Visit an unlikely tropical oasis in Watford

Tropical garden in Watford

The variety of leaf form creates a lushness enhanced by zingy flowers - Credit: Mark Lammin

The small garden of a terraced house on the Grand Union Canal feels more like a rainforest than a Watford suburb thanks to the passion of its owner for all things tropical 

Measuring only 11.5 x 4.5 metres, the back garden of a two-bed terraced house in Watford is a feat of plant engineering. With thousands of densely-packed plants the effect is quite simply stunning, vibrant and totally tropical.

Inspired by his travels, Mark Lammin created what he calls 'Hertfordshire’s tiny tropical garden’ and it’s a place to be enveloped in lush foliage, dazzled by flowers and transported thousands of miles away from suburban Hertfordshire. 

Mark moved here 20 years ago when the garden was a typical cottage-style affair with roses, perennials and shrubs. Ten years ago he discovered cannas, found they were easy to grow, and so began the tropical transformation.

Topical garden in Watford, Herts

The view from an upstairs window, shows the density of planting in the small space - Credit: Mark Lammin

‘I began experimenting with all sorts of exotic plants and found that a wide range suited and grew well in the garden, and carried on from there. We still have some of the cottagey planting - day lilies blend well with the exotics.’

Mark adores the heady scent of lilies in summer, and he grows roses as well as Busy Lizzies annually in hot pink and orange which are perfect alongside the lush tropical foliage.

‘It’s not just about having the right plants for an exotic garden,' Mark explains. ‘It’s also about the feel - the colours, textures and scent – these all combine to create the finished effect.’ 

In the warmer months Mark uses a terrace as an exotic outside office. With its many pots, containers and tubs of various sizes full of vibrant tropical flowers, it's also used for entertaining in the summer when carefully-positioned lighting brings the garden into use in the evenings.

Tropical garden Watford

Reds and pinks pop against the green - Credit: Mark Lammin

Huge banana leaves, tree ferns and Brugmansia flowers add lushness and wow factor, while in summer houseplants are used to good effect including Tradescantia, begonias, spider plants, and Hibiscus.

'They’re perfect to help make your garden look more tropical because they actually grow in the places you’re trying to mimic,' Mark says. 'Virtually anything will enjoy being outside given some shade from fierce sun. We buy cheaply and then give them away at the end of the season.'
Annuals such as Amaranths, Colocasia and Alocasia, Xoleus and Spanish Flag fill any rare gaps.  

Beyond the terrace, Mark and his partner Spencer have kept a small area of lawn which creates a pause to enjoy the planting as well as an area for their adopted dog Suzie to roll around. 

Topical suburban garden in Watford, Herts

A small area of lawn lets you take in the planting - Credit: Mark Lammin

The lawn is surrounded by heavily planted beds including roses, canna, lilies, ferns, Alstroemeria, perennial Lobelia, Salvia, Hemerocallis, Mirabilis Jalapa and fuchsias. The fences have become invisible behind ivy, Solanum, pink and white jasmine, and sweet-smelling Trachelospermum. The shed is hidden behind a mirror, spotted Aucuba and Fatsia. A dead willow at the end of the garden provides an ideal frame for a golden honeysuckle and annual climbers.  

With no room for a greenhouse or even a cold frame, all Mark’s sowing and propagation takes place in the house. From early spring, all the windowsills are packed with pots and seed trays, while Spencer’s office in the spare bedroom doubles up as propagation area.

‘In March, we put up two big trestle tables which act as a planting bench,’ Mark says. ‘These become a conveyor station as plants mature and then eventually go outside to make room for younger plants on the bench. It does become a bit jungle-like in the bedroom as things grow!’

Mark liquid feeds the plants in the garden from May to September, mixing it in the bath and syphoning it down into the garden with a hosepipe. 

Tropical garden in Watford

Part of the huge container display on the terrace - the pots have disappeared - Credit: Mark Lammin

The even smaller front garden, which faces the Grand Union Canal, is laid mainly with gravel with a sunny herbaceous bed to one side. There are many pots full of vibrant tropical flowers, and seating and private areas are created by the volume of planting. Passers-by on the towpath often stop to talk to Mark if he is there and ask questions about the garden.

With all the entertaining Mark and Spencer do, friends and family encouraged them to open the garden for visitors to enjoy, and last summer they opened it for the National Garden Scheme for the first time.

‘I was a bit nervous about showing the garden to strangers,’ says Mark, ‘but when visitors walked into the back garden and found something they just weren’t expecting, the looks on people’s faces was wonderful!’

The first opening happened to coincide with a weekend of rain, but the weather didn’t put people off and over £500 was raised for NGS charities.

You can experience this extraordinary garden first hand this summer too with 12 Longman Close open on July 31 and August 7 from 2-6pm with home-made teas and plants for sale to start your own tropical adventure. 

Mark's five top plants for creating the tropical look 

Fatsia japonica 
With their large, dark green glossy exotic looking leaves, Fatsia add structure even in a small garden, and importantly add height at the back of borders. They can handle direct sun but look best when grown with some shade. We’ve taken the lower leaves off ours, leaving the stems exposed and creating space to put shade-loving ferns underneath.  

Trachelospermum jasminoides 
Fully hardy and evergreen, its glossy dark leaves are perfect for covering fences and walls, happily growing along support wires. Not only does the foliage look exotic, it also flowers profusely from June to August with clusters of small, highly-fragrant white or pink flowers. We have it covering an east-facing fence, some of which is always in shade, and it still flowers.  

Xanthosoma sagittifolium 
If you like the elephant’s ear leaves of Alocasia and Colocasia, you'll love this. It's very tropical, won’t take any frost, and needs a warm room to get started but from a tiny bulb a huge plant emerges with light green veined leaves. It needs space and a lot of water to look its best. We have them in pots at the back of the patio and underplant with lower height plants. 

This is a huge and versatile genus of plant, with an equally huge variety of forms and colour. Impatiens balsamina is very easy to grow from seed even without a greenhouse and produces 2ft tall x 1ft wide plants covered in red, salmon, pink, white or mauve flowers which can be single or double. All impatiens can be kept over winter as houseplants. As we don’t have space we take copious cuttings and store them in glasses of water on windowsills until spring. 

Musa basjoo 
The undisputed king of tropical gardening in the UK - hardy and you can get banana fruits on them although they won't ripen. We’ve had ours over 10 years, and wrap lightly in fleece and move them close to the house for winter. If you lose a stem, new offshoots emerge in spring and as this plant grows so quickly it will soon bulk up. Water and feed liberally – well rotted manure or anything high in nitrogen.