Photographs: Charles Francis
July 2009: A conversation with owners Judith and Harvey Stephens
How did you go about turning a smallholding into a garden?
Judith: When we came here in 1985 there were no plants, just a couple of old apple trees. We’d had a farm on Bodmin Moor, and we brought with us a house cow and several bullocks. They had the field, and I began to turn the yard into a garden. But it just wasn’t viable to keep bullocks on such a small piece of land. Over several years, I took over the whole three acres. I began by planting quick-growing trees, like willow, alder, poplar and eucalyptus. They are now so vigorous that we are thinning them out. At the same time I started planting some special things: Tilia ‘Petiolaris’ — the weeping lime — the tulip tree, gingko, the handkerchief tree and Acer griseum.
You’re surrounded by water here. What effect did that have on your plans for the garden?
Judith: Because the garden lies in a former creek, much of the land was once marshy and impassable in winter. In the 1960s much infilling was carried out using whatever materials could be obtained, mainly china clay, but also building rubble and household rubbish. We dug down 12 feet when we created the pond, and found hundreds of old bottles. The stream which runs through our garden flows underneath the road and down to the sea. When the tide comes in, water flows in a reverse direction up the various waterways. We have a book of tide times so we know when we’re going to have a specially high tide.
Harvey: You can still see cockle shells and sand in the stream.
How has the garden developed over the years?
Judith: In a haphazard way. I didn’t sit down with a pencil and paper and design it. There are many different areas — woodland, formal garden, jungle — and each has its own character and style of planting. Most of the escallonia and box hedges have been grown from cuttings, and most of the herbaceous material is generated through single bought plants. We’ve made lots of changes. We put up a pergola in the yard – we needed it because of the north wind, but we don’t need it now, because we have so many trees. We have reshaped and replanted herbaceous borders, and replaced one bed with a pergola for roses and clematis. When we lost a couple of large Monterey pines in the top corner, we turned it into an azalea and bluebell corner. We can’t grow anything which has inclinations of tenderness because although we are close to the sea we are in a frost pocket. This winter I lost four expensive ferns, and grey-leaved plants like phlomis and cistus.
Is there anything you wish you hadn’t planted?
Judith: The water lily was a major mistake. We had no idea that one small plant would be so invasive. It requires a massive operation each year to dredge it out. If we could, we’d pull out every last piece!
What other unwelcome residents do you have?
Judith: Because of the poor quality of the soil and the fact that it was imported from many different sources, we have wild garlic, Spanish bluebells and mare’s tail.
Harvey: And Himalayan balsam, which is as noxious as Japanese knotweed. It kills all other plants.
Judith: We’re now being troubled by deer — they rub the bark right off trees to warn other deer that they are there. They’ve killed a magnolia, and we need to work out how to keep them out.
Do you enjoy welcoming visitors?
Judith: Opening to the public was not something I intended to do, but we opened in aid of a local charity on a couple of occasions, and now we’re open for six months of the year. I meet a lot of gardening people, which is very interesting. Three years ago, we were asked to host a production by the Tywardreath Players of The House on the Strand, as Daphne du Maurier based it here in the Treesmill valley. The whole experience was huge fun.
Harvey: Local people like to come and have tea and give us the gossip. When people haven’t been here before, I like to talk to them when they come into the garden, and give them an insight into what they’re going to see. Visitors are amazed that the trees have grown at the rate they have. Many of the big Cornish gardens have trees which were planted a couple of hundred years ago. But Judith has created something which people can enjoy now.
What are your plans for the garden?
Judith: The main structure is now settled, but I’m looking forward to developing the jungle: a lot more tree ferns are required down there. The whole garden gives me great pleasure. I will happily work in it from early in the morning until the dark sends me in.