Entrance to the flower garden

Photographs: Charles Francis


February 2016: A conversation with head gardener Iain Davies

Twenty-five years ago. Heligan welcomed its first visitors following the restoration of the Lost Gardens. How did you hear about this very special place?

I was working for the National Trust for Scotland in Aberdeen, and I saw a TV programme about Heligan. I got goose pimples — I thought how exciting it would be to work there. I used to have holidays in Mevagissey, and it was magical to watch the changes at Heligan over the years.  I’d never have thought that I would one day be head gardener.

Iain Davies

You’ve now been here for three years. What have been your aims for the continuing growth of the garden?

One of the first things I wanted to do was to completely change the top area by putting a lot more plants around the entrance, to make it more welcoming and more garden-like. I liked the idea of giving people a taste of the key features they will be able to see in the garden, so there is lovely luxuriant planting, native plants, camellias and bamboos. I wanted there to be a few things which people don’t necessarily know. Chatham Island forget-me-nots were a big hit last year and the correas flower from midwinter to summer.

The jungle is one of Heligan’s most iconic features. How do you ensure it retains its magic?

 It’s important that we keep the “lost world” feeling in the jungle, as that is what makes it so enchanting, but we also have to plant for the future, so we’ve put in some large-leaved plants and huge shrubs. We plan to increase the subtropical planting – we will be reworking the protea bed, as it’s one of the warmest spots in the garden, so it’s a good place to play with tropical plants. We’d like to have terracing running down from this hot sunny area to the first pond. We re-did the whole boardwalk in the jungle last year, which was no mean feat! We’ve also taken pathways down to the lost valley: our hands were forced when a big rhododendron was blown over.

Jungle walkway

You’ve also been working in the ravine …

 We’ve had a project to get the water feature working there again.

The ravine

We also wanted to improve the planting. It was created in the early 20th century, when there was a renaissance of Alpine gardening, probably because people with great estates were holidaying in Switzerland. It made me think we should try and put it back to how it might have been. But we’re in Cornwall: it’s very wet, and alpines don’t particularly like wet! So we’re also putting in some stronger herbaceous plants like eryssiums and sarracenias. Historically, there were a couple of Rhododendron fragrantissimums there, so we’re going to put some back in. The main flowering season in the Ravine will start in May, rising to a crescendo in July and August.  But although we have renovated the ravine, we have kept some of it in its lost, romantic state.

What are your plans for the sundial garden?

We want to strengthen its herbaceous credentials. It is known that the herbaceous borders were once rated as some of the finest in the land. In Heligan’s heyday, one of the first things the Tremayne family and their guests would have experienced when they walked from the house to the garden would have been the herbaceous borders, so that’s why they were so fine.  We want to restore them so they are as good as they were — if not better.

Sundial garden

Will there be changes in the productive gardens?

We’re aiming to have a herb garden, which will be a celebration of their history and their medicinal properties: healing is an anagram of Heligan. It will also be about their use in food and in preserving, from the days when people had to get through winter without a fridge. Our chefs will feed into the project and tell us what they want in the restaurant: the food mileage will be minimal. We plan to move the stumpery from the flower garden to the jungle. It’s a space where we could have a lot more fruit and show traditional training methods. We want to give our gardeners something to hone their skills on, such as training peach trees and. fanning Morello cherries.  We also want to have an allotment on site where people can volunteer and be trained to become allotmenteers. It would be a lovely thing to do in our productive gardens, which are steeped in history and heritage.

Do you have any other plans for 2017?

As we move towards the centenary of the end of the First World War in 1918, it is important that we have a good show of poppies. We’ve received a huge bag of seeds – four million, I’m told, although I’m not going to count them! We should have a fantastic poppy explosion in June and July. We are also hoping to encourage more songbirds to return to Heligan with a new seed mix. In the last few years, as the jackdaw and crow population has increased, a lot of them have moved away.

Heligan is involved with a new traineeship scheme in partnership with the Eden Project and Tresco Abbey Garden. What does this involve?

It’s called the Tripos programme because there will be training at all three gardens. The programme will also include a placement at St Michael’s Mount, and there is the possibility of going to work in other magical gardens here and abroad. It will be a one-year course, starting in September, and in the first year we’ll take two people. If I was 20 and someone said: ‘You can work in to Tresco, Eden and Heligan,’ I would say: ‘When can I start?’  The Tripos Programme came out of a discussion about how traditional skills are being lost. But It’s not just about embracing traditional practices.  A lot of people come out of horticultural college focussed on plants, but the next generation of head gardeners will need to understand how marketing works.

What can visitors expect to see in flower in the early spring?

We’ve planted 100,000 narcissi, snowdrops and other bulbs in the last 18 months, and we’ll be planting another 20,000 this year. We decided to plant different varieties of white narcissi bulbs in the woodland walk – yellow ones are so popular now that white ones are at risk of becoming lost. This year we will be receiving a very special collection of narcissi from Fentongollan Flower Farm which we’ll have on show, so people can see how daffodils would have been shown 100 years ago. We’ll also have some information about how important narcissi-growing is to Cornwall: it’s one of the biggest suppliers in the world.