Photographs: Charles Francis
June 2015: Spring is Tommy Teagle’s favourite season, and magnolias are his favourite plants — so there is nowhere he would rather be right now than Lanhydrock. The glorious 30-acre garden near Bodmin boasts an outstanding collection of the exotic shrubs.
As head gardener for 22 years, Tommy has played a major role in developing the collection, which now includes around 130 different varieties, and although Lanhydrock’s magnolia show is at its best in spring, there are magnificent blooms to be seen in every month of the year.
Tommy believes this is one of the reasons why the National Trust garden is so popular, but not the only one. “Lanhydrock is noted for its high presentation standards,” he says with satisfaction. “And we have plenty of space where people can enjoy quiet times.”
Tommy’s achievements have now been recognised by Cornwall Today readers, who voted him the county’s top head gardener. “When I found out I had won the Cornwall Today award, I was delighted and very proud. I’ve never won anything like this before. But the award is also for the hard work of my team, and their amazing dedication. They’ve all been here for at least 20 years, and they love the garden as much as I do.”
Brought up on a farm a few miles west of Lanhydrock, at St Wenn, Tommy never had any doubt about his future career. His family grew vegetables, fruit and flowers for local shows, and he remembers helping his granddad with the preparation of prize exhibits.
As a school leaver, he wrote to Lanhydrock’s then head gardener, Peter Borlase, asking if there were any jobs there. He was offered a nine-month placement, and gained experience in all aspects of the work of the garden team. The National Trust then offered him a permanent job. That was almost 40 years ago.
During his early years at Lanhydrock, Tommy studied horticulture one day a week at Cornwall College, and also benefited from expert tuition in the garden. “Peter had been here since ’66, and he was a really good head gardener,” he says. ”Everything I know I learned from him.”
Following his appointment as assistant head gardener in 1984, he was seconded firstly to Stourhead, the National Trust’s celebrated landscape garden in Wiltshire, and then to Prideaux Place, Padstow, where he worked with Cornwall Gardens Trust on a restoration project.
But he was at Lanhydrock in 1990, when the garden faced one of the greatest challenges in its history — the devastating storm which brought down more than 1,000 trees. “There was a significant amount of work to do on the day itself, and then there was all the replanting afterwards,” Tommy recalls. “But we just thought: ’We’ve got all this work to do, so we’d better roll up our sleeves and get on with it’.
“Looking back, I think the storm was nature’s way of pruning trees. Those that were unhealthy or nearing the end of their lives were the ones we lost. It gave us a lot of opportunities for new planting, so that was something positive to come out of it. One of the things we did was plant a shelterbelt, so we’ll be better prepared if anything like that happens in years to come.”
Three years after the storm, Peter Borlase retired, and Tommy took over the top job. His priorities since taking charge have included not just the growth of the magnolia collection and the woodland garden, but also extending Lanhydrock’s flowering season.
“We’re open all year round and we have well over 200,000 visitors a year, so the garden has to look good at all times, not just spring,” he explains. “We have summer bedding and roses, we’ve introduced autumn-flowering shrubs, and to increase winter interest, we’ve planted 25,000 additional snowdrops, and early-flowering Camellia sasanqua.”
Tommy’s four-strong gardening team starts work at 7.30am every morning, so that as much as possible can be done before the first visitors come through the gates at 10am. “We could be mowing grass, pruning, weeding, mulching — whatever needs doing. Once the garden is open, a big part of the job now is welcoming visitors. We answer their queries, which could be about what’s growing here, or what’s growing in their own garden,” he says.
Tommy is also responsible for Lanhydrock’s commercial plant nursery, which supplies National Trust properties throughout southern England. “I’m not so much a hands-on gardener as I used to be, and I do miss that. But I enjoy the challenges of managing staff and the other things that get thrown at me, like budgets, and I still grow vegetables in my own garden.”
Tommy is only the fifth head gardener at Lanhydrock in a century. In that time, the job has changed significantly — and he is happy being a head gardener in 2015. “A hundred years ago, they didn’t have the equipment we have today, so there would have been much heavier manual work. We’re also fortunate to have so many new plant introductions.”
It is magnolias which remain closest to Tommy’s heart — and he talks with pride about Lanhydrock’s star specimens: pure white ‘Albatross’, deep rose-coloured ‘Peter Borlase’ — and a variety with dark pink blooms which, perhaps not surprisingly, he has a particular fondness for. “If I had to pick one,” he says, “it would be Magnolia ‘Lanhydrock’”.