Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2016: A conversation with owner Kenneth Willcock
Ken-Caro is open for the National Gardens Scheme from early March to the end of September. How do you keep your garden looking good for your guests every day during those months?
There are 12 months in a year, and we make sure there’s always something of interest here. I don’t like it when people say in November that they’ve put the garden to bed. We have a large collection of camellias and magnolias — as well as early-flowering ones, there are varieties like Camellia ‘Hawaii’, which is still flowering in July.
Kenneth with Magnolia wilsonii
There are things like dicentra and Wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ which can be in flower from early spring to late summer. There is a lot of colour all through the summer into autumn, when we also get pampas and various other grasses. The NGS gave us a silver trowel when the garden had been open for 20 years, and that was quite a few years ago now.
What can visitors look forward to seeing on a hot day in August?
There will be heaps of things: irises, acers, hydrangeas, hostas, red hot pokers, crocosmias, astilbes, and a lot of fascinating foliage. Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ has large dark red leaves as well as being in flower in August. There will be quite a lot of agapanthus, including the more tender variegated ones.
Alstroemeria ‘Orange Beauty’
Where did it all begin?
We married in ’66 and ran a successful dairy herd for many years. We always grew a lot of root vegetables here — we were known for our broccoli, swede and turnips — and we also did a lot of herbaceous plants. We started the original garden near the house in 1970. Then we gave up the dairy herd to concentrate on the garden. It’s called Ken-Caro after my wife Caroline and me. We created beds rather than rows in the meadow where we were growing the herbaceous and planted some shrubs as well, and it developed from there. We have very acid soil and heavy rainfall, so it’s a good growing area. We knocked down a hedge so the garden could go a bit further, and put in a car park and a picnic area. Now we’re doing a lot of restoration work – when you first plant a garden, you plant everything too close together.
As well as ten acres of sweeping lawns, a woodland walk, ponds and year-round colour, Ken-Caro also enjoys a spectacular location. What challenges does this present?
We are in the Lynher valley, and have panoramic views; the garden looks straight over to Kit Hill, and in the distance are the rolling hills of Dartmoor. We’re just below the south-westerly wind, which can be terrible — we had a few trees down last autumn — but we don’t get a lot of easterly winds. The garden is full of windbreaks. We’ve got quite a variety of hedges, which can give people ideas for their own gardens: traditional green beech, copper beech — the new growth has a lovely pinky tinge — hazel, elaeagnus and griselinia. We use thuja as well. Yew is very accommodating, and Rosa rugosa make a good hedge – it has a lovely perfume too.
Do you have any favourite plants?
Hemerocallis is a favourite of ours. We have heaps of them, including one which is almost pure white.
Hemerocallis ‘August Frost’
Acers give you weeks of colour, and I also like bamboos, both black and golden ones. They change every week in the summer. We are renowned for our hydrangeas, which are bright blue because of our acid soil.
Hydrangea ‘Blue Wave’
Looking after a large garden is a full-time job – but you have also been director of the flower pavilion at the Royal Cornwall Show for 15 years. What do you enjoy about the job?
There’s always fantastic colour at the show, everyone works together and it’s well-run. We’re indebted to our volunteers — the show wouldn’t be what it is without them. We had over 40 horticultural trade stands this year, and entries were up in all the competitive classes. The junior classes were very well supported.
It’s now more than 45 years since you and Caroline created the garden. It must have given you great satisfaction to watch it grow and change over the years.
A lot of people plant a garden, then leave it and don’t see it develop, but I can see things now that I planted 35 years ago from a whip, like Acer drummondii and Acer cappadocicum. Someone once asked if I had planted the oak tree – they must have thought I was ancient! I told them it had been here for hundreds of years. Three or four years ago, we had the idea that we would retire somewhere where we could see a sunset: we see the sunrise from here, but we don’t see it set. We found a place near Callington, but the move fell through. We think it shows that we’re meant to stay here.