Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2013: A conversation with site manager Jon O’Donoghue and garden manager John Lanyon
Why is 2013 a special year for Glendurgan?
Jon: Glendurgan opened for the first time in March 1963, so we’re celebrating 50 years of welcoming visitors. The garden was created by Alfred Fox in the 1830s, and was owned by the Fox family until 1962. They gave it to the National Trust because they wanted to share Glendurgan. It was incredibly generous of them. Charles and Caroline Fox are still actively involved in the garden.
What are you doing to mark the 50th anniversary?
Jon: We’ll be giving the 50,000th visitor a golden ticket, which will give them a free meal and various other treats: we estimate that that will be in early July. On the weekend of April 20 and 21, there will be free entry to Glendurgan, and we’ll be harking back to 1963. We’ll be dressing in 60s gear, and we’re encouraging visitors to do the same. There will be music from the 60s, and talks about how the garden has developed in 50 years. This year the Fox family have given us permission to open Glendurgan on Sundays, and we’ll be offering Sunday roasts and cream teas.
What gives Glendurgan its special character?
John: This is a very natural garden. It doesn’t have beds and borders. It’s in a beautiful setting on the Helford, and it’s clothed in wildflowers — that’s the magic of Glendurgan. You get this amazing contrast of wildflower banks with ornamental plants. So many Cornish gardens have dominant magnolias and camellias which crowd everything else out: we try to place plants so that they don’t spoil the dramatic vistas across the garden. There are also special features, like the maze. It’s laurel, and is one of the original features of the garden, planted in 1833. I always think it looks like a tea plantation. It’s very important to us, because it’s unique.
What’s been happening in the garden in the last year?
John: The winding path at the top is a nice entrance to the garden, but the planting there was a bit of a muddle. We’ve taken away a lot of camellias and added plants which let in light and give colour later in the season, like South African watsonias, and angel’s fishing rods. We’ve started to propagate high-altitude proteas, and we’re hoping to have some South African heathers. Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve taken out cornus and myrtle, and put in some Cornish rhododendrons like ‘Penjerrick’: we’ve been working with Duchy College, which microprops them, and it’s really good to have new stock. We’ve also put in a Magnolia sargentiana ‘Alba’ which was grafted from one of our own plants. On the camellia walk, we’re mixing things up a bit — keeping some japonicas and williamsiis, but adding things like ‘Cornish Snow’.
What can visitors see in April?
John: April at Glendurgan is magical. The banks are covered with primroses, followed by carpets of bluebells, which are absolutely extraordinary. There are also dramatic rhodos and magnolias. After a long spell of cold and wet weather, it is a joy to be somewhere so lovely and lush and green.
What are the challenges of gardening on such steep slopes?
John: We have to do all the work around the garden on Mondays when we’re not open, because you can’t get a tractor down here. We prune and weed the hedges of the maze once a year or they would get woody. All the banks have to be strimmed twice a year, and raked, and everything we rake taken away. It’s very, very hard work. If the garden wasn’t managed in this way, the grass would grow high and the effect of the bluebells would be lost.
What are your plans for this year — and beyond?
John: Twenty years ago, an area of the garden was planted to look like Bhutan, and we’re now planning to make it even more Bhutan-like. We’ve taken out three pretty standard Japanese conifers and a willow, and we’re planting more rhodos. We’re hoping to naturalise ginger lilies here — they’re a great feature of Bhutan. In our New Zealand area, which already has Pseudopanax arboreus and different tree ferns, we’re adding things like Fuchsia excorticata, which has amazing peeling bark.
We’re always thinking ahead: we planted some Canary Island palms 20 years ago, and they’re just starting to make a contribution. Our new oak tree is just a stick at the moment, but in years to come we hope it will be a big feature. The garden is evolving all the time, but it still keeps its essence.