House glimpsed through the trees

Photographs: Charles Francis

October 2009: A conversation with owner Claire Woodbine

How did the Pinsla story begin?

When we first saw the house, it was a hidden enchanted cottage in the woods, totally overgrown. There was no drive, just a tiny footpath, and you had to push your way through. You can’t garden under laurel, so we had to clear it — even though it felt as though we were destroying an Amazonian rain forest. It has taken us a long time to recreate the magical fairytale feeling. There’s a great gap between the garden you think you want, and the one you can actually create.

How did you start?

Rather than clearing right back and having bare ground, we used green manure to create field areas, or let evening primroses cover the earth. To start with, we had box on either side of the path, but it wasn’t right for a garden surrounded by woodland. We’re now much more inspired by the pruning carried out by the wind on the coastal footpath, and we have learned to let the natural backdrop give us plenty of greenery. We want a really wild look.

How did the garden develop?

At first, we had a vegetable garden, but as we got more interested in decorative plants, the space was given over to them. We now put 20 of the same plant in one area, so we garden in a carpeting kind of way. To do that, you have to grow from seed, unless you’re rich! It’s hard to have colour in a woodland garden in the summer, because the leaves are so dense, but we use annuals and dot them in among our herbaceous plants.

Mixed colour

We also do lots of things in pots which we change around quite often. The landscaping is important — we have lots of interesting decorative paths. Because the garden is an enclosed space, it holds scent well, so we grow border phlox, phuopsis, honeysuckle, and salvias and scented pelargoniums all over the place. I’m always pushing the boundaries of what you can grow in this: amaranthus normally likes well-drained soil and hot sun, but it’s doing quite well here.

Amaranthus caudatus

Amaranthus caudatus

What influenced your style of gardening?   

We were influenced by environmental gardens, where seedheads, mosses and lichens are as important as flowers. My granny had a really beautiful gravel garden in Wigtonshire in south-west Scotland with a sundial in the middle, and different thymes creeping around, so they gave off scent when you trod on then, and tall herbaceous plants. She gardened by letting things self-seed, so the design varied according to where they grew. That’s how I had the confidence to let vigorous things have their head.

What gave you the idea of putting a stone circle in the middle of the garden?

It was partly pragmatic: the children could use it to play on when they were young. It also brings the wildness of Cornwall into the domestic. People ask me if we measured the distance between the stones, or linked them up with ley lines, but we just got some local granite, and placed the stones where they felt right. This part of the garden has a different atmosphere from the woodland area. It’s very restful. The centre of the circle is filled with bulbs — crocus, grape hyacinth, snakes’ head fritillary and a lot of camassias, followed by wildflowers.

Stone circle

How important is the nursery at Pinsla?

We think of it as an integral part of the garden. It’s very colourful, and you can enjoy looking at individual specimen plants there; in the garden, they tend to intermingle. Having a working nursery enables us to make a living, and have masses of plants for our own garden. We have everything from shade-loving ferns to succulents.

What inspired you to start making the statues and sculptures which are all around both the garden and the nursery?

People who aren’t knowledgeable about plants can find a nursery intimidating, so I thought statues would make them laugh as they come in. When we go on holiday, we look at Greek or Roman figures or decorative objects and use them to base our statues on. Having gargoyles and little pixie and fairy figures seems to be right for a woodland garden. I used to make theatre props, so I’m used to using whatever’s around to create things. I use mirrors a lot, and I make pots out of fencing wire wrapped in papier mache, and use unravelled chimney flex in fences. I doodle with objects until I find a pleasing shape. My interest in recycling is partly anti-consumerism and not wanting to waste anything, and partly because I come from a country background and my family was always reusing things.

How do you sum up your approach to gardening? 

It’s been decided as “gardening on the edge of chaos”! Our aim is to make the garden look natural in its abundance. People say it must be nice to have a garden you can leave as nature intended. I take that as a great compliment!