Photographs: Charles Francis
July 2015: The Cornish Cutting Garden is not just the perfect place to go for a gorgeous home-grown wedding bouquet, but also an inspirational space where vulnerable people can gain skills, confidence and a sense of wellbeing. Clare Webb, who founded the thriving social enterprise, plans to host a party during July, to celebrate its success. It will, of course, be a garden party.
The idea for the garden took root when Clare was studying art and environment garden design at Falmouth University. “My three boys were growing up, and I wondered if there was a way I could combine my love of growing, creating and nurturing,” she explains. “I had been a florist and a teaching assistant, and I planned to go into teaching.
“But during my degree course at Falmouth, I was designing all sorts of different spaces, and I thought: ‘Why not create a garden which could give on all levels — a garden which is not only beautiful, productive and supports biodiversity, but could also help people on a journey to employment or independent living?”
She signed up with the School for Social Entrepreneurs to help her turn her ideas for organically-grown wedding flowers and supported work placements into a viable business. “My business plan was described as ‘complex’,” she says with a smile. “But I had fantastic support from SSE.”
Her first challenge was to find the right site. “I thought about renting a plot of land — but I knew that wouldn’t give me the chance to create the garden I dreamed of. I wanted it to be a permanent space.” It also had to include a house; she knew it would be impossible to bring her vision to fruition in the town setting of Penryn, where she and her husband Jay were living.
Clare and Jay searched for 18 months before they found a former fruit farm with an attached cottage, in the hidden hamlet of Releath, near Helston. “My husband immediately had an emotional pull to it,” says Clare. “But I had my business hat on, and I was more interested in the fact that it was south facing, with trees to help dissipate the wind. We had different priorities, but we came to the same conclusion: this is a nice place to be.”
The couple moved in four years ago. “The land was covered with ripped-up polytunnels and a mat of nettles, and the first year was spent site-clearing,” Clare recalls. “I knew I wanted to plant herbaceous borders, so it looked like a garden as well being a productive space, and I decided to create a colour wheel — I like the radial effect. I had garden design skills, but I was on a steep learning curve with planting and propagation and making sure I had a consistent product.”
She focused on growing unusual cultivars which would work well with herbs, hedgerow and meadow flowers and foliage, in both exotic wedding arrangements and simple posies.
Iris x hollandica
“I did some wedding fairs, but the business grew more through word of mouth — Cornwall is a very word of mouth county. Brides come here in January and February, and then I research colour trends before I buy seeds. You always have your classic whites and greens, but there are also the avant-garde people who go for lots of colour. This year, it’s all on the orange/coral spectrum. One of my favourites is the apricot foxglove, and another is Helenium ‘Autumn Lollipop’, which is bobbly and floaty — I’m really looking forward to see how it works with coral.
“As well as trying out new things, I also get excited about old favourites. I always look forward to the fennel flowers — that zingy, limey yellow with all the frothy foliage is lovely — and I love alliums. It doesn’t matter if they’re not used as cut flowers, because the seedheads make wonderful baubles at Christmas.”
Russell lupin (Lupinus polyphyllus) and allium
Some of Claire’s early plantings suffered from the attentions of the abundant local slug and snail population, but ducks and hens proved to be a chemical-free solution. Other eco-friendly introductions to the garden include solar water heaters, compost toilets and ponds for recycling both grey water from the kitchen and rainwater.
Meanwhile, she began to develop the therapeutic side of the business. She now works with United Response, which supports people with learning difficulties, to help the charity’s clients find employment. “A lot of it is about building their confidence and independence. They meet the brides and visitors and make tea. I’m also working with Smart Savings on a project for people with mental health problems, looking at the cost of buying and growing food, which helps with finance and debt control.”
This summer, Clare is embarking on phase two, creating four new beds, each representing a different season. “Some brides enjoy foraging for different things in the garden – but many find it hard to pick out what they want,” she says. “In the new garden, all the flowers in season will be mixed together as a herbaceous border.”
Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Other plans include a cutting meadow with prairie-style planting, a plant sales area and somewhere to relax over coffee and cake. She would also like to open the garden to the public one day a week, and create a retreat space: “This is a remote place which helps to pull people away from their normal lives”.
As she plans this month’s garden party, Clare says: “I want to spread awareness about what we’re doing here. I’m ready to accelerate the business, and I’m interested in collaborations with anyone interested in becoming involved. I’d also love to meet people who’d like to join our small team of volunteers — or would just like to buy some coral flowers.”