The Tropic of NORWICH; (1) CHILDHOOD DREAM: Will, Left, Has Planted Big-Leafed Plants and Spectacular Cacti, Right (2) HIGH POINT: The Steep Site, with Its Treehouse, Creates a Microclimate Where Tropical Species Flourish and Will's Cats Can Roam, Top Left

Article excerpt


Gaze down from the timber veranda that runs round Will Giles'scolonial-style homestead and you are in a tropical land. Before you is a jungleof brightly coloured bromeliads, palms, Swiss cheese and towering bananaplants.

But this exotic paradise is not in Hawaii, Indonesia or Singapore, or even amild coastal region of the UK that is warmed by the Gulf Stream - it's in thecentre of Norwich, a stone's throw from Carrow Road football stadium and theold Colman's Mustard factory.

'When people come for the first time, their jaw just hits the ground. It'swonderful to witness,' laughs Will, 57, who has spent the past 25 yearscreating this amazing space.

The half-acre garden, which is open to the public, occupies a steeply slopingsite that basks in the sun and is surrounded by tall trees. This produces asheltered microclimate that makes it possible to grow many showy exotics toperfection, including masses of canna lilies, Angels' Trumpets andspicy-scented gingers.

Most of the plants are left in the ground all year round, but Will enhances thespectacle by 'bedding out' more tender plants temporarily in the summer andreturning them to the greenhouse in the autumn.

The garden is now breathtaking, but the plot he bought from a spinster in 1982looked unpromising. It had a 60ft drop from top to bottom and was incrediblywild, consisting mainly of self-sown sycamores and tall weeds.

'I fell in love with the place straight away. I knew it would be perfect for mydream garden,' says Will, whose passion for exotic plants stems f r o mchildhood. 'My grandmother took me to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Iloved all the bigleafed, tropical plants in the glasshouses. I decided I'd tryto achieve the same look here, but by using plants outside.' Will divides histime between looking after the garden, leading garden tours to far-flung placesand writing books. He is the author of The New Exotic Garden and the recentlypublished Encyclopedia Of Exotic Plants For Temperate Climates, which hasdetails of more than 1,500 plants that can be grown outside.

A network of narrow gravel paths, steps and terraces tame the hilly garidea itto look Will, who Eappen is filled on little cacti and aeoniums, and an padsYou den. At the highest point, at the very back, is Will's latest feature - anItalianate loggia and a mock- Gothic ruin. 'I've always wanted a folly and havedesigned it to look like a bit of a wreck,' says Will, who shares his gardenwith cats Lawrence, Dog, Havana, Genghis, Eappen and Fink.

Immediately in front is his xerophytic garden. This large, raised bed is filledwith plants that will thrive on little or no water, including many cacti andsucculents. It has several aeoniums, agaves, aloes, money trees and an opuntiacactus, which has oval pads studded with golden bristles.

You might think these plants need to be taken indoors over winter but Willleaves them out all year.

'Cold temperatures aren't a problem - their greatest enemy is winter rain,' hesays. 'I've added lots of gravel to the soil to make it extremely free drainingand to prevent plants rotting in winter. I put some metal poles in the bed anddrape a sheet of polythene over the top to keep them dry.' A key feature of thegarden is a towering treehouse Will built in the open boughs of a majestic oak.

Reached by a long ladder, it is the ultimate relaxation space, with rugs andcomfy cushions. It even has an upper floor with a bed. 'This is a great placeto chill out. I come up here to collapse after a busy day,' he says.

From the treehouse there are amazing views over several groves of imposingbananas, tree ferns, clumps of huge leaved coco-yams and a curved Victorianpergola dripping with hops, kiwi fruit, evergreen Clematis armandii andaristolochia. …