Photographs: Charles Franci
December 2015: A conversation with head gardener Tom Clarke
There will be reindeer in residence at Trelissick this month, and visits from Father Christmas. What can visitors see in the garden?
We’re illuminating it at weekends in December, when it will stay open until 7pm: there will be spotlights in some of our biggest trees, which will show the garden in a wonderful new light. The atmosphere during the day is different, too. After the trees drop their leaves, lovely views of the River Fal are suddenly revealed. You can see the big boats moored there, and the working boats of the traditional oyster industry. Trelissick feels more of a maritime garden in the winter. But there is still colour in December. The oaks don’t usually lose their leaves until after Christmas, and there are a few mahonias, and some lovely scented plants like winter-flowering sarcococcas and shrubby loniceras. We do have a few very early Cornish daffodils which poke their heads up before Christmas. And even in the depths of winter, the valley feels like a Burmese rain forest, with all the jungly plants there.
What has been the focus for the Trelissick gardening team during 2015?
We’ve created a cool, shady Himalayan valley, after clearing a lot of Rhododendron ponticum and laurel. We’ve also planted some interesting southern hemisphere conifers, like phyllocladus from New Zealand. Throughout the garden, we’ve had to make the difficult decision to take down some really big trees, especially pines, which are coming to the end of their lives. They don’t grow old gracefully — they tend to give up the ghost and fall over, so they’re quite dangerous. Ageing trees and plants are also susceptible to disease. But we have a whole new generation of young plants to replace them. Trelissick will still be here in 500 years, we hope, so with every tree we plant, we think about the impact it will have in the future. An oak will survive for centuries, so you don’t want to have to cut it down in 20 years’ time because it’s in the way of something else.
How much is known about the garden’s history?
It was used for grazing in the 17th century, and the woodland is only about 150 years old. The house was built here because of the river views, and the land to the east became the garden.
From its origins as a Victorian pleasure ground, it became the wonderful plantsman’s garden it is now. Trelissick has a timeless quality. It’s like an onion: there are many layers of planting, because each owner has added new things. The National Trust has now owned the garden for 60 years – longer than any previous owner.
What has the trust aimed to do at Trelissick?
Plants have always been brought here from all over the world, and that is a tradition we’re continuing. As gardeners, we’re here to grow and nurture plants: we’re not just park keepers, and the garden isn’t a museum. We don’t worry whether something we plant now would have been around in 1850. In terms of its conservation value, Trelissick is more about location and layout: not just the river views, but the fantastic mixture of woodland planting, lawns and wildflowers.
Most of our visitors come in the summer, so we’ve put a lot of time and effort into improving our herbaceous borders. Unlike many gardens in other parts of the country, we can leave the plants out all year round. We have gingers, cannas and bananas in our borders, and leafy perennials which are exotic, but also Cornish, as they do so well here. The borders look good until they are clobbered by the first frost. Last year we didn’t have frost; in other years, it has been minus 6 in the first week in December.
What challenges does this unpredictable weather present?
Climate change is a real phenomenon. In the last few years, we’ve had one of the wettest Augusts on record, and one of the warmest Januarys. Cornwall is particularly vulnerable to autumnal storms: two years ago, we had to close the garden two or three times a week for six weeks. Some plants and trees are more susceptible to the changing climate than others. We have to be more selective with the plants we use. The important thing is to try things out and accept that some won’t survive.
Trelissick is now open all year round. What difference has this made?
It has changed the way we manage the place. We used to have 70,000 visitors in a good year; this year, we’ve had 170,000. We have holidaymakers who come several times a year, as well as a lot of local visitors who feel passionately about the garden. It’s lovely that they can now see it in the winter. We do have to close off some areas, so that people don’t slip on wet lawns, but we have good gravel paths, and people can see 90 per cent of the garden in the winter. In January, people don’t want to sit on a lawn having a picnic anyway!
What are your plans for 2016?
I’ve just taken delivery of a lot of plants from the National Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre in Devon, including some nice maples. Cornwall isn’t renowned for autumn colour, but maples and acers will guarantee it, whatever the weather.
Because Trelissick House is now open to the public, we’re also spending a lot of time developing the original entrance to the garden so that visitors can see the lovely view of the river as soon as they arrive.