Friday, April 20, 2012

A Friday playing hooky at Overbecks

Decided to treat myself to a day off in the working week (one of the benefits of self employment).  Took Maria to work, walked the dogs and then took myself off to Overbecks, a National Trust garden in Salcombe on the South Devon coast.

It's one of my favourite gardens.  Unlike many of the gardens here in South West England the soil isn't that acid so Rhododendrons are not the dominant feature at this time of year.  Instead, the original owner and subsequent National Trust gardeners have concentrated on an interesting mix of southern hemisphere plants and exotics such as palms and bananas.

As with any UK garden, even one in such a mild area (warmer than Plymouth, 25 miles up the coast), the garden is only just coming into growth.  The open ground bananas - mostly Musa basjoo though I've also seen Musa sikkimensis in the past - are still bare pseudostems, the tree ferns - relatively untouched after a reasonably mild winter - have only just started to produce the first of this years flush of fronds; and a lot of the tender perennials they specialise in are still, sensibly, to break from their winter dormancy.  Even so, it was enjoyable to dodge the spring showers and enjoy a sunny day in a garden I haven't visited for a couple of years.

Given the harsh winters we've had recently it was good to see that their large (for the UK) Phoenix canariensis is still going strong at the furthest reach of the garden.   

Phoenix canariensis at Overbecks

Trachycarpus fortunei are everywhere and a nice Butia capitata is increasing in size unchecked, as far as I can see, by recent winters.  Best of all, Juania australis, is thriving in one of the beds below the house.

Juania australis at Overbecks
This is an intriguing palm.  Almost extinct in its native home on the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile it seems to have found another suitable home in the milder coastal areas of South and West England and Wales and in Southern Ireland.  Oddly, for a palm, it hates warm summers and high night temperatures.  -6C to 25C is the quoted range, preferably tempered by humidity from the sea.  Although the Juan Fernandez islands are 33 degrees South the cold Humboldt Current moderates their climate and this endemic palm has obviously adapted to the extent where it is well suited to our mild maritime climate.  Ridiculously rare and, consequently, expensive it's well beyond my pocket - but I can see this elegant feather palm slowly featuring in many more local gardens over the years to come.

I'm always interested in seeing what else of interest will thrive in the favoured microclimate of the terraced gardens of Overbecks.  They grow some Citrus in the ground though I noticed that these have been heavily damaged where they had no overhead protection.  More interesting from my point of view as possible contenders for growing in my warmest border were good plants of the pretty pea relative, Polygala dalmasiana, and Cestrum x newellii.  Both flower for long periods - year round if its warm enough - and are small enough to fit into the available space.  The Cestrum I should grow for sentimental reasons if nothing else.  In September 1973 I'd started a masters degree in Ecology at Bangor, North Wales.  One of the first practicals was a botanical key session - and this Cestrum was the first plant on the list to key out and identify.

Cestrum x newellii

Polygala dalmasiana
As with any garden visit I always come away with a few ideas.  In the case of Overbecks I come away with many.  The first, of course, is to win the lottery and have my own six acre garden.  The second is to add a plant of Astelia chathamica, preferably in the selected form 'Silver Spear'.  I've been meaning to add this for years.  I grow Astelia nervosa 'Westland' as an interesting container plant but the silvery leaves and shade tolerance of A.chathamica suggest some rather interesting possibilities.  No photo - because I forgot to take one thinking I already had stock photos on file - but here's 'Westland' in the garden last summer.

Astelia nervosa 'Westland'
The third is to renew my acquaintance with Beschorneria yuccoides.  I grew this as a container plant pre the severe winters of 2008-9, 2009-10 and 2010-11.  It didn't survive.  But, seeing the plants at Overbecks in full flower I couldn't resist buying the last one from their little plant stall.  £7 for a pretty substantial plant - and, the weather gods willing, it should turn out to this:

Beschorneria yuccoides
One is exciting - half a dozen scattered in the terraces below the house with flower stalks extending to 5ft / 150cm above the rather soft yucca like foliage is gardening on a more expanisve scale.  I'll have to be content with one in my more restricted space.


  1. I was completely taken aback when I saw the Polygala growing happily in this garden. What a fabulous place with such unexpected plantings ... well unexpected for the southern hemispherian gardener who's used to seeing most of these plants growing Downunder. Great place to play hookey.

  2. Another lovely blog post about a garden we really must get to visit! Looks like you had a great day to Overbecks, lucky you!!

  3. Thanks Bernie

    I've admired the Polygala for many a year. Looking at my photo records I've a shot of the same plant taken in January 2005. We've had three harsh winters since then so it must be tougher than it is given credit for.


    Definitely worth a visit if you are down that way. Best in the summer but there is something even in the middle of winter.

  4. I made my first visit to Overbecks last year. A fantastic place and very different to the other sub-tropical style gardens in the South West.

    Good to see that the Juania has come through another winter unscathed.

    Ben (another ex-Bangor student!)