Northern garden summerhouse

Photographs: Charles Francis

December 2008: A conversation with creative director Candy Smit and marketing manager Lorna Tremayne

What makes Heligan a unique place to visit?

Candy: When visitors come here, they are almost seeing life as it was 150 years ago. There’s a special atmosphere, created not just by plants which would have been here then, but also by the historic glasshouses and potting sheds which have been restored and are now functioning again. It’s a place separate from the modern world. Because we work the garden by traditional methods, it’s very labour-intensive. We have around 24 outdoor staff, mainly gardeners. Visitors love to chat with them and find they have the same problems they might have in their own gardens.

Training fruit trees in the Melon Yard.

The Heligan Wildlife Project has been featured on the BBCs Springwatch programme.  How did that come about?

Candy: When we started to develop the outer estate, we created a hide where people could observe wildlife close by, and also watch live footage of creatures like owls and badgers. We now have our first colour photo of an otter. Wildlife is important to everyone here: if a bird is nesting in the toolshed, the gardeners go to great lengths to make sure the eggs hatch.

Lorna: Our wildlife has become used to the visitors. Swallows will swoop in over your head, and frogs and toads descend on the Italian garden every year.

What are the special features of the landscape here? 

Candy: There is beautiful Cornish countryside, sea views, woodland, pasture, streams and wetland.

Lorna:  The jungle is a major attraction, a real adventure. In recent years, we have introduced South African plants like the king protea, and the bamboo plantation has been thinned out, so people can see down to the water. Four ponds cascade down the valley.

Rhododendrons around the top pond in the Jungle

Whats been happening at Heligan in the last year?

Candy: A close connection has developed between the kitchen garden and the restaurant. We grow over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables and can bring fresh herbs to the kitchen, or baskets of peaches for a crumble, or pumpkins for soup. Every visitor from now until spring will be able to eat something from the garden.

Melon yard at Christmas

How does Heligan mark the changing seasons?

Candy: We have our May Day celebration, outdoor theatre in summer, and in autumn a big display of the full range of our harvest, including honey from the apiary and kiwis from the jungle. At Christmas we do lantern-lit tours of the northern gardens. The trees and shrubs look magical in candlelight, and a fire is lit in the head gardener’s office. People walk through the gardens quietly and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a one night only experience.

Apple arches
Head gardener's office

Lorna: The crystal grotto was set with white quartz to reflect candlelight and moonlight. I love it when we go there: it gives it back its traditional use. Last year we had peppers and chilis as baubles on the Christmas trees.

What can visitors see in the gardens in December?

Candy: Winter at Heligan is a fabulous time of year. I love the silhouetty shapes of the trees. In December our citrus trees are both fruiting and in flower: it’s an extraordinary thing, and the blooms smell wonderful. Last year, the camellias were out in quantity in December, and on January 1, I picked a bunch of flowers with two dozen different varieties in it. We have a lot of hellebores and cyclamen, and the St Piran anemones are stunning. There are also fuchsias, hydrangeas, mahonias, red campions, and even sunflowers which shouldn’t be there, but sometimes still are.  The proteas in the jungle will go through to February or March. 

The ravine

Lorna: Wildlife is also a big feature of winter — people can spot fieldfares and redwings, and woodland birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches.

What are your plans for 2009?

Candy: We have a commitment to keep sudden oak death at bay. Rhododendron ponticum is a major host, and we have agreed to take it all out. We’ll be replanting with pre-1920s plants, going back to the first era of the planting of the gardens. There will be new rhododendrons and magnolias, also specimen trees, a lot of coniferous varieties. We are putting in relatively small plants, planting for the future just as the Tremayne family always did.

Lorna: We are replanting all the soft fruit, and the gardening team have been inspired to create a period correct cottage garden. Come summer, it will be a real spectacle.