Photograph: Charles Francis
November 2013: A conversation with owner Mark Harris
It is 13 years since Potager started to take shape in a derelict market garden. How did you become involved in the project?
I had done a boatbuilding course in Falmouth, and rented space in one of the studios here in 2006. Three years later, Dan Thomas and Peter Skerrett, who created the garden, wanted to move on to new projects. I had grown to love it here, and I shared their vision for it as a place of peace and tranquillity, with a mixture of edible and ornamental plants, so I decided to take on the business. I had very little gardening experience, but I did have Dan and Pete’s back-up. My partner, Saffa, has been studying horticulture at Duchy College, and she now looks after the propagation. We also welcome volunteers: we give them plentiful supplies of tea and coffee, and we all work together and learn together.
How has the garden developed since you arrived?
It’s started to mature, and we’re now replanting and replacing – but we’re still working with the old nursery stock which Dan and Pete discovered when they first came here. We cleared an area of impenetrable bracken and bramble, and the following spring, it was full of daffodils which had survived from when they were grown as cut flowers in the 1960s. We’ve since done more clearing into the impenetrableness, and planted some apple trees, which have done brilliantly. We’ve also planted a soft fruit orchard: we decided a fruit cage was not aesthetically acceptable, so we share the fruit freely with the birds. Dan stops me making stupid planting decisions – although sometimes I ignore his advice. He thought it was a bad idea to grow olives in the greenhouse, as they would be subject to pests and diseases, but they’re thriving.
Which other plants do well in the greenhouse?
In summer, there is a constant hum of bees around the echiums, which is really lovely – but echiums grow like weeds, so we’ll have to thin them out a bit. We have a loquat tree from South Africa which flowers and fruits constantly. Figs do quite nicely, and we have a superb agave. We did have a Washingtonia palm, but last summer, it burst through the roof, and, sadly, we had to remove it.
What else has been happening on site?
We now have an underground rainwater harvesting system, and solar photovoltaic panels which provide a third of our energy. We’ve created three new studios, and the garden has become a little community with a variety of artists, including a silversmith, a massage and sports therapist, and a designer who makes everything from beautiful traditional wooden bowls to high-tech contemporary pieces. I still have a workshop, and I love being in an environment where you can have a wander and always meet someone else. It gives the garden a life outside visitor opening hours.
The café has become a destination in its own right. Has this presented a challenge?
It’s now so busy that our car park can’t cope. We’re building a bigger one in a field below the garden, which will lead to a new entrance through an avenue of apple trees. The original café: was a shed which came apart in our hands. We rebuilt it in three days, with a new kitchen. We’re now planning to let the café spill into the greenhouse. The café is almost entirely vegetarian and organic, and we’ve been clearing the bottom field with a view to growing more leaves and herbs for our chef.
What do you enjoy most about being here?
I love spending time with visitors. What really grabs people’s attention is discovering things they didn’t know they could eat. I’ve seen them munching nervously on a day lily petal – and then asking for another. I also enjoy the education aspect: we’ve been bringing kids in from Constantine School to learn about biodiversity and where food comes from. We’re interested in running a forest school in our micro pine woodland.
What are your plans for next year?
My original passion was for productive gardening, and it’s time to do a little more of that.
Our next project will be to plant a couple of acres with cut flowers and a fruit and nut orchard. We were going to get pigs in to clear the land, until we decided a vintage Massey Ferguson was more reliable – but we may have sheep grazing in the orchard. Whatever we do, I’m confident that we can maintain the garden as a special place for us, and for our visitors.