Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2015: A conversation with gardener Joe Palmese
Morrab Gardens has the good fortune to occupy a sunny south-facing site in sheltered Mount’s Bay. What benefits does this bring?
It’s amazing how many exotic plants can survive in the garden. Unusual things have been grown here ever since it opened to the public in 1889. The rare rhododendron collection by the gate was donated 100 years ago by the present Lord St Levan’s grandfather, and we now have things like kiwi trees with fruit on them, a Wollemi pine, and lots of different palms. It’s really nice to be able to grow exotics from seed, which friends bring me from all over the world.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
One brought cork oaks from Spain, and we’ll put them in the garden when they’re bigger. Another brought something back from the Caribbean. We don’t know what it is, but when it fruits, we’ll be able to identify it.
How do these exotic incomers cope with a Cornish winter?
In winter, I like some of the trees and shrubs to get a bit overgrown to offer protection for the unusual plants in case we get frost. In the storms last year we had a few small things blown down, and a bit of windburn, but none of our big trees suffered any damage. This winter has been amazing so far. We were still cutting the grass every week in December, and seed pods in the wildflower bed had germinated, and there were little baby plants growing.
Castor oil plant (Ricinis communis)
What can visitors see in February — and later in the spring?
We’ll have lots of daffodils, and crocuses, which will go on until Easter. Drimys winteri started to come into flower in December and will still be around in February. It’s an important plant, which was once used to treat scurvy, as it is packed with Vitamin C. We have a lovely collection of magnolias, which will be in full flower in March and April.
Magnolia grandiflora bud
How has the garden changed over the 25 years you have worked here?
It is a lot less formal. There used to be flower beds all over the lawns, full of geraniums and begonias etc. There were seven full-time gardeners then. Now there’s me, my apprentice Jamie and a few volunteers, so we had to reduce the number of beds. We started planting more unusual things in them, and people love it – it’s nice to get the beds all looking different.
Yucca ‘Spanish Dagger’
What are your priorities for the garden?
We’ve had Green Flag awards for the last five years, and I’m concentrating on doing as much as I can for wildlife. I‘ve planted things like hybrid teasels which are good food for goldfinches, and the foxgloves are fantastic for insects. I get a big wodge of frogspawn every year, and release the frogs into the garden. They are my pest control: I haven’t had to use anything else for 15 years. We have a massive range of native fish, like roach and bream in the bottom pond, and koi and carp in the other pond.
The fountain was really well-stocked with fish, but a heron has eaten them all. He tries to take carp from the pond, but they’re too big: some of them have been there for more than 20 years. We have three beehives given to us by Cornwall Beekeeping Association, and we keep half the honey and sell it at our summer fete.
The Green Flag recognises that this is a garden which is welcoming to people as well as wildlife. How important is this to you?
It’s lovely to know that people like being here, and to see the bandstand being used, and not just for music. In December, the Friends of Morrab Gardens had a sale of Christmas foliage — things like holly and eucalyptus — cut from the garden. The Friends are a great help, and absolutely love the garden. Something else which is important to me is getting kids into gardening, so that they will respect the place when they get older. Children from five or six schools come here, and I show them how to gather seeds and propagate them. I’d like to have a classroom so we can have them doing projects in the winter: they could gather leaves out of the garden and make collages. We’re going to have a path all round the bottom pond where children can look for mini beasts, and a pile of logs which they can roll over without hurting themselves.
What are your plans for 2015?
I’m teaching Jamie all I know about plant names, so that when I retire, someone else will have all that knowledge. It’s really important that when a plant is lost, it is replaced. In April, I’m going to do a complete inventory of every tree and shrub here, with photos and details about which country they came from. The public will have access to it, and I think they’ll find it really interesting.