Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2015: A conversation with owners Malcolm and Jennifer Bell
You live on the banks of the tidal River Lerryn. What challenges does this present for you, and for visitors to your garden?
Malcolm: We can go out in the boat for about an hour and a half around high tide, but there are times when we can’t get out at all. When people come here, we have to look up the tide times. We had a garden club visiting us recently, and we had to take them through neighbours’ gardens.
Jennifer: We had a marvellous letter from the club, thanking us for the watery adventure! At low tide, people can reach us via a level stroll along the riverbank — or via stepping stones. There’s always a lot to see on the river, and ducks often come up the steps into our garden. We have huge problems with bank voles which nibble the emerging shoots. They have an unerring eye for our most precious things, and are particularly fond of clematis.
Malcolm: Different birds come in at different times of the year, and we’ve seen 70 different species. The other day we saw a seal sliding up and down the bank.
What is the story behind this garden?
Jennifer: It started as a little market garden. The people who lived here grew apples and cut flowers, had a watercress bed, and kept bees and a cow. An old gypsy who used to come over in the ’70s with his pony and cart to collect produce told us that they tethered the cow on grass verges round the village. They kept a churn of milk in the spring which runs through the garden, and cream in a little cave. The property had fallen on hard times when we came across it by accident while we were walking in this area. The garden was so overgrown that you couldn’t see the river. We stood on the terrace and thought: “Maybe we’ve got one more restoration in us” — we’d already done two. That was ten years ago.
How did you tackle such an overgrown garden?
Malcolm: It took nine months to dig up the roots of the 10-foot brambles in the orchard. We found a boat and a boat trailer underneath them.
Jennifer: Sadly, the brambles had grown through it, so it wasn’t much good. It took another year to sort out the summer garden: we dug out four truckloads of weeds. Then Malcolm started making steps and paths, and we got going on the orchard. We had had tantalising glimpses of trees through the brambles, and we discovered two good old Bramleys, and others we haven’t identified. We bought some Westcountry varieties: an apple called ‘Cornish Gillyflower’, and a pear, ‘Swan’s Egg’. There is a collection of ferns, and the orchard is underplanted with daisies, which we keep under control with a Chelsea chop in May, but we were away this year, so they got a bit floppy.
How did the rest of the garden evolve?
In the gravel garden, I grow perennials and herbs which enjoy poor soil. There is a simple Italian pergola there covered with Vitis coignetiae; the leaves go a brilliant crimson in the autumn. The summer garden is designed to be seen from the bottom, as you come up from the river. There are summer-flowering shrubs, like Gladioli papilio — the prettiest thing, with such delicate markings — Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’, which is very reliable and fruits well, and Cotinus ‘Pink Champagne’ — low-growing and very good for ground cover. By the beehives, we have some species roses and a few simple perennials. I asked for a distressed beehive for a Christmas present, and Malcolm made one for me. I planted birch trees near the top of the garden because I didn’t want it to look too gardened. They’re also very calming: it’s like having a sorbet between rich courses.
Do you have any favourite plants?
Jennifer: Roses, on the whole, don’t do well in Cornwall, but ‘The Generous Gardener’, which is pink, and the creamy ‘Crocus Rose,’ are quite exquisite, and the scent is lovely.
Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’
I also love Rosa macrantha. It’s like a wild rose, but bigger, yet it is still very delicate. Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ looks like a white anemone when you walk down the garden to the river. You can only see that the backs of the petals are blue when you come up.
What can visitors see in August and September?
The fruit will be maturing in the orchard, and the grapes ripening on the vine. There are a number of summer-flowering clematis: Clematis texensis has bright pink flowers growing through a magnolia, and Clematis viticella ‘Betty Corning’ has hanging blue bells. Later, there is a nice combination in the summer garden of Russian sage, perovskia — a very useful late flowerer — planted with Sedum matron, and underplanted with a black grass, Ophiopogon ‘Nigrescens’, and Viola labradorica, which seeds all over the place.
What inspired you to start a bonsai collection?
Malcolm: I’m fascinated by the fact that you can have an oak tree a few inches tall, yet it still looks like an old, gnarled oak. The best sources are places like the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery “sick bay”, where you can pick up potential bonsai for about £2. A very enjoyable few hours can be spent in the garden shed, playing with the bonsai, pruning and repotting.