Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2011: A conversation with owner Penny Black
The glorious garden you and your husband Bob created at your previous home at Stithians was featured in the TV series Consuming Passions. What made you decide to leave it and start again in West Penwith?
Many people were horrified when we sold Treskewes Cottage. It was a beautiful Himalayan garden, with azaleas, rhododendrons and bamboo. But we were looking for a new challenge. We have always loved West Penwith: it’s where my mother came from. Morvoren was a wild, derelict place — but we fell in love with it. We both loved old buildings, and we had always wanted to live in a converted cowhouse. Something else we liked was that you can look out over the sea and see five lighthouses. We’ve been here for 16 years now, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
When you arrived, this was a farmyard. Did you know what kind of garden you wanted to create?
Our gardens have always evolved through trial and error. We dug up some plants from Treskewes and brought them here, but many have not survived, as this is a very different area to garden in. The soil is very dry, and it’s very exposed. But I’m a great one for growing from seeds and cuttings. The hedges were planted as shelter, so we can grow more things, but Bob keeps them clipped, so they look good and add formality to a wild garden. I knew this would be a beautiful, abundant garden no matter how long it took, but I never thought we would be able to say: “This garden is as lovely as Treskewes”. This year, I think we can say it.
How did you begin?
We started with the courtyard. I had never done courtyard gardening before, but it was really, really fun. We had a pond built in the middle, and I allow everything to self-seed in the granite chippings around it. There are foxgloves everywhere, white lovage, purple angelica, bugle, single wild cardamine, and also double cardamine — much more unusual.
What did you do next?
Beyond the courtyard was an open field full of brambles, stinging nettles and concrete slabs. We got an enormous JCB in to move the rubble from the cow stalls and used it to make a bank, along with enormous stones: you can’t see many of them any more, as they are covered with plants. It is very much like a cottage garden now, but it’s taken 15 years to get it to look anything like that. We have myrtle and honeysuckle, little violets everywhere, loads of primroses and white herb robert. Ivy grows through an old wooden bench, and lichen on the table and chairs, which shows how clean the air is. One of my favourite plants here is night-flowering catchfly, which has a beautiful perfume and attracts the moths.
Can you describe the wildlife meadow?
It’s not a proper wildflower meadow, but it’s as wildflowerish as we can make it. There are all sorts of mints here, and comfrey for the bees and insects. Bluebells and grasses flourish here.
You wouldn’t think we could grow gunnera, because it doesn’t like dry soil, but it’s doing well. The summerhouse is here and it’s a lovely place to be, particularly in the evenings. You can watch the seagulls going to roost in the Brisons, and if you’re lucky, you can see the barn owl floating past.
And finally, there’s the terrace garden …
There is a mass of aquilegias of many different colours growing in the granite chippings – green, red, purple — which looks absolutely lovely. Hawkweed and pale lemon evening primrose have both self-seeded in the granite. There are also quite a few survivors from Treskewes: a pink lily of the valley, tellima, which has green, fringed bells, kerria japonica, and arisarum, the mousetail plant.
Mousetail (Arisarum proboscideum)
This is the first time you’ve opened your garden for charity. What can visitors see?
The courtyard garden and terrace garden both look lovely in June. We should have species clematis, cynara — cultivated artichoke — hydrangeas, and stipa, which is lovely because it grows so tall. There will be many wild geraniums, day lilies, poppies, quite a few wildflowers from France, and some succulents and spiky things.
Your mixed media collages combine natural materials with embroidered flowers. Does your style as a gardener influence your style as an artist — and vice versa?
My work totally reflects the garden, and I think of gardening as a form of embroidery. I am not a fashionable gardener. I love wildflowers, and I grow almost all species plants: I don’t like hybrids. There are so many plants which might seem insignificant, but are lovely. But I also love flamboyant, architectural things like agaves. You do sometimes need these great exclamation marks.
Tetrapanax papyrifer with agave