Photographs: Charles Francis
September 2016: There are Jerusalem artichokes growing above the beach, along with rhubarb and raspberries, sorrel and chop suey greens. This is the Porthminster kitchen garden, created on a sloping patch of wasteground between award-winning Porthminster Beach Café and the South West Coast Path.
“I think of the garden as a potager, where everything looks good, but also has multiple uses,” says gardener Polly Carter. “It’s interesting having herbs and edible weeds in with a bed of cultivated flowers. A lot of people don’t realise how many plants you can eat. Cornflowers are edible, as well as being a lovely cut flower and a garnish. So is sweet William, which has a peppery flavour.”
Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
In deciding what to plant, Polly works closely with the restaurant’s executive chef Mick Smith and head chef Ryan Venning. “There’s a lot of lemon balm, because the chefs like to throw it in with mussels,” she says. “They stuff blackcurrant leaves as you would a vine leaf, and also stuff courgette flowers, so the variety we grow is ‘All Green Bush’ which is good for sturdy flowers. I’m going to plant the creeping thyme ‘Doone Valley’, as it has large flat leaves which the chefs like.”
Courgette ‘All Green Bush’ flower
The kitchen garden took root nearly 10 years ago. Mick and his team battled with brambles and Japanese knotweed, carved terraces from rock and dug beds. “We tried to grow different things on different levels,” he recalls. “We started with courgettes and leeks and other things that are easy to manage, and watercress along the stream which runs through the garden.
“Suppliers used to swear to me that certain things — like Japanese mint — couldn’t be grown locally, so I decided to grow them myself. By cooking things straight from the ground, you get a freshness of flavour you don’t get from buying things in punnets from Holland.”
Yet within a few years, weeds began to invade the garden again. “We let it go a bit one year,” Mick admits. Then, three years ago, Polly turned up. She had just finished a National Trust traineeship in countryside management, and had also worked in a walled garden at the trust’s Penrose estate and completed a course in productive gardening at Trengwainton Garden. “I live in St Ives, and I used to walk past this garden,” she says. “One day, I went into the restaurant and said I’d love to bring it into cultivation.”
That winter, Polly spent several hours a week clearing and cutting back. Elegant purple echium spires had become a strong architectural feature of the semi-neglected garden, but the plants were self-seeding everywhere. “I didn’t want to cut the echiums down, so I gardened round them, but that’s not ideal in a kitchen garden, so I started moving them. Day lilies were also dotted all over the garden, so I put them all in one place.
“I planted chives at the edges of the beds — a traditional kitchen garden thing — to give shape, and annuals like calendulas and cornflowers to wake the garden up,” Polly explains. “I decided to have Fuchsia ‘Riccartonii‘ on the edge, to create a boundary hedge, but keep it low, so people can still see the garden.” Naturally, ‘Riccartonii‘ is an edible variety — it produces large, sweet berries.
She has a set of wheels — known as Polly’s Trolley — to transport plants destined for the kitchen garden from her own garden, which is nearby, but up a steep hill. “I also use the trolley to collect seaweed from the beach, to use as a mulch — we get masses of it sometimes at high tide. People talk about the challenges of coastal gardening, but there are also benefits: no frosts and plenty of seaweed. Mediterranean herbs love it here.”
Tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum ‘Magentaspreen’)
Polly, Mick and Ryan were keen to trial some exotic herbs — Asian seafood is one of the restaurant’s specialities. “Chop suey greens have been very successful,” says Polly. “They’re a type of chrysanthemum, and I’ve used some as cut flowers. Shiso is another Asian plant, used in Japanese cooking as a condiment. It’s an annual with frilly red leaves which can also be used as a filler in decorative borders. Korean mint has lovely flower spikes, and a liquorice flavour.
Korean mint (Agastache rugosa)
“Something I’m going to try this winter is miner’s lettuce — claytonia — as it likes cooler conditions. In the future, I’d like to see as much soil covered as possible, in a permaculture fashion. The traineeship I did in countryside management really influenced how I garden, and made me more wildlife-conscious. Nasturtiums are good for taking over weeds, and bees love them. Lovely blackbirds nest here year after year, and there are lots of robins — and seagulls. I have to eat my lunch under the trees at the top of the garden, so the seagulls don’t get it!.”
It is this area, sheltered by sycamores and with a seagull’s eye view of the whole garden and the golden beach beyond, which is currently the focus of Polly’s attention. “I’m going to replant the top bed with Moroccan mint, which is a favourite with the chefs. There are already Jerusalem artichokes there, and flat-leaved parsley, which likes dappled shade and a bit of moisture, so this is an ideal site, under the trees. The parsley, mint and Jerusalem artichokes are all vigorous, so it will be a battle between the three.
Jerusalem artichoke and Echium pinniana
“I’ve also planted daffodil bulbs up there. Although you can’t eat them — in fact, they’re poisonous — they’re part of the Cornish landscape, and give a wash of yellow in spring. Whatever the season, the garden makes quite an impact for people coming to St Ives on the coast path from Carbis Bay. One of the special things about it is that it’s part of the landscape. It’s not my garden: it’s everyone’s garden.”
It is the echiums which still attract the most attention: Polly reckons that between five and en people a day ask what they are. She is now selling seedlings, with proceeds going towards the purchase of more plants. In a year or two, she hopes Porthminster Beach Café will be sent photos of giant echiums thriving many miles from St Ives — mementoes of a magical Cornish holiday.