from the arboretum at Westonbirt while on a fall holiday. These were very successful, and fruited early and regularly, as well as providing fine fall color.

My rhododendron collection had already expanded to include all the Cinnabarinum and Triflorum species and hybrids I could find (I believed these would be best suited to the climate, and I love the Cinnabarinum flowers and foliage), as well as several clones of R. edgeworthii (the only reliably hardy Maddenia). I even tried some of the large-leafed species like R.fictolacteum, but they were never happy, even when I could give them a shady position. Just too dry for them. However, a number of Thomsonii species did well in the shade of the lime trees. These included the lovely bowl-shaped R. soulei and R. callimorphum and the yellow R. wardii in several forms. In the open areas I planted all the sweet-scented deciduous azaleas I could get - R. prinophyllum, R. nudiflorum, R. viscosum, R. luteum and R. atlanticum, and as many clones of R. occidentale as I could find.

Then Graham Stuart Thomas's books on shrub roses started me on another collection (especially of the yellow species and near-species like 'Canary Bird', R. ecae, R. X cantabrigiensis and so on), and I got keen on willows, and Camellias and Rubus and tree and herbaceous peonies and honeysuckles, and, and...You know how it happens. Anyway, after about 5 years the garden was getting pretty full. The walls were almost completely covered, with a Mermaid rose having the north-facing wall to itself -the thorns were too vicious to try any pruning: once inside their clasp and you would never escape! The fruit and vegetable section was also well stocked by now - a peach and a nectarine in the greenhouse, and espaliered apples, plums and pears along the wall, strawberries and raspberries (very successful in Scotland) as well as gooseberries and blackcurrants, and even some exotic varieties of potato.

The conservatory on the north side of the house proved ideal for seed raising, but had insufficient light and ventilation for my alpines and bulbs. I built an alpine house (using the concrete slabs taken from the rock garden as footing) in the side garden. This had the great advantage that I could be dry while caring for my plants, and the summer dormant bulbs could be left to bake in comfort if I had to go away. Two hot dry summers, and correspondence with the Aril Group of the American Iris Society (by snail mail - this was before the days of email for everyone) encouraged me to try some of the desert irises of the Oncocyclus group. I built two raised frames (stealing ground from the vegetable patch) and got plants from Israel. The flowers were spectacular, huge things in reds, purples, browns and silvers, with a few pinks and yellows, and they did wonderfully well for a couple of years, but then the weather pattern reverted to its normal showery dull cool summers, and they gradually rotted away. A few of the Regelio-Cyclus hybrids survived for another 9 or 10 years, but never flowered at all freely and when I moved house into town, I gave them to friends in the south of England, who I hope have had better luck with them.

The bitter winters of 1981-82 and the following year, which felt as if we were entering a new ice age, and killed many of my more tender plants, made me realize the problems of commuting in snow and ice. This, plus the cost of heating a big Victorian house, caused me to seriously consider the possibility of moving into town, and I finally surrendered two years later.

The next garden was a reversion to an ordinary suburban plot, though with more space than my very first garden. I moved in a snowy January, with the ground hard frozen. Despite this, I tried to move some of my hellebores and the smaller rhododendrons, and even hunted for the more precious bulbs, though the earth had to be broken with a pickax! I managed to salvage some of the better things, and they sat in the garage until the earth thawed sufficiently to let me plant them. It took a couple of years for me to adjust to the small space, and I still kept bringing home shrub roses that outgrew their space in a season! Eventually I was back to dwarf rhododendrons and bulbs, with my surviving hellebores in among them. One of the most successful rhododendrons was 'Dora Amatais', which flowered regularly every spring, with flowers that withstood several degrees of frost.

This was the period when I started visiting gardens seriously, as my own took less time to care for. There are many gardens in Scotland and England, both privately and publicly owned, open either year round or on specific occasions, and nearly all are worth a visit. I took holidays in the west of Scotland, in Argyll and Sutherland, visiting places like Glenarn, Arduaine, Gigha and Benmore (an outpost of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, RBGE), and later started going to Ireland, particularly the southwest, Cork and Kerry. Here the summer climate was perfect, the landscape idyllic, and the gardens spectacular, and I resolved to look for a house with some land for my retirement. I was encouraged by visiting gardens like Ilnacullin (Garinish) in Glengarriff harbor on Bantry Bay, where the Maddenia rhododendrons scent the whole island in May and June. Fota, near Cork City has a fine arboretum full of tender trees, and Dereen, on the Kenmare river, north of the mountains between Cork and Kerry, has tree ferns better than I have seen them anywhere since the Cameron Highlands in Malaya!

I moved to my 200-year-old farmhouse, with 3 acres of rough bog and grassland 50 miles west of Cork city, in June, towing a trailer full of plants in pots and plastic bags. It was raining when I arrived, and the wind was a cold north-eastern. It barely stopped raining and blowing for the remainder of the year. I managed to get some clearing and planting done round the house, but the bog-land behind the house, with a stream running through it, which I had planned to drain and plant with trees, opening the stream into a pool, remained too wet for any machinery to get in there. The gales steadily increased in frequency and violence, and at Christmas so many trees and power lines were brought down that I was without electricity for 5 days. Fortunately I had a gas cooker, but for water I had depended on an electric pump from my 100 ft well. My neighbors to the west were farmers, with a generator for their pump and milking parlor (this is a dairy-farming district) and supplied me with water by the bucket, as well as inviting me to share their Christmas meal. Good people.

The following spring continued the same pattern of weather, and, having come here to escape the cold of Edinburgh, I felt I had wasted my time. I decided to cut my losses and head back to SE Asia, where I knew I would be warm. Malaysia has changed a great deal in the 30 years since I left, and I knew something of Thailand, so decided to try there instead. That was more than 3 years ago, and I am still here, and still content.

The climate here in Phuket, while similar to that of Malaya (a further 500 miles south) is very different from that of central and northern Thailand, as well as from Europe, and some westerners (farang as they are called here) find it unbearable. It is hot, and, for much of the year, humid. Daily temperatures range from a minimum of 20°C (68°F) in the cooler season (January) or 25°C (77°F) the rest of the year to a maximum of 35°C (95°F), or, on one or two days last month, 37°C. For comfortable sleep you need air-conditioning, but we don't find we need it during the day, unless we have visitors.

We get rain all year round, with peaks in the monsoons in May-June and September-October. During the monsoon seasons we get occasional days when it rains all day, but most of the time even then we get heavy rain showers (sometimes with thunder and lightning) interspersed with warm, sunny periods. Outside the rainy season we get a heavy rain shower once or twice a week - enough to keep everything growing well. Even when it rains, it is never cold! The annual average rainfall is about 90 inches, and we get around 8 hours sunshine a day from November to May, falling to 4-5 hours a day in the rainy season. Further north they have a different climate, with distinct wet and dry seasons. They only get half as much rain as we do, but it all falls between May and October. In the wet season they have floods, and in the dry season the hills burn, lit by sparks from burning rice stubble, carelessly thrown cigarette stubs, charcoal burners' fires, picnickers or even deliberately set, to clear forest for planting. In the wet, it is hotter than here, with temperatures sometimes passing 40°C (104°F), while in the dry it can be cooler than here. In the high mountains of the north, temperatures at night in January can occasionally go down to near 0°C, and frosts are not uncommon. However, the general run of night time temperatures on top of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest peak at 2565 meters, 8000+ feet) don’t go much below 7 or 8°C (46-48°F) though that feels very cold after living in the south!. Daytime temperatures in January run up to 20-30°C (68-86°F) and in July go very much higher.

The soil here is abominable - sticky clay on top of broken laterite rock. Phuket was a major tin mining area, and most of the housing developments are built on the spoil from the mines, with the dredge pools converted into ornamental lakes and water reservoirs. Despite this, it probably won't surprise you to learn that any plants that tolerate our climate and soil grow VERY FAST. I have grown coral trees (Erythrina) from seed sown in January 1999 that are already 20 feet high, with a canopy as much across. Peacock bushes (Caesalpinia) also from seed sown at the same time, have to be cut back every 3 or 4 months and this only stops them flowering for a matter of a week or so. Fiddlewood trees (Cytheraxylon) from 12-inch cuttings are now 12-15 feet tall and covered with tassels of sweet-scented white flowers, loved by sunbirds (the Old World version of humming birds) and huge birdwing butterflies. I could extend the list, but you get the idea.

The ideal rhododendrons for this climate are, of course, the Vireyas, but there is not a single nursery in Thailand that supplies them. Mind you, that is not such a surprise, because the general run of nursery stock is limited to the standards - Bougainvillea, Canna, Allamanda, Hibiscus and assorted palms. The one garden in Thailand that grows Vireyas in quantity is the royal arboretum at Mae Fah Luang, right up on the northern border with Burma. Their plants (some 20,000) were all imported from Australia, but they tell me they do have plans to propagate for sale in a year or two. My plants have also all been imported, from nurseries in Australia, Oregon and Hawaii. I am very grateful to those who have been willing to take on the hassle of dealing with Agriculture Departments (described by one nurseryman as "Gestapo") to get phytosanitary certificates for export, in return for small orders.

I am pleased to say that nearly all of them have survived the trauma of the journey and are alive and growing well. They are all in pots, and I have to consider what to do when they outgrow their containers. The best plan will probably be that used by Mae Fah Luang, where they plant them in shallow saucers, spreading the roots out, and covering with a mulch of pine needles. Here we might have to substitute Casuarina leaves for pine needles, as there are no local pine trees. In the pots they grow in a mix of coconut fiber chunks with perlite, pumice and broken brick - very free drainage! I have also tried a few of the Thai native species, which all grow on the northern mountains, at upwards of 1400 meters. Some have survived and are growing, like R. arboreum, R. lyi, R. simsii and R. surasianum, but others are looking unhappy (R. moulmainense), and some (R. pachypodum) and non-natives (R. nuttallii) have already died. They survived, and even opened new leaves, until the heavy rains started in May, when the leaves started to brown and fall, so it seems to be the humidity that they don't like, not the heat.

However, I now have some 40 Vireya hybrids and species, all growing well and apparently healthy, apart from the depredations of a particularly nasty beetle, about 1-1½ inches long, yellow and gray, which loves to chew holes in newly emerging leaves. There is also a rather unpleasant caterpillar, only ½ inch long, that sticks the leaves together while they are in bud, and lives happily inside, eating away, until the outer leaves open, and reveal a mess of dying leaves inside, and a dead terminal bud. If terminal buds are going to get removed to encourage branching, I prefer to do it my way! I don't really bother much about ordinary caterpillars; they don't do a lot of damage, and they are going to turn into the lovely butterflies and moths that decorate the garden. Some of the caterpillars are quite spectacular in their own right; those of the Atlas moth (a huge cinnamon, pink and silver beast, with a wingspan of more than 8 inches) are about 6 inches long, and a glistening silvery-white. They feed on the leaves of the torch gingers, Etlingera, which always have more leaf than flower!

Other plants that have proved successful are all the Bauhinias I have tried: B. purpurea, B. variegata (in several color forms) B. acuminata, and B tomentosa (only the plain yellow one so far, but I hope to get the two-colored one eventually). My favorite so far is a form of B. variegata of which I collected seed near Mae Sai, on the northern border with Burma. It has pure white flowers with a pink flare on one petal, very strongly and sweetly scented. One of the many attractions of the Bauhinias is that they flower within a year from seed.

I also grow about half a dozen different jasmines. I love all scented plants, and the jasmines are among the best. I am still looking for seed of Jasminum revolutum (humile), the shrubby yellow scented species. I have a lot of climbers (including some of the jasmines) and one of the best is Odontadenia which has long creamy yellow buds, opening to 6-inch trumpets, apricot in the lobes and peach-orange in the center, with a beautiful scent.

Several Passiflora species also do well, and Quisqualis (Rangoon Creeper), with flowers that open white and change to red, needs to be kept in check. Scented shrubs include several Gardenias, Murraya paniculata (Orange Jasmine, Chinese Box) and Wrightia religiosa, as well as a lovely small tree, Millingtonia hortensis with the dull name of Indian Cork Tree. This really ought to be called a tree jasmine, as it has 3-4 inch long tubular creamy white flowers, with a delicious scent.

Pests other than those I have mentioned are fairly few, though fungus diseases are always a risk in the high humidity. There is a rust that attacks the frangipanis (Plumeria) but doesn't seem to bother anything else, and a pink and white fungus that grows on the stems of Hibiscus mutabilis, as well as some that cause leaf-spotting on several species (Phytophthera?). There are other pests that bother people of course - mosquitoes (only at night out of doors) and the odd snake. We had a 5-foot cobra in the garden yesterday morning. The dogs had cornered it and were barking their heads off, and the poor beast could not get out through the dog-proof wire netting. A pity, as we had to kill it (it made a meal for some neighboring gardeners), and I prefer to live and let live. Snakes don't bother you if you don't bother them, and it was only its inability to escape that made it a danger. So all in all, Phuket is a very satisfactory place to garden, though I would like to be able to grow some of the more temperate rhododendrons, and the deciduous azaleas. Still we always hanker after something we can't grow, otherwise we would be moribund, if not dead!