Mixed border

Photographs: Charles Francis

April 2014: A conversation with owners Peter and Tricia Howard

It is 15 years since you started creating a garden and nursery at a former smallholding. What are your memories of those early years?

Peter: When we came here, the removal van had more garden furniture in it than furniture for the house – and hundreds of plants, including a box ball which was a present from my grandfather 60 years ago. The winter that first year was really wet. That was when we realised where all the old springs were: the water came pouring down the path.

Tricia: It was hard work starting with a site which was a complete wreck. We had a terrific weed problem, as it hadn’t been weeded for 12 years. We moved a lot of earth, and because it was so wet, we ended up with a real quagmire. One of the first things we did was put in a drainage system, so that the water goes down to the lowest point in the garden — our wildlife pond.

Fifteen years on, you’ve had to cope with a winter which has not just been wet, but very windy. How has the garden been affected?

Tricia: I think it’s been the wettest winter we’ve had since we’ve been here. In February, we had a flash flood which came down by the shrub border from the railway line — bringing some sleeper edges with it. Seven panes of glass in the greenhouse were blown out during the worst storm. We chose to live here because it was sheltered — but that day, it wasn’t safe to stand under the tall trees, and one of our fruit trees, a golden gage, was blown over. The herbaceous border needed an awful lot of tying up, but we couldn’t really do anything about it until the soil has dried out.

How is the unpredictable weather of the last few winters affecting what you grow here?

Tricia: In Cornwall, you might as well go with the flow, and grow lots of ferns and primroses, as they do so well here.  We used to get away with growing tender things like mimosas and tall echiums, but we can’t seem to do it anymore. A lot of people have given up on exotics: if the cold doesn’t get them, the wet will. But I always take a lot of cuttings, so if I lose things I can often replace them.

Mixed planting

What can visitors see in April — and what will they see later in the spring and into summer?  

Tricia: In spring, there are primroses, snowdrops, wild daffodils and hellebores. Columbines in May are the first herbaceous plants, then the hardy geraniums come. By midsummer, there are loads of things: astrantias, hollyhocks, heleniums. The agapanthus looks fantastic:  all different blues and a few whites.

Agapanthus in the hot border

Then there’s Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, followed by 80 different dahlias, which are Peter’s favourites. I fill in any gaps with annuals: white and pink cosmos, lavatera and self-seeded Love-in-the-Mist.

Crocosmia and dahlias

The garden has many different areas: a hot bed; a Japanese bit; a fernery; a circular bed with buddleias and sedums to attract butterflies and bees; and in the driest area, Mediterranean plants like cistus, rosemary, lavender and myrtle, surrounding a gazebo inspired by one in Tresco Abbey Gardens. We also have a small orchard and a potager, and in the summer people can pick their own raspberries, blackcurrants and sweet peas — and visit our tea house.

Tricia Howard in the summerhouse.

Where does your passion for plants come from?

Tricia: Mum and Dad were gardeners, and I used to love going in the greenhouse with my dad. I love propagating, and most of the plants in our nursery come from cuttings and seeds. My dad died the Christmas before last, and we have created a new primrose bed in his memory on a south-facing site at the top of the garden.

What other changes have you made to the garden in recent years?

Tricia: Ever since we have been here, I’ve done one big project a year. This year it will be a new late summer bed with lots of asters.

Peter: A few years ago, Tricia designed a well in the iris bed, as that’s where the biggest spring is. A pump over the pond feeds three taps for watering the garden, and a valve sends water from a spout into the well. We call it the Iris Fairy Well.

Fairy well

Something I’ve done is plant up three circular beds with wildflowers: I got the idea when I saw the planting at the Olympic Park in 2012. Our Olympic rings were a mass of colour last summer. Now I’m retired, I can help Tricia more, and I’ve become the under-gardener!