Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'

Photographs: Charles Francis

February 2010: A conversation with owner Michael Stephens

What made you decide to create a winter garden?

I’ve always been enthusiastic about plants which flower in the winter, and I wanted to start with them, and then fill in with spring and summer interest. I think it’s lovely on a winter day to have plants which are bright, colourful and scented. This was once known in the locality as a place to see snowdrops, and there were lots in the woodland, so I was lucky to have this as a foundation.

What’s the history of the garden?

I was born on a farm couple of miles away, and I know this house was once two cottages occupied by mining families. It became a smallholding, and then a nature reserve. When I came here 14 years ago, it was a Cornish valley run wild: brambles and bracken had taken over.

How did you start?

I cut down some giant fir trees, which really opened up the garden. Then I planted rhododendrons, winter cherries and witch hazel. I’ve gradually taken more of the land into cultivation, and now have viburnums, hellebores and mahonias. There are also old favourites like winter jasmine, winter cyclamen and daphne.

Do you have any favourite plants?

Symphytum is a kind of comfrey, which I use a lot as ground cover. It has very pretty, creamy orange flowers.  There are a lot of little treasures hidden away: a ribes with green flowers; the lovely Iris lazica; and an unusual periwinkle, ’Jenny Pym’ with pinky/purple flowers instead of the usual blue.

Iris lazica

Iris lazica

Vinca difformis 'Jenny Pym'

Vinca difformis ‘Jenny Pym’ 

Daphne bhoula is probably my favourite of all. It fills the garden with scent from January to March and you get colour as well.

 Daphne bholua

Daphne bholua 

What are the good and bad points about gardening here?

It’s very steep and a bit of a frost pocket. I can’t grow tender things, because the garden is on the edge of Bodmin Moor and 500 feet up, but on the plus side, it’s very sheltered. There can be a gale blowing at the top of the hill, but down here you’re tucked away. The stream which feeds into the pond is a lovely feature. It dries up a little in the summer, but never fails completely.

What made you decide to open the garden to the public?

Ken Willcocks from Ken-Caro Garden, which is near here, came to look around and said: “Why don’t you open it?”. It gave me confidence to think that someone like him thought it was good enough. By February, people have been cooped up all winter, and I think they’re glad to get out. Last year, the garden was due to open in the first week in February, but we had snow and I had to cancel. I always advise people to check first before they come. The frost may have cleared where they are, but sometimes the sun hasn’t had a chance to get here.

What can visitors see in February?

Daphne; early rhododendrons and camellias; hellebores; winter honeysuckle; acacia. The witch hazels may hang on. There’s also willow with black catkins; lots of snowdrops; and hopefully crocuses, if the mice haven’t eaten them all. On the pergola, Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ starts flowering early in the autumn and keeps going through the winter.

What have you been doing in the garden in the last year or so?

I’ve extended the garden further up the valley. Down below, I have to have shady plants, but at the top, I can plant completely different things. I’d already planted acacia and autumn cherry before I cleared the area, and I now have lots of red willow and dogwoods with coloured bark, which look lovely when they catch the sun.

Prunus 'Autumnalis'

Prunus ‘Autumnalis’

I could have made it into a summer garden, but once you start opening to the public, you want there to be enough to see at the time they come, so I decided to concentrate on winter. Spring isn’t a problem — so many of the winter plants are still flowering. And I don’t worry about summer: the greenery and vegetation are attractive in themselves. 

What are your plans for 2010?

I’m planning to clear more space at the top to lay a circular path, and have a little glade to mark the end of the garden and lead back into the countryside.

Michael Stephens

 There’s one odd corner which will be the final part of the garden. It faces south and I intend to plant it as a secret garden with chaenomeles — early-flowering quince. I have another acre of wood beyond, but I don’t plan to extend into that.

Chaenomeles 'Pink Lady'

Chaenomeles ‘Pink Lady’