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Green Thoughts: ‘The Tropic Gardener’

My book, The Tropic Gardener, has just come off the printer’s press. As readers of this column and of earlier pieces in the Phuket Gazette and elsewhere will be aware, I have been writing about tropical plants and their cultivation for some 13 years. This book derives in part from those reflections; it is the culmination both of my own attempts to create a garden in Southeast Asia, and in so doing to offer a written hands-on guide to available plants and their cultivation.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 22 March 2020, 01:00PM

You will be right to point out that there is no shortage of books about the flora (angiosperms) of the region. However, this book seeks to be different. True, it describes and illustrates the most popular ornamental plants in the tropics, not just flowering shrubs but plants grown primarily for their foliage and even those cultivated – mostly small trees, annuals or herbs – for their edible fruits or leaves.

But the word “cultivation” is pivotal: it is the process that this book seeks to emphasise. While the main text offers a detailed written description of tropical favourites, it also reveals how best to grow them – by considering their specific requirements in terms of location, soil, light, moisture, fertiliser and so on. And not just how to raise them in conventional garden beds, but where appropriate, in containers on sunburnt concrete terraces, or indoors where light and humidity are in short supply. Container gardening, widely practised in urban and suburban locations in Thailand, is an art in itself.

For new gardeners, Thailand presents new challenges – climatic challenges in the form of extra heat and humidity, botanical choices in the form of an eye-catching gallery of shrubs, vines and trees. The region boasts 60,000 flowering plant species – perhaps 25% of the global total. It is, however, not just the increased range of unfamiliar plants. Everything grows faster and, by and large, bigger and stronger. A potted plant such as ficus elastica which sits primly in an English lounge, can mutate into a forest giant in the tropics.

Not only are plants more vigorous, after all rainforest trees average 40 metres in height and recover miraculously from apparent desiccation after the first monsoon rains, they also tend to produce larger leaves and tougher foliage to cope with the sun, more brilliantly coloured flowers, and harder frames. Often their sap is sticky and milky. And their cultural requirements vary more – just as they do in the wide-ranging habitats of tropical woodland, where climbers snake up to the airy canopy, while shade dwellers settle for the rich, dank, organic substrate of the forest floor. Horses for courses.

This is a substantial book: it runs to 360 pages and has more than 150 illustrations. Intended as a practical guide, it is robustly bound to ensure its durability. Most of my horticultural books have fallen to bits through excessive use. This one should not.

It will be available from a number of outlets at B995 or at a promotional price of B795 direct from the author. While stocks last, a copy of Phuket Days, my publication about life on the island, will be included free to personal callers.

QSI International School Phuket

A high proportion of the floral illustrations are taken from my own patch. Most entries are given both their common and botanical monikers plus its transliterated Thai name. That information, plus a photograph, should provide adequate identification for any nurseryman or woman. Though the floral display in local garden centres may be spectacular, there is rarely labeling of names or details concerning the cultural needs of specimens.

Most of these plants have been tested in the wind-tunnel of my Phuket garden. And I admit, not always successfully. I have, at relevant points, tried to indicate these gardening gaffes, in the hope that readers may avoid making the same mistakes.

A word about structure. Flowering shrubs, the staple of any tropical garden, constitute the biggest section, followed by vines, foliage plants, annuals, water and marsh dwellers, herbs and vegetables for the kitchen garden, shade plants, ground coverers, palms, ornamental and fruiting trees.

In addition, the book features a series of introductory and wide-ranging essays which I hope will enlist the interest of committed gardeners: on such topics as the migration of plants, the environmental role of our gardens and the conservation of habitats. Basic topics include planning and maintaining your garden, methods of propagation, buying plants, keeping them going in containers or indoors, identifying natural friends and foes in Eden, and so on. There should be something for everyone…

Happy reading – and more important – happy gardening.

Dr Patrick Campbell can be contacted at his home Camelot, located at 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13; Rawai; Phuket 83130. Tel:66 076613227 (land line), 0655012326 or 0857827551 (mobile).

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