View from the top of the valley

Photographs: Charles Francis

December 2016: A conversation with head gardener Darren Dickey

There’s a lot going on at Trebah this month, including Santa Days and a toboggan trail. What is the atmosphere like in the garden at Christmas?

Even on a cold day, if you’re wrapped up, you can sit outside and get a bit of winter sunshine, and there are days when you can have the garden to yourself, which is quite special. Once the gunnera have died away in the winter, you get misty cold air around them — it’s like an alien landscape. During December, we’ll be doing Christmas wreath-making workshops, using eucalyptus and beech stems, orange segments, dried chilli and dried cones. We also use material from the garden to decorate the visitor centre at Christmas.

There is still plenty of colour in the garden.  What are the seasonal highlights?

Grevillea rosmarinifolia and other members of the grevillea family are great for winter interest: they’re guaranteed to be in bloom in December. Sarcococca — Christmas box — will also be flowering, and it has a lovely scent which carries down to the paths below. Ageratina ligustrina, the incense bush, flowers its heart out all winter. We’ve planted acers and myrtles for their coloured stems or patterned bark. Acer griseum and the South African myrtle, Luma apiculata, have lovely cinnamon-coloured bark, which is highlighted by the low light coming through the garden at the end of the year and is a good contrast with the evergreens.

Chilean myrtle

Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata)

Dichroa febrifuga is a member of the hydrangea family, which produces blue flowers from November and goes on through the winter. Like hydrangeas, the colour is affected by the soil. With our acid soil, it is a lovely gentian blue.

What has been happening at Trebah during 2016?

The year began with the flowering of our big Magnolia campbellii. It actually started flowering at Christmas — I’ve never known it to happen that early. We’ve planted another campbellii on the other side of the garden: they say it can take up to 50 years to flower, so I might see it before I retire! It’s all about planting for the future. We also had another surprise this year, with the blooming of the Agave americana, a big specimen plant in the rockery. It’s known as the century plant because it is thought to flower only once in 100 years, although it’s actually more like every 35 years. I’ve been at Trebah for 25 years, and head gardener for more than 10, and I’ve been waiting for it to flower all that time, so it’s been very exciting to see the bright yellow flowers this year. It should still be on song at Christmas. We’ve been building on our herbaceous planting this year. Wachendorfia is quite an unusual South African perennial, with orange flowers spikes in the summer, which is rather nice. Persicarias give colour through the summer into the autumn, and hedychiums — ginger lilies — go on flowering into November. When they’ve stopped flowering, the seed pods break open and you have a splash of colour. They’ve been amazing this year, and they bulk up so quickly in the Cornish climate.

Hedychium spicatum seeds

Hedychium spicatum

What other changes have you made in the garden in your years as head gardener?

Something we’ve done in the last few years is to introduce a lot more winter-flowering bulbs, like Cyclamen coum, which are dormant in summer under the beech trees, but come to life in the winter. We’ve also planted over 70,000 snowdrops: they’re such an iconic sight — so pure with deep green leaves. In the Stumpery, we created a pool and a cascade which flows down the rock face which was once part of an old quarry. The sound of the water encourages people into the area, and it creates humidity for the tree ferns. We planted tetrapanax and banana plants there four years ago, and they’re now beginning to make an impact. Trebah has always been known for exotic plants and it’s a tradition we want to continue. We’ve cleared a lot of laurel and Rhododendron ponticum, which has opened up spaces for us to add colour for the winter months. The wind coming off the beach can be quite bracing at times, and the laurel did protect us from the easterlies, but by thinning it out, we’ve let more light in.

Autumn colour

You can now appreciate the trees in all their glory: the twisted patterns of the stem of the sweet chestnut and the silver of the beech. The deciduous screen at the bottom of the garden catches the wind and filters it through the garden to stop the cold damaging the plants.

What are your plans for 2017?

We do a lot of planting in the winter, but it shouldn’t be about filling every available space. You’ve got to look forward to how you can make more of the garden the following year. The laurel clearance we’ve done has given us planting opportunities, and we’ll be bringing in a mini digger to level the ground and plant some more acers and maples, and some shrubs like mahonia. We have two wollemi palms, and we hope to plant some more: they are feature trees which give good value in a small space. We’re going to have the game larder renovated over the winter. It dates from the 1850s and is the only listed building on the site. You can look up to it from the koi pool.

Can you describe some of Trebah’s most iconic plants?

The plants in Hydrangea Valley were planted for revenue in the 50s: they were sent up to Covent Garden market. It takes us two or three weeks to prune all the hydrangeas.

Bridge and hydrangeas

We also have a collection of over 50 different varieties of bamboo, including Phyllostachys edulis, which grows faster than any other bamboo.

Darren Dickie with Phyllostachys edulis

Some have lovely coloured stems: Phyllostachys nigra is black and Borinda papyrifera white. A network of paths leads through the bamboo so you can view the different varieties, and children love playing there. We’re very proud of our oldest plants: we have some sweet chestnuts which are about 250 years old, and on Petry’s Path, there is a yew which predates the garden by many years.