Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2017: There is no species of euphorbia named after Mozart — but a woman who visited Christopher Harvey Clark’s Hampshire garden several years ago may still be searching for this mythical variety.
On the morning before he opened his garden for the National Garden Scheme, Christopher had been listening to a piano concerto by the great composer. Hours later, the visitor asked him the name of the variety of euphorbia which had caught her eye, and rather than confess his ignorance, he told her it was called Wolfgang Amadeus. “How interesting!” she replied. Christopher has this year taken on the role of county organiser for the NGS in Cornwall, and is amused to reflect that his involvement with the organisation began with the naming of a non-existent plant. “The lady was very intense and intelligent, and I had to think very quickly on the spot!” he recalls.
Christopher, a QC with many years’ experience, and his wife Wendy, a knitwear designer who has an international clientele, came to live in the Roseland Peninsula in 2012, when he was appointed as resident judge for Truro. “I enjoyed dispensing justice to the Cornish — but nearing my 70th birthday, I was acutely aware that I would have to retire,” he says. “One weekend, I was playing golf with my friend Bryan Coode, and he asked me if I would be interested in taking over this role with the National Garden Scheme.” He thought about it over the next six holes. Then he had his best drive of the day — and Bryan had his worst. Feeling sorry for his friend, Christopher decided to take up the offer.
“It seemed to be the kind of task I would really enjoy in retirement — learning about gardens and appreciating plants more carefully than previously, and enjoying the company of gardeners. I have discovered that they are all terribly interesting and nice people, and it is a joy to meet people who are enthusiastic about something I know nothing about: working out where plants are going to go and colour combinations. It is fascinating stuff.”
The National Garden Scheme was launched in 1927, and encourages owners of beautiful and interesting gardens to raise money for caring and nursing charities by opening their gates to visitors who share their passion for plants. Nearly three million pounds was raised last year, including half a million each for Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and Hospice UK, and £375,000 for the Carers Trust, as well as substantial donations to the Queen’s Nursing Institute, Parkinson’s UK and the MS Society. Overheads are kept to a minimum, so visitors have the satisfaction of knowing that almost all their money goes to worthwhile causes — as well as the opportunity of enjoying delicious home-made cakes.
“The NGS depends on the goodwill of garden owners being prepared to open their gardens for charitable purposes,” says Christopher. “The co-ordinator’s role in each county is to ensure that there are gardens open to the public on different days, and that the quality of the gardens is good enough for people to enjoy walking around them. I have a team of assistant county organisers who are very knowledgeable, and they ensure that gardens merit inclusion within the scheme. If they feel a garden is not quite up to the mark, they encourage rather than discourage.“
Nearly 60 Cornish gardens are opening under the scheme this year, from Ince Castle on the banks of the River Lynher, near Saltash, to clifftop Chygurno in Lamorna in the far west. “My task will be to maintain support for the NGS, and if possible, increase the turnover,” says Christopher. “I have been talking to half a dozen garden owners about opening next year. Another possibility is for gardens which are already on our books to open more often. Some are thought of as spring gardens, but they often have enough of interest to open later in the summer.”
This year sees the 90th anniversary of the founding of the NGS. This special occasion will be celebrated nationally during the last weekend in May, and in Cornwall, there will be a varied choice of gardens to visit: the spectacular steeply-sloping garden at St Michael’s Mount, where subtropical species cling to the granite castle walls; tranquil Bodwannick Manor Farm at Nanstallon with its deceptive air of antiquity (it is actually a late-20th century garden), and three contrasting gardens in the delightful hamlet of Chapel Amble near Wadebridge.
“Bodwannick is new to the NGS this year,” says Christopher. “Another new one is Sea View at Treligga, near Delabole, which is open by appointment in June and July, and is described as an imaginative garden in a remote coastal hamlet, not far from the cliff edge. It is one of many gardens I have yet to visit — but I have promised to visit every garden in the scheme in the next couple of years to say hello to the owners and enjoy their gardens.”
Another challenge for Christopher is to become more social media savvy. “I am enlisting the help of Sara Gadd of the Garten Garden, who is going to enable us to put things on Facebook and Instagram. I’m very keen to welcome people in the flush of youth to our gardens, and one way of contacting them is through social media. I am open to any good ideas for how we can get the message across about the NGS.”
He describes his own garden as “a work in progress”. We have a beautiful haven on the side of a hill looking across a wooded valley between Probus and Tregony. When I was a boy, I used to stay at my parents’ cottage in Veryan Green. We loved Pendower and Carne beaches, so when Wendy and I came to look for a house near Truro in 2012, we were very fortunate to find this house.”
In the grounds of the former farmhouse, there are still old farm hedges and buildings. “We have a stock-proof fence which discourages the many deer from the neighbouring fields from coming in,” says Christopher. “I hope to create a Cornish hedge, as the north wind does blow. We have a vegetable garden and we are creating a little orchard. I thought it would be lovely to have some scented roses, and I have had advice from the Cornish Rose Company. There is also a Mediterranean garden with agaves and olives, around what we call our Wendy house. It’s a sheltered spot, which Wendy loves.”
Wendy also loves her three Shetland ponies: the youngest was born on the Queen’s 90th birthday last year, and has the suitably regal name of Gloriana. They will soon be joined by some rare Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, for which Christopher has built an enclosure. “I am going to enjoy keeping pigs,” he says. “And having for most of my life been relegated to mowing the lawn, I am also relishing learning more about plants!”