Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2016: One sunny day, a little girl was enchanted by a field of blue flowers. More than 30 years later, garden designer Selma Klophaus vividly remembers the blissful experience of sitting in the blue field on her uncle’s farm in Germany. Selma often asks her clients about their own childhood memories, to help her to create gardens which resonate on an emotional level. “When you think back, you remember certain things, and it’s nice to try and re-create the feeling you had at the time,” she says.
Selma grew up playing in the fields on the edge of the town of Hilden, near Dusseldorf. Both her grandfather and her uncle were farmers; she later discovered that the magical blue flowers were phacelia, a plant sown to feed the soil. While she was still at school, she did work experience with a landscape architect — “I really liked being creative and having a relationship with the outdoors” — and she went on to study at university in Bavaria.
For her work placement, Selma knew she wanted to go abroad. “I had spent some time as an exchange student, in Washington state, USA, when I was 16, and when you have the travel bug, you think: ‘Where’s the next opportunity to go somewhere?’. I knew it could only be an English-speaking country, as I don’t speak any other languages. Then a friend said: ‘Go to Cornwall’. He had been an exchange student here. So I thought ‘Why not?’ and arranged a placement with a small landscaping company.
“I arrived in March in the snow, which was a surprise, as I didn’t think it would snow here. But all the daffodils were in flower, and I remember the coconut scent of the gorse — which reminded me of summer and suntan lotion — and the country lanes with all those hedgerows.”
For her thesis, entitled The Gardens of Cornwall, Selma focussed on Trewithen, the grand estate near Probus, and Pinsla, a cottage garden full of scent and colour on the fringes of Bodmin Moor. “That’s how I started learning about plants I had never heard of, like echiums and aeoniums,” she says. “I also visited other Cornish gardens. I had heard that magnolias could grow into big trees, but I didn’t believe it. Then I went to Caerhays. I never imagined I would have to look so far up to see magnolia flowers.” She arranged a second work experience placement in London, as a contrast to her time in Cornwall. “I didn’t like it,” she says. “I think I’m not a city person.”
After completing her studies in Germany, Selma returned to Cornwall. ’It felt like home. Being able to see the sea whenever you want to means a lot to me. It’s like being on holiday.” She gained several years’ experience with a Falmouth company on a variety of design projects before deciding to set up her own business. “It’s not easy — you have to put in a lot of work and money into it — but if you never try, you never know if you can do it.”
She was offered space for a polytunnel at the Cornish Rose Company at Mitchell. It has given her the opportunity to experiment with agapanthus, which she had started growing at home. “Agapanthus and kniphofia are my signature plants,” she says.
“I do have other plants which I love, like Astelia ‘Silver Spear’, which reflects the light, and I’ve grown euphorbia and artemisia from cuttings. When I plant things I’ve raised, I feel really proud. I really like having the responsibility of looking after a plant, making sure it develops, and knowing that it’s down to you if it works out.”
When she is designing a garden, she likes to carry out the planting herself. “I always put something mature in to get an instant effect, and some short-lived perennials in space needed later for other plants later which will spread. I also like to offer advice on maintenance if people want it, as a garden is always evolving.”
Selma is keen to source material from other local businesses, not just nursery owners, who know which plants will thrive in the Cornish soil, but also a lighting designer and a metal fabricator. “I have had some flowerpots made which are really heavy, so they shouldn’t blow anywhere, and they won’t break, so they’ll last a lifetime. And if I want a granite feature, I go for granite from Cornwall, even if it’s more expensive than getting it from China. It’s nice to work with people here, instead of just getting things from a catalogue.”
She is looking forward to taking part in the Royal Cornwall Show this month. Her stand will focus on agapanthus and kniphofia, but will also feature a small show garden with ornamental grasses, and annuals such as sweet peas. Later in the summer, she will be setting up a sales table at the Cornish Rose Company.
Looking further ahead, she says: “I hope to be able to stay here and design gardens in Cornwall rather than going to London. The nice thing is that every single project I do is different — it always depends on the people and the location.
“I was standing with a client once, in the garden I had created for her. It was a Cornish countryside garden, which blended in with the landscape. There were hedges and tree ferns, palms, rosemary and olive trees. That day, the birds were singing and the sun was out. The client gave me a hug and said: ‘Thank you so much’. It was very moving.”