Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2013: A conversation with gardener Gareth Wearn
Trengwainton means “dwelling near the spring”. What does this tell us about the history of this site?
There are certainly a lot of springs here, and I wonder if the Celts used to worship around them? A lot of the history has been lost, but at the time of the big hurricane in 1987, we found a flint knife in the top woodland, which came from northern France around 4,000 years ago. Trengwainton was a farm until the early 1800s, when Sir Rose Price came here: he had made money out of slavery in Jamaica. He did a lot of work in the garden, and the layout is still basically the same as it was in his time. The Bolitho family bought Trengwainton in 1867, and they still live here, although the house and gardens were handed over to the National Trust in 1961.
What are the benefits and challenges of gardening on this site?
Most of the garden is sheltered, and it never stops growing, even in winter. The springs come up and wash the soil out, and we’ve had eight-foot shrubs falling over. We get south-westerlies, and just as many blows from the north-east. The Bolitho family planted a big beech windbreak, and after the hurricane, when we lost 300 trees, we planted another strip of indigenous trees. We take cuttings of tender stuff as an insurance policy over winter, and we fleece up the bananas and tree ferns. We unsheet them after Christmas to check there’s no rot, or mice making nests inside the fleece.
The walled kitchen garden, supposedly built to the dimensions of Noah’s Ark by Sir Rose Price, is one of Trengwainton’s most distinctive features. How has it changed over the years?
When I came here, more than 20 years ago, the beds had been intensively cropped, with not much rotation. The soil was tired, and loads of green manure had to be ploughed in. Some of the beds are now looked after by schools and community groups. As well as the vegetable beds, we’re hoping this year to have perennial cut flowers like old varieties of chrysanthemums. The sloping beds were built after the rest of the walled garden, in the 1820s. When Mount Tambora erupted in the Indian Ocean, it sent up such a cloud of volcanic ash that it affected weather patterns in western Europe. We think Sir Rose incorporated these raised beds to fend off starvation.
What was the thinking behind the Dig for Victory garden?
It’s a replica World War Two allotment, with Victorian to wartime varieties. When our ships were sunk by German U-boats, people started growing their own vegetables, and what I was trying to get across is that children today should be learning to grow veg, ready for when petrol gets more expensive in years to come.
We also have chickens, and plants which were grown at the time, like dog roses: they have 20 times the amount of vitamin C as oranges and were collected and turned into rosehip syrup. And there is an Anderson shelter, with artefacts like a tin helmet and gas mask, so children can see what life was like in wartime.
What can visitors see in February?
If it’s a mild winter, magnolias will be on the way. They tend to have a really good year and then take a rest. They didn’t do much last year, so we’re hoping for a good show. A lot of snowdrops should be out, along with camellias, rhododendrons and hellebores, and there will be daffodils and crocuses in the meadow. But if there’s a cold snap, everything could be set back.
What are your plans for the garden in 2013?
We’re hoping to have a new glasshouse and polytunnel. In Victorian times, there were seven glasshouses, all heated by steam. Now we have just one. If we could propagate more of our own plants, we could cut down on imports, which helps prevent diseases like phytopthera and ash dieback. It’s how things always used to be done, and it saves a lot of money. We have two new staff to train up this year. In a garden of 25 aces, we’ve been quite stretched, so it will be nice to have more time for mowing and corrective pruning. We also have a good crew of around 20 volunteers: we’d be lost without them.