Photographs: Charles Francis
October 2016: A conversation with owner Kathleen Ward
This garden is a little piece of the Mediterranean hidden away in a quiet Cornish village. Where did your inspiration come from?
I moved from North Cumbria in 2007 when I retired because I wanted to live somewhere warmer. Having holidayed in Italy and Crete, I thought about living abroad, but Cornwall seemed a good compromise, as it’s still in England, but it’s one of the warmest places in the country. I wanted this house because the garden faces south and west and is sheltered from the north and east. I was inspired by seeing olive trees in Italy and Greece with grasses and wildflowers around them, and I wondered if I could create a Mediterranean garden here. You also get inspiration from the countryside around you – you look at the things that are growing.
What did the garden look like when you first saw it?
It was completely different: 95 per cent of the plants here have been planted since I came. There was a lot of grass, and you had to step down to the garden from the house. You couldn’t get a digger in, so it had to be craned in, along with the materials for the hardstanding, raised patio and steps. It was a major undertaking, but It’s nice that now I can just step out into the garden.
What was your planting plan?
I went for mature specimens — you don’t want to wait for many years to have a garden. I also didn’t want a garden where I had to mollycoddle the plants, and I wanted something that felt natural, not formal and rigid. Because I had always gardened in the north, I had no idea which plants might survive here: it was an exciting challenge to see what I could get away with. What I’ve tried to do is blend different foliage, colours and shapes. I love grasses — I like the movement of them — and the gravel and the pebbles go with the Mediterranean feel. The garden is evergreen, so in the winter it looks quite similar to how it looks in summer: the pagoda tree loses its leaves in winter, but you’ve still got the architectural shape.
Weeping Japanese pagoda tree (Saphora japonica ‘Pendula’)
I saw the tree in a garden centre, and the man I talked to there came here to see if he thought it would survive. ”You could grow anything here,” he said.
Was he right?
It’s not quite true. My first two winters here — 2008 and 2009 — were a bit of a struggle because they were very cold, so I lost some things which I wouldn’t have lost in the winters since — pots of geraniums which were out in the garden all last summer and winter have flowered again this year, because it was a mild winter. There’s no greenhouse here. Because the garden is raised, it doesn’t get frost, even though the road below is a frost pocket.
Apart from the pagoda tree, what plants did you choose?
There are about ten olive trees, and a lot of agapanthus — when I first came to Cornwall and saw them, I just loved them. In front of the house is the lavender walk. The idea is that you brush past the lavender on a summer day and enjoy the scent. There are also six mulberry trees on the walk. I saw them in a garden centre: they had just arrived from Italy, and I just had to have them, because they give you that Mediterranean feel. I prune them in January or February, as they go berserk if I don’t.
I’ve underplanted the mulberries with verbena and scabious. Also on the lavender walk are a tender evergreen magnolia, which has beautiful white flowers in summer, Australian mint and mimosa. Near the house are hibiscus and bottlebrush in pots, and I have four citrus — lemon, orange and two clementines. When their blossom is out, the scent is delightful. This is the hottest spot in the garden, and they’re fine there all year round.
In this area, there are also restios and grasses, with splashes of colour, but nothing too in-your-face: Hidcote lavender and perennial geraniums in June and agapanthus in July and August. In the shady area, I’ve planted pink eucryphia, an evergreen shrub which flowers in summer, variegated myrtle, kumquat and Robinia ‘Twisty Baby’, which loses its leaves in winter and looks nice with its twisted stems.
What was your most recent project?
I’m trying to establish a small camomile and thyme lawn underneath a Robinia ‘Frisia’, which was planted in June. The idea is that it will grow and spread and you can have lunch on the lawn on a hot summer day. It’s lovely to sit in the shade under the robinia — it’s like a yellow umbrella, and the leaves are so bright that they’re almost like blossom. There’s also a blue hydrangea there to complement the robinia.
What are your plans now?
I have to admit to being ruthless with plants — if something outgrows its position, it has to go, such as one of the olive trees, which was blocking out the light. This is a small garden, and I have to keep on top of everything, because otherwise it would lose its shape. For me, a garden is about enjoying it, and not working all the time, so I’ve created a number of seating areas, some in the sun and some in the shade. From the summerhouse you can look right up through the garden. It’s a lovely place to sit when it’s really hot, and in early autumn, you can enjoy the foliage colours of the maple and cotinas. There are also pink kaffir lilies in September going into October. And on a sunny day in winter, it can be quite warm here. After all the years I lived in Cumbria, it’s nice to be able to enjoy a garden 12 months a year.