On a wild, exposed site between Penzance and Helston is a garden full of colour and scent
Photographs: Charles Francis
July 2012: A conversation with owner Vicki Marshall
You’re known as The Garden Lady — but how did you come to create a garden on the slopes of a hill?
Our house is one of a terrace of old mine cottages built near Great Work Mine. When my husband and I came here, more than 20 years ago, it was derelict — but it had seven acres and some outbuildings, so it had potential. The land was a wild, windswept hillside of gorse and bracken which had been used as grazing for bullocks. I was studying horticulture at the time, so I had to learn on the hoof. But I’ve always been a gardener. I used to dig up little seedlings and saplings when I was tiny and take them home to plant.
How did you start?
We had a magnificent view, from Mousehole to the Lizard, but there was no way we could have kept the view and had a garden: I’ve stood here with a tray of plants and had them blown out of my hand. So we started planting for shelter, including 650 trees over two weekends. Slowly, everything started to grow, and magic began to happen. We have a chestnut tree which grew from a conker, and large pines which were planted as seeds.
Did you decide from the beginning to run a nursery here?
I started with a tray of seeds by the Aga, and the nursery has been my living ever since: I specialise in historic roses and traditional herbs. What started as a nursery with a garden attached gradually became a garden with a nursery in it. I wanted space to grow the plants I sell in the nursery, so I started the vegetable garden, and then the long herbaceous borders, rose borders and shrub borders evolved. These demonstration and stock beds began to look nice, so I was able to open the garden, initially so that people could see how the plants they were buying would grow. As well as opening for the National Gardens Scheme, the garden is open two days a week in early summer, and people can have fresh strawberries and raspberries with their cream tea.
How would you describe the style of the garden?
It’s a natural, biodynamic garden with many native species. We put in a wildlife pond to attract bees and butterflies; a local beekeeper keeps her hives here. Swallows drink on the wing in the pond, and a barn owl flies across the wildflower meadow.
There were very few bluebells when we came here, so I’m very pleased that we now have so many in the meadow, and they’re migrating down the hill — I’ve been told it’s a sign that this land was forested once. We now have an orchard, planted with traditional Cornish varieties. I went on a traditional orchard management programme in the Pyrenees, which inspired me, as did my memories of picking apples with my father when I was a child.
What can visitors see in the garden in July?
The garden will be at its best, with nearly everything in flower. There will be a lot of angel’s fishing rods and hardy geraniums.
Geranium ‘Dragon Heart’
Some of our hedges are 20 feet high and will be full of roses. It’s the way to grow roses in Cornwall. You never have to prune them; you just cut them when you cut the hedge.
Do you have a favourite rose?
‘Blush Noisette’ is one I recommend very highly. It’s an old rose, soft lilac pink and very fragrant, which flowers until November, and will grow in shade. It has hardly any thorns and is disease-free. It will climb to about seven feet, so it’s ideal to grow up obelisks and archways. It seems to tick every box.
What are the challenges of gardening on this site?
In such an exposed place, anything too ornamental wouldn’t work — but I don’t have much interest in modern hybrids anyway. I like plants with a purpose: with roses, you can make rosehip syrup and rose petal jelly. I’ve always loved aromatic plants, and herbs grow really well on our south-facing hot slope. I also get good results with South African and Californian plants. The garden has a very special atmosphere, because it’s sheltered by trees, yet it’s on a hill. As one friend said to me: “You’ve got such a lot of sky.”