Photograph: Charles Francis
September 2008: A conversation with owners Dan Thomas, gardener, and Peter Skerrett, artist
What’s the story behind the garden?
Dan: It was agricultural land which was turned into a market garden in the 1950s, and became a nursery in the 1980s. Then the whole place went to sleep. By the time we bought it in 2000, it was 10 years since anything had been sold to the public. Rabbits lived here, and little 3-foot potted trees had become rooted. We couldn’t gain access to more than half an acre.
What made you decide to create a garden on such a challenging site?
Peter: We took it on simply because it was magical. We fell in love with it the first time we saw it. It was the classic overgrown garden, where you don’t know what’s inside.
Dan: I love restoring neglected gardens. We used to come to Cornwall when we lived in Bristol, and we both loved it – Falmouth and the Helford estuary in particular. We were looking for a place we could both work on, which could also be a special place for people to come to. We had been inspired by the atmosphere of city farms in Bristol: places for people to relax, with gardens and farm animals.
What was your original vision for the garden?
Peter: We were naively ambitious at the beginning. We thought we could transform it into a beautiful garden from a wilderness in our spare time and with no money!
Dan: We came to realise that we couldn’t put on an international garden festival, but we could still achieve something. In a way, it was difficult for us to get rid of the dereliction, which people loved – but now the wow factor comes not from the fact that it’s a derelict nursery, but because it’s a beautiful, peaceful garden.
How did you get from dereliction to beauty?
Peter: We commandeered friends and family to help clear the garden. The only way to do it was to keep going with the secateurs and cut brambles back, picking our way through. We called it the Potager Garden because in France, ‘potager’ means a garden which is both ornamental and productive. We experimented with mixing productive plants with ornamental ones. Rosemary, lavender and sage work well in the herbaceous borders, but with vegetables, it was more difficult, because of the rabbits, so we now have a more formal vegetable garden, concentrating on producing things we can use in the cafe.We have tried to develop sustainable practices – we have compost areas all over the garden, and our new art studio was built with waste wood clad with local cedar.
Dan: We now grow apple, pear, fig, quince, medlar, mulberry and kiwi fruit, soft fruit such as blackcurrants, redcurrants, strawberries, and vegetables like aubergines, courgettes, spinach and Swiss chard. We also see cut flowers as productive, as you can’t quantify the enjoyment you get from them.
How much help do you have?
Peter: People find us and live with us for a while. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done here otherwise.
Dan: We have slowly built up a community of WWOOFers – volunteers who come through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Whenever we’ve been flagging, other people have come and given us a new lease of life for the project. We can concentrate on the things we want to do, and we don’t have to worry about other things that have to be done.
What do you think visitors most enjoy about coming here?
Dan: People realise it’s a private garden where they can relax. We’re not at all grand, and we don’t have a vast array of gardeners. We want this to be an inspirational place, and give people ideas to take away and use in their own gardens. In the cafe, everything is home-made, and we’ve put games and books on the tables. Friends said: “You’ll need a play area” – but instead we have wooden games which seem to occupy children more than swings and roundabouts. So people play games, and mum and dad can sit in the hammocks and read the paper. We want to be for everyone.
What are your plans for the Potager Garden now?
Peter: Mark Harris, who is a boatbuilder, is joining us, and his contribution will be to increase food production, bring in pigs and chickens, and do craft workshops.
Dan: I would like people to be able to come here on holiday and do drawing with Peter, gardening with me, ad boatbuilding with Mark. We are looking at having eco-cabins, so that people can wake up here.