Photographs: Charles Francis
August 2016: Many gardeners feel they can relax in August — but Paul Willetts has more than 30 gardens to look after, and at this time of year they all need to look their best. The gardens belong to the holiday cottages in the grounds of Newquay’s Headland Hotel, which is welcoming many hundreds of holidaymakers this month.
Visitors will be greeted by hollyhocks and hydrangeas, poppies and agapanthus, fuchsia and festuca, echiums and cordylines.
Paul chose the shrubs, perennials and grasses to create an atmosphere which is part traditional cottage garden and part tropical holiday paradise. But his first challenge when he came to the hotel two years ago was to find plants which could survive on an extremely exposed site overlooking Fistral Beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
Paul has responsibility not just for the cottage gardens, but also for the hotel grounds. “Trees don’t really grow here, because of the salt and the wind,” he says. “And the soil is predominantly sand, which means it drains away quickly. It’s hard to improve it, but I do top the shale up with compost, and mulch every few months. In winter, the grass gets beaten up by the storms, and in the summer, it only takes a week with no rain for it to brown off — although after a couple of days, it does green up again.”
Throughout the grounds, Paul is actively encouraging the wildflowers which grow there naturally. “The purple-flowering plants which cover our drystone walls are Erigeron glaucus roseus, and we’re now taking cuttings which we can use elsewhere in the grounds. There’s also a purple succulent that grows on the cliffs, Carpobrotus edulis, which I’ve propagated and planted near our tennis courts. And we’ve planted wildflower plug plants into gaps in the walls, like marsh mallow, lesser bird’s foot trefoil, viper’s bugloss, ox-eyed daisies, evening primrose, kidney vetch and fennel.
“Sea thrift has always been here. There’s also a lot of Cineraria ‘Silver Dust’. When I first came here, I thought it was the best thing ever — the yellow flowers and silver leaves look lovely. But they self-seed everywhere to the point where they are a real pain, so this year, after they’ve flowered, I’ll cut them right back.”
The pitch and putt and golf courses have to be regularly reseeded and weeded, but Paul tries not to use too many chemicals there. As he says: “Anything you put into the soil you might as well put into the sea”.
However, it is the cottage gardens which take up most of his time. “There are 39 cottages here, and all except four of them have their own garden,” he says. “They were built about 14 years ago, but nothing much was done in the gardens at that time. When I did my foundation degree at Duchy College, we were taught which plants would survive on exposed sites in Cornwall. I’ve found that not all of them do, so it’s been trial and error.”
He adds: “One problem is that you can only get to some of the gardens through the cottages, which means you get grass everywhere. And you have to time the work for when guests aren’t there.”
Paul has placed pots of geraniums, phormiums and aeoniums outside the cottages, and planted succulents in raised beds.
“One of the cottage gardens look right out to sea, and we’ve put in coastal grasses and wallflowers. In one of the more sheltered gardens, we have tamarisk, lavender and Skimmia japonica, and the most sheltered of all has a fragrant hybrid tea rose called ‘Thinking of You’, which was given to the hotel in remembrance of someone who used to stay here. It’s doing well — much better than we expected.”
Paul has also created beds in the spaces between the cottages. One was a patch of wasteland; another was what he describes as “a lumpy bumpy grassy area”. Thrift and dianthus are coping with the conditions, but rosemary and some varieties of lavender have not done so well. “They get through the summer, but the first winds of the winter strip the leaves off them,” Paul explains.
“There are also areas where we’ve grown the grass and only cut it once a year, so that there are little sheltered spots, to encourage wildlife and insects. I’d now like to put in a raised herb garden in a communal area, so people who stay here can use the herbs.”
The success of succulents in raised beds and planters in and around the cottages has encouraged Paul to use them elsewhere in the grounds. “Succulents are a new addition to the terrace. They’re in granite planters with glass screens in front, which warm them up in the winter if there is any cold weather. It’s like having half a greenhouse round your plants.
“I’ve used things like Aloe nobilis, aeonium, echeveria and sempervivum, which are all hardy enough to take the salt-laden winds as well as a light frost, as they just need to be in a well-drained soil. We use 50 per cent soil and 50 per cent crushed glass, which is decorative and has good drainage — the glass comes from the restaurant and bar here.”
Outside the hotel swimming pool, area, there are agaves in pots in a sea of pebbles. “The pots are set at an angle, so if there is any rain, it won‘t spill out the top,” says Paul. “In November, we give them shelter in a cold frame, and then we put them back in May. But most of the other succulents can survive the winter, so it’s not worth moving them. We do fleece aloe and yucca.
“The hotel is always fully booked for Christmas and New Year. After that, there are general landscaping tasks, building walls, pressure-washing decking and pathways. It can be blowing a gale at that time of year, although it’s generally not that cold. By January, we have our first daffodils, crocuses and irises.”
But January seems far away right now, when the Headland Hotel’s grounds and cottages are ablaze with brilliant summer colour.