Dicksonia antarctica

Photographs: Charles Francis

February 2009: A conversation with head gardener Richard Morton

What’s the history of the garden?

The estate was purchased by Edward Bolitho in the 1830s, and by the 1880s, it was mentioned in horticultural journals as having an extensive rhododendron garden. The current layout is mostly the work of Edward’s son Thomas, an extremely keen plantsman. The Bolitho family acquired their wealth through the West Cornwall tin mining industry. They had smelting works in Penzance, and mining artefacts like smelting kettles and tin ingot moulds were brought here as garden ornaments. We use them to grow water lilies and other aquatic plants.

Water lilies

Trewidden is a hidden gem. It’s one of the great historic gardens of Cornwall, but it still has the intimate feel of a private garden. It’s not well-known, perhaps because we’ve only been open to the public in the last few years, apart from occasional charity days. We’re often confused with Trewithen, near Truro.

What are the special features of Trewidden? 

The tree fern pit is reputedly the oldest site of tin operation in the county, and we have one of the largest camellia collections in Cornwall.

Camellia x williamsii 'November Pink'

Camellia x williamsii ‘November Pink’ 

Camellia oleifera

Camellia olefera 

 There are also many champion trees here, of which over half are magnolias. On the site of what was once the orchard is the south garden, which contains Magnolia ‘Trewidden Belle’, one of our signature plants, plus a number of Japanese maples planted around 100 years ago. There’s still one apple tree in the orchard! Another gem is Butia capitata — jelly palm — the largest of its kind growing outside in the UK. It’s at least 100 years old, and has a gnarled trunk due to severe frost damage in the late 1980s. It comes from South America, where people make a jelly from the fruit.

Butia capitata

 What have you and your team been focussing on during 2008?  

Clearance work is ongoing to remove self-sown camellias and fuchsias. We’ve also been removing laurel to create new views across the tree fern pit. Trewidden has always been a spring garden but on the woodland fringe at the back of the walled garden, we’ve planted hardy ginger to extend the planting season into late summer.

What are your plans for 2009?

In the spring we’ll be planting a new grove of Musa basjoo — Japanese hardy bananas — in an area we’ve cleared above the top lawn.  There was an ailing specimen tree there, and it was decided it would be prudent to remove it and replant the area. That area of the garden is very traditional, with trees around a lawn, and what I wanted to do was put in a full stop of tropical effect as a contrast. I’m also planning to reinstate the small waterfall in the rock garden. It’s probably Victorian in origin, but it hasn’t been working for as long as anyone can remember.

Trewidden opens for the new season in February. What can the first visitors of 2009 expect to see?

There are lots of camellias. Magnolia ‘Trewidden Belle’ is in flower, and some of the other magnolias will be on the point of bursting into bloom. There is also Telanthophora grandifolia, a giant groundsel from the uplands of Mexico, which has spectacular yellow flowers.

Giant groundsel

What are the horticultural challenges of gardening on this site?

With our location facing Mount’s Bay, wind can be a problem. We have to maintain our shelterbelt in good condition: we’re not a valley garden like Trebah and Glendurgan. We have a mild microclimate, which is a double-edged sword. You can grow things which can’t be grown upcountry, but there is no true dormant period. Even in the depths of winter, things are still growing. Instead of cutting the grass weekly, we cut it every three weeks!