Photographs: Charles Francis
December 2011: A conversation with head gardener Dave Bouch
Every year, visitors to Cotehele in December can see a 60-foot garland of dried flowers, all grown in the garden. What’s the story behind it?
It’s quite a recent tradition, from the 50s, but it is unique, and really makes Cotehele for Christmas. The flowers are sown and grown in just three beds in our cutting garden; they include statice, helicrysum, pink pokers and helipterum. We usually start cutting in April or May; this year we didn’t have much to pick until late June. But it turned out to be a fantastic year — we have just over 30,000 flowers. All the foliage has to be stripped off, then the flowers are bunched and dried in our potting shed and stored in the main barn until we start putting the garland together in November. By early January, we’ll be ordering the seeds for next year’s garland.
How is the garland made?
It takes two weeks, working from 7.30am to 4.00pm every day, but we’re helped out massively by volunteers. We start by tying bunches of pittosporum on a rope, which we secure at both ends of the hall — it’s supported by the chandeliers. Each flower is individually placed into the green swag, a process which has evolved over the years. Visitors love to see the garland being put together. We also work with four local primary schools: the children come here to make their own garland.
The house at Cotehele dates from Tudor times, but what is known about the history of the garden?
It’s possible that there were physic gardens here, but not a huge amount is known. Some features are Victorian, but much of the planting has taken place since 1947, under the National Trust. We always try and think of the impact new plants will have on the atmosphere of Cotehele, and what people describe as the spirit of the place: the house is made from local stone with lichen growing on it, so it feels as though it’s always been part of the landscape.
What is special about the garden?
It has everything — flowers, fruit, vegetables, a steep valley garden, herbaceous borders and walled gardens. The upper garden has mixed borders, a Victorian Italianate pond, and trees in the middle: yellow-stemmed ash, and a tulip tree.
In front of the house are the terraces, which are planted with herbaceous plants in pastel shades. The valley garden has views to the Calstock Viaduct and on to Dartmoor. It seems wild, but there is also a traditional Cornish feel, with magnolias and camellias in the spring. In the Meadow, there is a huge collection of traditional varieties of daffodils: in the third week in March, they’re absolutely breathtaking. We have a replica Victorian packing shed, and in this area of the garden we plant things which were grown then, like cut flowers and pittosporum, which was a huge cash crop, providing foliage for the flowers.
What is the newest area of the garden?
The Mother Orchard is an Objective One project. It’s quite an exposed site, but the trees are doing remarkably well. We worked with Mary Martin and James Evans, who had a large collection of apples from around the Tamar Valley, which they donated to us. Our aim is to show off the collection, making sure all the trees are correctly labelled, and offer propagated varieties so people can grow their own orchards at some point in the future, or taste and compare different varieties if they’re looking for apples for cider. We’ve had a cider press here since the early 70s, and this has now been restored to working order.
What can visitors see in the garden this winter — and what can they look forward to next spring?
If it’s mild, we could still have autumn colour in the early part of December. There is great colour in the acer grove, and the snake bark varieties offer winter interest as well. There’s mistletoe growing in the orchard, and we have our wassail celebration there on 17th December. There are snowdrops in January, and we’ve planted thousands of crocuses in the garden and a lot of tulips on the terrace, so we’re hoping for a really good March show.