Photographs: Charles Francis
September 2017: Subtropical plants have flourished in the sunshine and shelter of Tresco Abbey Garden for well over a century — but 30 years ago, the island paradise suffered catastrophic damage when ferocious winds battered Britain. Tresco was one of the first places to be hit by the Great Storm of 1987, and by the early hours of October 16, 90 per cent of the Abbey Garden’s trees had been felled.
Some of the hundreds of lost trees were part of the original shelterbelt of Monterey pines and cypresses planted by Augustus Smith when he established the exotic garden among the ruins of a 12th century priory, after leasing Tresco from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1834. Other specimens dated from the days of his nephew Thomas Algernon Dorrien Smith, who enhanced the plant collection.
Head gardener Mike Nelhams must surely have been devastated by his first sight of the ruined garden. “I couldn’t quite believe so many plants had died so quickly and in such profusion,” he says. “But I don’t do devastated — it’s not in my nature. Something is always happening to a garden — whether it’s disease or trees falling down in a storm. You just never know when it’s going to happen.” Just over two years later, the Burns Day storm of January 1990 wreaked further havoc, and some of the trees which had survived the earlier storm toppled over newly-established plants.
Even after this second disaster, Mike did not despair. “It was exciting to have the task of putting the garden back together. I knew it would be hard work — but we have links with the best gardens around the world, and many wanted to help. The Dorrien Smiths are a well-known horticultural family across the world, and having trained at RHS Wisley, I had lots of contacts. Kew Gardens were very generous. We collected lorryloads of plants from them — more than we asked for. Bringing them back to Tresco was quite a difficult process, but still very satisfying.”
Photograph: courtesy of Tresco estate
Thirty years on, the garden is as glorious as it has ever been, and is now home to plants from over 80 countries. As Mike says: “Tresco is quite extraordinary. Even in winter, there are more than 300 different plants in flower — they start in September and just keep going. We’ll have plants from both sides of the southern hemisphere in full bloom. Australian gum trees — Eucalyptus ficifolia — and South African amaryllis are the two things which bring the garden alive in September, because we have so many of them. You’ll find plants from the southern hemisphere in some Cornish gardens, but we have them all together, from 40ft plants from the Canary Islands to great clumps of South African succulents. And because we’re an evergreen garden, it’s not just about the flowers but also the leaf shapes.”
Five generations of the Dorrien Smith family have lived on the island, and all have made their own contribution to the garden, says Mike. “Many of the planting records have been lost, but we do have some from the 1850s. There is also an old card index from the 1960s. In 1987, we were going to put all the information on computer — but then the storm came, and we had to concentrate on restoring the garden.”
Mike arrived on Tresco in 1976, as a student on a scholarship from the Studley College Trust. “I came for a year, but I stayed for two and a half years, because I didn’t want to leave,” he recalls. He went on to run the garden at High Beeches in Sussex until he was asked by Robert Dorrien Smith to return to Tresco as head gardener in 1984. He now has the title of garden curator.
Every year, three Studley College Trust scholars come to the island, just as Mike once did. “It really assists us to have them here, because we only have a small team,” he says. “Every couple of years, I take the whole team to Italy, to the Hanbury Botanical Garden — Tresco had links with it in the 1860s and 70s, when there was a plant exchange. Going to a garden which is comparable to Tresco really enthuses the gardeners and the students, and they come back with lots of seeds and fresh ideas.”
Plans for the next few months include creating a wildflower meadow by the garden’s beehives, and clearing out areas of the top terrace to make space for South African and Australian proteas. “The beginning of the autumn is when we start to look at re-landscaping,” says Mike. “If a 100ft bed is looking tired, we re-do a section at a time: if you put in young plants without protection from established plants nearby, they’ll all wave around in the wind.”
He is delighted that Tresco has become a magnet for cruise ships: there were 35 in 2016, and this year, there are likely to be more than 60. “We have a lot of nationalities — American, French, Australian — and people often say they chose the cruise because it came to Scilly, which is nice. It’s also nice for our gardeners and students to help with guided tours.”
Mike now leads garden tours all over the world. “In the last few years I’ve been to Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and California. I wander round wonderful gardens, have a few glasses of wine, and point out a few plants. It’s such fun to be able to take your work on holiday. I never realised that being a gardener would give me the chance to travel the world.”
He certainly never imagined that he would become an air traffic controller, a role he took on in the days of the Penzance-Tresco helicopter link. The service finished in 2012, but Mike is confident that current proposals to reintroduce it will go ahead. “It will help the garden tremendously,” he says. “We used to get 5,000 people a year coming on the helicopters, and I’m looking forward to them coming back.”
September sees the start of the Tripos Programme, a practical course which Tresco is running in conjunction with the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. “The programme will give two students the chance to work in all three gardens over a year. We’ll be mentoring them and assisting them to move into the next stage in their careers,” Mike explains. “More than 50 per cent of the people we interviewed were career changers, some in their mid-40s. It’s extraordinary — but maybe not, when you compare sitting at a computer for eight hours a day with being outside in the open air, doing something you really like.”