Snowdrop 'Mrs McNamara'

Photographs: Charles Francis

February 2008: A conversation with owner Alison O’Connor

What is the history of Tregoose?

It was once the home of the agent of the Trewithen estate, and was later run as a guest house. There has always been a garden, but it was very overgrown when we came here in 1982. An enormous Cupressus macrocarpa had fallen 10 years earlier, and the roots were 20 foot in the air. Earthmovers couldn’t do it – it took three days to blow it out with explosives! There were trunks everywhere, and yews which were so fat and unshaped that we couldn’t get down the steps between them. There were very few interesting plants.

You used to be a horticultural lecturer. Did you draw up detailed plans before you began work on the garden?

No. I just started in one corner of the walled garden and moved down from there.  The “must-do” things were to get rid of the sycamores, and to create shelterbelts. We found two seedlings of Viburnum cylindricum, which has leaves with a waxy covering. We moved one, and it is now growing into a nice big tree which creates a lot of shelter. One side of the garden was full of bamboo: beneath it was a beautiful arched gate which had been completely hidden.

Alison O'Connor

We took out seven lorryloads of soil to create a car turning area. I was busy in the borders planting shrubs – Parrotia persica, Acer ‘Sango Kaku’, camellias and rhododendrons. I wanted something to look at all year round, scented plants, and more space. Twice, we have persuaded local farmers to let us extend the garden into fields.

What are the special features of Tregoose?

Snowdrops: I now have 60 different cultivars. There were some here when we came, just the common Galanthus nivalis and nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ growing on a bank, and they looked extremely happy. But I knew little about snowdrops until a guest brought me some Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ bulbs. They flowered the second week after Christmas, and I had never seen anything take off so quickly. They clump up every year and make drifts. If you’re going to start with one snowdrop, start with that one. Another guest sent me Galanthus reginae-olgae, and then I really got going with snowdrops. I like them because they look gorgeous, and when they’re finished you don’t have to tidy them up or cut them down. They just come up the next year and look clean and beautiful. I key each cultivar in with a different shrub, which I plant near them. You just have to make sure you know exactly where they are, so you don’t plant a shrub on top of them. Camellia sasanqua cultivars are an excellent backdrop.

Galanthus 'Faringdon Double'

Galanthus ‘Faringdon Double’ 

What can visitors see in February?

Plenty of camellias and some rhododendrons, erythroniums, hamamelis, Cyclamen coum, Daphne bholua, and Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’, which will be in flower.  There are also quite a few daffodils, including ‘February Silver’ and ‘February Gold’, and Narcissus cyclamineus, the parent of all the early daffodils which have turned-back petals.

Narcissus 'Cedric Morris'

Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’

What other notable plants do you have?

Pittosporum eugenioides ‘Variegatum’ lights up a dark corner of the garden. Because of my love of scent, I have quite a lot of Rhododendron ‘Frangrantissimum’. Azara microphyllia ‘Variegatum’ smells of vanilla, and Euycryphia ‘Pink Smoke’ is very pretty. Camellia cuspidata ‘Cornish Snow’ is one of the best-ever camellias raised in Cornwall.  It has wonderful foliage and elegant leaves, and becomes more weeping as it grows taller. Why more people don’t propagate it, I don’t know – I would describe it as a “must-have” plant.

What are the pros and cons of gardening here?

This is Grade 2 agricultural land, which is quite unusual in Cornwall. It’s south-facing and not a huge frost pocket. Friends who live just over the hill lose their echiums every year, but I never lose mine. It’s nice for wildlife: we have a rookery, although rabbits are a nuisance. The worse thing is the wind. The east wind is a killer, and the north-west wind caused structural damage. Most of our shelterbelts are now in place – we have an excellent row of Pinus radiata on one side, and Elaeagnus ebbingei has saved my life.

What‘s been happening at Tregoose in recent months?

We’ve had a couple of pretty Cornish hedges built. We kept the stones from walls which had fallen apart over the years, so the Cornish hedger who built the new ones didn’t need to buy any new stone. It looks perfect, like Cornish hedges have always looked, with stones of different sizes. I’ve been planting a little hazel walk with quince, mulberry and medlar, and walnut moved from another part of the garden. I’m underplanting these with various snowdrops.

What do you plant to do next?

We’re going to make a little circular cobbled area, Spanish or Italian style, and revamp one of the beds in the walled garden. It has been emptied so that we can sort out the bindweed and re-manure it. A lot will go back in: Japanese anemones, with forget-me-nots and tulips to keep it ticking over in the spring. This area comes into its own from July to September, with poppies, sedums and penstemons. I’m going to be doing some major cutting back, and ripped out a big golden variegated holly. I’ve also been given an oak – Quercus dentata ‘Carl Ferris Miller’, which has huge leaves

How much help do you have?

One helper comes weekly, and another fortnightly to help with the maintenance. My husband is quite happy to mow the lawn, because the smell of newly-mown grass reminds him of his days playing cricket.

Sundial on millstone