Photographs: Charles Francis
July 2016: West Cornwall nursery Trevena Cross has gained a national reputation for its almost unrivalled range of exotic plants. Yet the business began with a more down-to-earth crop — the humble cabbage. “We had row upon row of cabbage plants in our field,” recalls Graham Jeffery, whose late father Eric bought the land on the edge of the village of Breage after leaving the Navy. “They were mostly sold to farmers at the two market stalls we had in Helston.”
That was 40 years ago. It was not long before Eric and Graham decided to expand the range of plants they were growing at their nursery, less than two miles from the south coast. “We started having bedding plants, alpines and perennials. When people started coming here, we had two tunnels, a little greenhouse, and a tiny car park.
“We later got a bigger greenhouse, but I still didn’t have enough room for all the stuff I wanted to grow, so we advertised for land in the Breage area. The first phone call was from the people who owned the land attached to our land. It was 14 and a half acres of really rough ground, with lots of gorse and brambles, where they used to keep pigs — but we knew this was an opportunity which wouldn’t come again.”
There was now space for another six polytunnels. But a year later saw what Graham describes as “our worst day ever — the horrendous storm of 1990. All the windbreaks were knocked down, and the shop roof blew off. I went up on Breage Church roof to pull up the flagpole so it wouldn’t go through, and all around was a scene of devastation. You’d have thought a tsunami had gone through. We managed to stay afloat, but it was touch and go. Since then, it’s gone very well, and we’ve bought another 14 acres of land.”
Trevena Cross is now the largest independent grower of plants in Cornwall. “From the start, we had to grow bedding plants because other companies couldn’t keep up with the demand,” explains Graham. “By the sheer scale of planting, we can keep prices down. We still grow 90 per cent of what we sell.”
There are now almost 20 staff at Trevena Cross, a 220-space car park, a garden centre, a café and a stylish gift shop stocked by Graham’s artist wife Rachel. Last Christmas, a grotto and festive display attracted thousands of visitors. But he points out that Trevena Cross remains fundamentally a nursery, and plants account for 60 per cent of its turnover. “I’m still in charge of the growing side. It’s about predicting what we’ll need in two years’ time. We pot up a lot in August, so that we have plants ready in February. If you get good weather, that’s when people look for ideas for their garden, so you need something for them to see.”
Current plans include the creation of a new propagation house, which will have a four-bay polytunnel and underfloor heating. “It will be fantastic, as we’ll be able to grow things much earlier,” enthuses Graham. “We can also overwinter more. But we’ll always leave a few acres wild. We have buzzards and owls here, and the only bit of woodland in this area. We planted all the trees ourselves, apart from two or three hawthorns that were already here.”
Plants go in and out of fashion. The nursery used to stock 10,000 heathers and several tunnels of conifers, but the popularity of both has declined. Exotics, however, are always in demand. “A subtropical garden looks spectacular all year round — lovely in mizzle as well as sunshine,” Graham says. “My favourite look is pseudopanax palm trees, underplanted with tree ferns. I went to New Zealand with a friend in ’89, and saw a huge amount of plants growing in the wild, like leptospermum and proteas, which I introduced to the nursery. A lot of varieties we have here you can’t buy from anywhere else.”
Trevena Cross produces leaflets highlighting the best plants to grow in different sites. Gardeners new to Cornwall are understandably keen to learn which species will thrive in their coastal plots. “People think we’re frost-free in Cornwall, but a bad winter will wipe out some exotic plants,” Graham warns. “There are many variations in temperature: it can be minus 5 on this site, plus 1 in Penzance, and colder than here in Camborne. This year we had a very windy winter, with about eight storms — they sort out the men from the boys in the plant world. If you plant in the autumn, wind rock is the killer. You have to make sure your plant is heeled in well, and then cut it down by half.
“But succulents like aeoniums, sempervirems and agaves can deal with salt and wind, so will grow happily in a garden on the coast. Metrosideros and olearia grow right on the beach, then a few hundred yards inland, you can grow lots of other sub-tropical species. Hedging plants are good for coastal gardens: Elaeagnus ebbingei is our biggest seller.”
Because the vast majority of the plants at Trevena Cross are grown on site, most of them have already proved their ability to cope with coastal conditions. “We bought a variety of Cordyline australis called ‘Dipton’ from New Zealand, which is much hardier than most and can survive hard winters,” says Graham. “We’ve sold plants from that range to Kew Gardens and the Lost Gardens of Heligan.”
Graham and Rachel’s own garden is a two-and-a-half-acre organic plot. Along with subtropicals, his other passion is for productive plants. “We have an acre of vegetables, a huge orchard and vines, a peach tunnel and figs. There’s also a forest garden, which is low maintenance because it’s all self-feeding: you plant elaeagnus next to greedy nitrogen-feeding trees.”
Many amateur gardeners are unaware of the benefits of forest garden methods — but perhaps more surprisingly, Graham find that younger customers at Trevena Cross often know little about gardening basics, such as when to plant seed potatoes. “Young people are not learning from their parents how to do gardening. They buy daffodils in a pot in the spring, but won’t buy the bulbs in the autumn tem times cheaper. There is a need for a simple TV programmes on going back to basics for people with small gardens or allotments — just like that Delia Smith series on how to boil an egg!”