Trebah valley

Photographs: Charles Francis

December 2009: A conversation with head gardener Darren Dickey, director Nigel Burnett, and head of education Chris Hibbert

 What has been your major project in 2009?

Darren: Over the years the garden had become congested, which stops the air flowing, and leaves no space for new planting. We’ve removed about three acres of Rhododendron ponticum, which has given us more planting opportunities and new vistas.

Space created by ponticum clearance

 Now you can see the sheer scale of the trees which were concealed by the ponticum. Among the new plantings are some species trees brought down by Ray Townsend from Kew Gardens. We’re focusing on acers as feature trees, and we’ve also planted up an area of rhododendrons.

What about other schemes such as Trebah’s version of the Loch Ness monster?

Nigel: I thought it would be great to have a monster in our swamp. It has a metal frame covered with moss, and has attracted a lot of attention!

Loch Ness moster

Darren: As well as our Adopt a Tree scheme, we now offer people the opportunity to adopt a bench made from fallen trees from the garden. Some were 200 years old, and it’s nice to use the timber in a way people can enjoy. We also have a bench in the middle of the Bamboozle: we cut the canes from a Chilean bamboo with solid stems.

How do you create year-round interest?

Darren: Autumn colour tends to hold on at Trebah: our challenge is to create things to go through the winter.  The earliest camellias start flowering in October, and this year we have planted a lot of bulbs, including 20,000 snowdrops and 4,000 yellow crocuses, as they flower so early.  They’ll have a lot of impact and look stunning. Gunnera looks good at any time. We cut it down every year and make umbrellas with the leaves.

Darren Dickey with Gunnera manicata leaf

Gunnera and hydrangea were both planted en masse years ago, and to add to this effect we have planted up a large bank of evergreen azaleas. These will help light the way in the spring and finish just in time to hand the baton over to the hydrangeas.

Chris, two special daffodil varieties have been planted in memory of your mother Eira Hibbert, who with your father Tony, created Trebah. How did you decide on daffodils?    

Chris: We wanted something to commemorate my mother’s work, and the daffodils were in bloom when she died. We talked to Ron Scamp, the daffodil grower, about having naming one after her. We chose two, because we couldn’t decide which we liked most. One is ‘Eira Hibbert’ and the other ‘Trebah Gem’: we had a book of remembrance at the visitors’ centre, and on the first page, my mother was described as ‘the one and only Trebah gem‘. ‘Trebah Gem’ is white, because ‘Eira’ is Welsh for snowdrop, and ‘Eira Hibbert’ is a shining yellow.

Narcissus 'Eira Hibbert'

Narcissus ‘Eira Hibbert’ 

Narcissus 'Trebah Gem'

 Narcissus ‘Trebah Gem’

What are your plans for 2010?

Darren: The water garden will take up most of our time this winter. It’s always been seen as the spring part of the garden, but salvias, lobellias and watsonias and many other herbaceous plants will spread the colour into September, maybe October. We’ll throw in some Australian ferns to give form, and perhaps a few bananas. We’re also putting in a winding path, and three ponds with terraced tiers where water can cascade. In another part of the garden, we’re going to have an avenue of tree ferns. They’re such a feature of Trebah; it’s as near as you can get to their native habitat of Tasmania.

What can visitors see in December? 

Darren: Trebah looks different in December: a lot of trees have lost their leaves, which means you can appreciate their structure. Many trees in our new acer glade have colourful bark, and the stems light up the cold winter days. 

Acer palmatum 'Aoyagi'

Acer palmatum ‘Aoyagi’ 

 Fuchsia excorticarta also has lovely peeling bark with iridescent green stems underneath. Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ has pretty little pink flowers, and there are a lot of scented plants, like Christmas box.

Camellia sasanqua 'Crimson King'

Camellia sasanquaCrimson King’ 

Around the visitors’ centre there’s still plenty of colour and interest, with pineapple sage, correa, Tibouchina urvilleana (glory bush) and Grevillea rosmarinifolia. Fuchsia paniculata is one of those rare plants which flower all year. It got hammered last winter, but shot up again.

Grevillea rosmarinifolia

Grevillea rosmanifolia 

 How will Trebah be celebrating Christmas? 

Nigel: The lantern walk on December 12 will be fantastic. Following our involvement in the City of Lights festival in Truro last year, we decided to create our own evening walk, and we received such positive comments that we’ve decided to do it again. The lanterns create a lovely orange glow which picks up the shapes of the trees. And December 20 to 22 are our Santa Days, when children can follow a Christmas trail leading to Santa’s Grotto.

What is your vision for the future of the garden? 

Darren: Trebah develops continuously, which is why it’s such an exciting place to work. Everything we do is about keeping standards as high as possible. There’s a fine balance between making the garden looking too pretty and leaving it too wild. I could find six or seven projects each winter if I had the money and the staff!