Aiming high

Words: Petra Hoyer Millar

Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar and Ben Halford

Hidden amongst sweeping fields of golden barley, just five miles behind the Suffolk coastline, is Henstead Exotic Garden.

Its creator, Andrew Brogan, vowed he would do something different. And how. He started work just 12 years ago and already the garden is full of drama and brimming with vast architectural plants that reflect Brogan’s erudition, humour and great sense of adventure. “Don’t tell anyone that I work in insurance,” he laughs.

Incredibly, Brogan’s garden is as old as his knowledge of gardening. “I knew absolutely nothing about gardening when I moved here,” he explained. Inspired by various trips abroad, Brogan developed an interest in exotic plants, and so the hobby began. The neighbours must have been jumping for joy with the arrival of bamboos planted so close to the boundaries. “They’re all new neighbours now”, laughed Brogan.

Big and bold

“This is no big girl’s blouse garden,” chuckles Andrew Brogan who expects his plants to survive harsh winters, without mollycoddling. Any mention of fleece and Brogan winces. Admittedly, a small handful of plants are moved indoors over winter but, with space at a premium, the garden has to fend for itself.

Unlike Cornwall the Suffolk coast offers no micro-climate comfort blanket for Brogan. Winters are harsh, but fortunately frosts tend not loiter due to the proximity of the North Sea. The East Anglian conditions are dry and, happily, the soil is free-draining.

Despite the garden’s mature yew and conifer hedges, wind is a problem. “The wind is and remains my biggest headache,” admits Brogan, showing off his newly planted laurel hedge which, like the other wind breaks is immaculately hidden, providing that all-important green backdrop.

Water, water everywhere

The fortuitous relationship with his neighbour at Henstead Hall, who had a penchant for carousing in Las Vegas and ended up somewhat short of funds, meant that Brogan has been able to extend his garden over the years to its current two-acre scale.

Douglas Familoe, a.k.a the Mayfair Playboy, and author of Memoirs; A Tarnished Silver Spoon continued to frequent the glittering Vegas establishments – and the ensuing sales of a “bit more garden” right up to his death at the ripe old age of 96 years.

The various garden extensions have been seamlessly integrated into the design, allowing for plenty of jungle walks and vistas. A substantial amount of hard landscaping has been crucial in creating impact. There are many different levels in the garden including a dramatic valley through which water cascades into lily filled pools. There are three ponds on the plot, linked by the streams and planted with giant exotic marginals, such Gunnera manicata, Rheum palmatum and Musaceae.

Alarmingly it’s not just the plants that are enormous at Henstead. The gunneras seem to be spared, but the rheum’s are frequented on a daily basis by what can only be described as monster slugs. “They’re huge,” explains Brogan, ripping off another masticated leaf.

Giant steps

There are three main sections in the garden. The dry area at the entrance of the garden is planted with statuesque Dasyilrion serratifolium, yucca, lavender, rosemary and self sown Echium pininana. If I was an echium this is where I would want to live.

The statuesque Echium pininana is not just a plant for an exotic garden, but can be a real asset to any herbaceous border. They need a sheltered position being prone to wind and frost damage, and require two years before they produce their famous blue spires. However, as we wandered through the nursery to gaze at his vast collection of echiums, even in their first year, they are very attractive silver plants. Just make sure you remember they will grow about another four foot. Echiums seed prolifically which, in milder parts of the UK, will germinate easily. Beaming proudly, Brogan points at the seedlings that are simply everywhere, even in a wheelbarrow waiting patiently to be potted on.

Even in death, echiums are attractive, leaving behind a woolly stem which is as hard as wood. Cleverly, Brogan leaves the spent stems in the ground, (and not just of the echiums) which really adds to the atmosphere. Not all his visitors think so laughed Brogan who is often confronted with the “that’s dead, needs removal/replacing,” types.

In his garden, the echiums, live happily underneath the true treasures of the garden, three huge Eucalyptus gunnii, which set the scene for the whole garden.

Waterland

The ponds and the water cascade occupy the heart of the garden, which you reach via a deliberately overgrown path that leads up to a hard wood platform overlooking the jungle valley below.

The cascade rises up two levels from the house, the result of much arduous digger activity, with carefully placed sandstone boulders, now hidden beneath ferns and general undergrowth.

The plant collection is staggering. Brogan proudly points at the elegant rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer ‘Rex’, standing tall among the throng. This is a large semi-evergreen shrub with palmate leaves that protrude elegantly from the top of the stem. Eventual height is around six metres, and the plants thrive in moist, but free draining soil in full sun, or partial shade.

Piercing through the valley of plants is the impressively ominous, yet at the same time oddly elegant Pseudopanax crassifolius. A member of the Aralia genus, the pseudopanax is a common site in lowland forests of New Zealand and Tasmania. Tough, dark brown linear leaves with a dramatic yellow midrib, reaching at least a foot long, radiate from a rather spindly looking stem. Brogan’s pseudopanax is still in its juvenile state but one day may well reach up to 17 foot.

Time for tea

The third area in the garden is practical. Apart from the boat, that is.

Brogan has two polytunnels, filled with the results of his expert propagation. There is also an attractively laid out seating area, furnished with vast collection of items that he has either found while excavating the garden, on his travels or just round abouts.

There’s a charming handmade wooden ‘caff’ and a beautifully constructed hardwood summerhouse, which sits in the shade of a dense forest of the striking Phyllostachys vivax ‘aureocaulis’. A lovely shade of yellow, the tall phyllostachys have unusual green markings, as if randomly painted. Passing through the thicket, Brogan can’t resist peeling some of its shedding bark, to reveal the green design underneath. “Isn’t that just beautiful?” he beams.

Plants are offered for sale, all beautifully displayed, and all come with a heart warming amount of information and photographic guidance, collected and taken by Brogan over the years.

Jungle genius

Brogan describes the garden it as, “sticky things with sticky things, and leafy plants with leafy plants”, but that is a massive understatement. The garden looks as if it has been there for years, and is well ensconced in its surroundings.

Brogan’s eye for plants is remarkable. He cleverly combines exotic with conventional hardy plants. Mahonias, Alchemilla mollis and Euphorbia mellifera mimic the shapes and textures of their rather more exotic counterparts.

This is subtle planting and really thoughtful design. If you get the chance do go and see this jungle for yourself. And, I know he won’t thank me for this as his time is limited, but do try to get the tour by the man himself. Apart from his incredible plant knowledge and impressive latin vocab, Brogan is charming and wickedly funny. It’s a joy being in the presence of a gardener, simply passionate about his garden.

Henstead Exotic Garden is open Wednesdays and Sundays from 2-5pm @£3.50 per person, plants sale on site.