Photographs: Charles Francis
Queen Mary Gardens
November 2012: A conversation with Donald Martin, public spaces officer at Cornwall Council, and Simon Penna, landscape contracts manager at council contractor Cormac Solutions
Queen Mary Gardens opened to the public 100 years ago this month. How much is known about the history of the site?
Donald: It was originally marshland at the mouth of a river which silted up when Gyllyngvase Beach was developed. The site was transferred to Falmouth Borough Council by the Earl of Kimberley, on condition that it became a public park – but without funding, the work couldn’t be done. Then a lady called Agnes Mary Goldman donated the money. It was Mrs Goldman who opened the gardens in November 1912. They were dedicated to Queen Mary, wife of George V, to commemorate their coronation the previous year.
There can’t be many gardens in Cornwall which are as close to a beach as this one is. How does this location affect the planting?
Simon: We’re able to grow a lot of exotic plants like eryngiums, yuccas and aeoniums, rare things like Puya alpestris, and huge agaves. On one wall we have Vitis cognitia, which produces grapes, but they’re not edible; we grow it more for its foliage, which goes a lovely deep red in the autumn. We also have big palms and monkey puzzle trees, and grass beds with stipas, festucas and miscanthus. In the centre of the gardens, around the pond, there’s a lot of gunnera. The giant leaves protect the tips of the new plants over the winter, then we clear them out in the spring.
Has the style of the gardens changed over the years?
Simon: We’ve reduced the amount of flower beds and replaced them with sustainable planting. We haven’t used pesticides for years, apart from environmentally-friendly slug pellets, and we leave the course of the original river wild. There is a 300-foot herbaceous border around one side, where we have things like agapanthus, sedum, hemoracallis, kniphofia and pulmonaria.
Every four or five years, we lift and divide the herbaceous perennials, which revitalises the border and gives us loads of stock for other gardens in Falmouth. But we still have annual bedding. Two of the beds are designed by two different gardeners – they compete each year to win a roast chicken. The competition is based on votes from people visiting the gardens, which are totted up throughout the summer. It’s been a challenge for the gardeners this year because the summer was so wet, and the bedding plants have struggled. The geraniums have had a rotten time – literally.
Children from local primary schools play an important role in the gardens. What do they do?
Simon: They come here in the spring and design the beds. We tell them about the different plants, and they plant them up. One benefit is that the kids then police the gardens: we’ve had little girls telling teenagers not to kick footballs into the beds. We have now rolled the scheme out to other parts of Cornwall, from Camborne to Saltash.
Donald: It’s a real chance to foster a greater sense of community. The kids who come here take what they’ve learned back to their schools. It’s all part of the Green Flag award, which celebrates public open spaces which involve the community. This garden was one of the first in Cornwall to get the award.
What other forms does this community involvement take?
Donald: There’s a small area at the back of the gardens which local residents are keen to get involved with planting, and local businesses are becoming more and more involved – for the hotels, having the gardens here extends the holiday season. We’ve had everything from wildlife surveys of the pond to Tai Chi sessions here. Everyone involved with the gardens is so enthusiastic, whether they are gardeners or volunteers. They all take a real pride in the site. Falmouth is a national award winner in the Britain in Bloom contest this year, and the excellent feedback we’ve had from the judges mentions this enthusiasm.
What do you think Agnes Goldman would think of the gardens, 100 years after she performed the official opening ceremony?
Simon: I’m sure Mrs Goldman would be very happy. And it’s very satisfying for us to know that we’ve kept the gardens up to the same standard as they were 100 years ago, if not improved them. With Cornwall so dependent on tourism, we have a duty to maintain high-quality amenities like this.