Nick Wilson has helped raise thousands of pounds for charity with his ‘jungle garden’ but this year will be his last. He tells Neil Hudson why
The idea of having a tropical garden in the heart of Leeds might seem somewhat incongruous (we just don’t have the weather) but that’s precisely what software salesman Nick Wilson has created.
What he has achieved at his garden in Gledhow Wood Avenue is something of an oddity. So much so it has even garnered national attention, being featured on television and in the national press.
For the last five years, he has opened the remarkable ‘jungle garden’ to the public twice a year and helped raise thousands of pounds for charity in the process. Last year, he raised almost £2,000 in just one day. But this year will be his last.
“There’s only me looking after and maintaining the garden and it takes up an awful lot of time. If you are having members of the public round, I like everything to be what I call ‘leaf perfect’. But more than that, I have to inspect all the decking and walkways, jetwash all the algae off them, sometimes I have to replace timber joists and that takes a lot of time. Sometimes my wife tells me I spend too much time in the garden and I know I do. So, as much as I love it, this will be our last year of opening to the public. If I am in the garden, then we miss out on time together.”
Nick has been fastidious in creating and maintaining his jungle garden over the years. His love affair with gardening came about almost by chance, during a family holiday in Cornwall.
“When we moved in, the garden was a lawn and three borders and a garage, much the same as anybody else’s. Over time, because we used to go to Cornwall for holidays, there’s an awful lot of sub tropical gardens down there. So, we started visiting them and I was romanced with the idea of large jungly plants. The first gunnera we bought in the 90s, we cut the leaves off, strapped it into the car and the jungle journey had begun. I wanted to create the same kind of jungle atmosphere here they have down there in those deep ravine valleys.”
He’s not done a bad job either. Some of the plants in his collection are so big you can walk underneath them.
“The gunnera comes out of the ground from hardly anything and in about 12 weeks, it has stems about 8ft tall and leaves 7ft across. You can walk under it.”
Nick, 61, who is married with a grown-up daughter and a grandson, has become something of a gardening expert over the years and is able to quote the Latin names of all his plants, among them phyllostachys nigra (black bamboo), trachycarpus fortunei (the Chinese windmill palm) and fatsia japonica (paper plant).
Remarkably, though, many of the plants in his collection are ordinary house varieties.
“People often come to visit and recognise some of the plants as being in their own gardens. I have no green house, so its what will survive an English winter with a bit of protection and wrapping. At the end of May we supplement some with big leaf bananas and cannas (large flowered plants). Just as people go out and buy bright pretty flowers for hanging baskets, we go to the houseplant section, with bright zingy flowers. I put those in on the ground because that more mimics a jungle.
“The selection of plants is for a cold hardy tropical garden, so that they look tropical and give you the air of a jungle but they survive a British winter, down to minus seven. When it got to minus 15 in 2010/11, I did lose quite a few plants, because a lot give up the ghost at minus 10.”
Listening to him talk about plants and how he arranges them, it’s almost like listening to an artist discussing the composition of a painting.
“It’s the choice of leaf shape, colour, texture and foliage. When you stand and decide where to place the next shrub, it’s like trying to organise the wings of a stage set. I have to consider that as I go all the way round the garden, from different view points, because unlike the audience in a theatre, mine move about. There are some quite large trees, then smaller trees, then middle section, smaller section and then house plants on the floor. It’s a tiered, layered effect.”
Nick became interested in gardening when he moved into his old house, which was on the other side of Easterly Road and had a large garden.
“It was on the end of a row and had a funny triangular-shaped garden, which was lawned almost right up to the house. I remember thinking, as this was in the 1980s, I needed a patio. There was no internet back then, so I went to Oakwood Library and got out a load of books, took them home and read them for three weeks, then took them back and got some more.”
He has managed to amass a personal collection of over 300 gardening books, which he says can answer pretty much any question, but he adds that he hardly ever uses them anymore.
“I have all those books but nowadays you can just type questions into Google.”
Nick’s garden is listed in the National Garden Scheme (NGS) Yellow Book, which has over 3,700 gardens to visit nationally. He also opens to raise money for Roundhay Environmental Action Group, with the funds going to St Gemma’s Hospice.
So what will become of the jungle garden after this year?
“I will still maintain it,” says Nick. “Just not to the standard I do now. We have opened the garden for charity for about five or six years now, so we are really only relative newcomers.
“I do find it relaxing while I am doing it but at the same time it’s a job I have to do and while I am doing it, I am not with my wife. So this will be the last year for us and it will give us more time to spend together, to go visit other places and go on holiday.”
The dates for your diary, to see the final opening of the Leeds Jungle Garden, are June 24, noon-5pm and July 29, 11am-5pm.
Roundhay Environmental Action (REAP) was formed to tackle environmental issues in the area. They founded Oakwood Farmers’ Market and help with gardening and recycling projects
The National Garden Scheme (NGS) funds nursing charities across the country and has donated over £50m so far for causes like MacMillan, Marie Curie and Parkinsons UK. They have 3,700 gardens, a tradition which dates back to 1927, when it raised £8,000 by opening 609 gardens to the public