Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2015: On a winter walk through his garden overlooking the River Fowey, Andrew Leslie has discovered camellias and magnolias already covered in buds — a sight guaranteed to gladden the heart of any gardener. “This spring has the potential to be spectacular,” he enthuses.
As chairman of Cornwall Garden Society, Andrew has particular cause to hope that this potential is fulfilled. The society’s flagship event, the Cornwall Spring Flower Show, is always a treat for people with a passion for plants – but it is extra special when the weather co-operates.
Last year, a mild December and January brought forth a profusion of brilliant blooms, but the show weekend itself was one of the wettest in its recent history. “The weather on the Saturday wasn’t very good, and on the Sunday it was dreadful,” recalls Andrew. He was encouraged that, despite the deluge, thousands of visitors still flocked to the event, reflecting its growing status as Cornwall’s version of the Chelsea Flower Show. “It is the first big show of the horticultural year, and it is now recognised as such,” he says.
Andrew hopes that this year’s show will be less about scurrying between wind-battered marquees, and more about picnicking in the grounds of the Boconnoc Estate, near Lostwithiel, which has been the event’s home for more than a decade. “Boconnoc is a beautiful place, and on a dry, sunny, early spring day, the show is a fantastic day’s outing.
The Saturday is very much the gardeners’ day: it’s an opportunity to buy many beautiful plants after the ravages of winter. Sunday is more a family day, and we try to have attractions for children, for whom admission is free.”
The show, which takes places on the last weekend in March, will be opened by highly-respected TV presenter Joe Swift — well-known for his appearances on Gardeners’ World — who is making his first visit to the event. He will deliver a garden design masterclass, judge the Plantsman’s Award and preside over a Gardeners’ Question Time event.
An eminent team of judges will give their expert verdicts on entries in the floral classes — magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, daffodils, alpines, bulbs and pot plants — as well as floral art, show gardens, the children’s section and trade stands. “The quality of exhibitors continually gets better,” Andrew says. “We try each year to maintain this very high standard.”
The first Cornwall Spring Flower Show took place more than a century ago, but the event has grown considerably in recent years, thanks, Andrew believes, to a succession of dynamic people at the helm. “Much of the success of the show is down to the show director. We have been very fortunate to have Sally-Jane Coode, then Debbie Evans and now Martin Pallett, who took over last year. Each in their way has made an important contribution. We’re also very grateful to our fantastic team of volunteers for everything they do to make the show a ‘must visit’ event.”
Andrew’s own involvement with the show started soon after he and his wife Vanessa — who was born in Cornwall — moved from Hampshire to live at Ethy House, a Georgian country house at Lerryn.
“I exhibited a camellia, which won a first prize, and I was hooked,” he says. “I like the challenge of experimenting and seeing what will grow.”
His interest in horticulture dates back to his childhood in Somerset. “My mother was a very keen gardener, although her interest was in herbaceous plants, and mine is in trees. Planting trees is a way of leaving a mark for the future. Some of those I planted 15 years ago are now mature 25-foot high trees.”
There was little for opportunity for tree-planting when Andrew was living in a town house in Chelsea, or at the holiday home which he and Vanessa acquired at Harlyn Bay on Cornwall’s north coast. ”It was right by the sea, and nothing would grow there,” he says. “Part of the attraction of Ethy was the garden: there are about 18 acres of land here.
“It was a challenge, because nothing had been done for years. We decided to do it area by area, starting with the wood. A lot of trees, such as sycamore and ash, have seeded themselves — but there are also oaks and beeches planted 100 to 150 years ago, which are spectacular. Many trees are taller than they should be, because the wood was so overgrown: they all had to fight for light. Wildflowers have spread through the wood since we let light in.
“The first thing we planted was the north-facing camellia wall, and then magnolias and other species trees. We have created various walkways and glades so there is a surprise round every corner, leading up to the top of the garden, where there is a fabulous bluebell wood, which had been submerged under brambles for many years.” Andrew has also cleared a long-neglected area of larch and ash to create a small lake.
“I never did any horticultural courses – it was all learning on the hoof,” he says. “The more I got into it, the more fascinating I found it.”
He became an active member of Cornwall Garden Society, and when Bryan Coode retired as chairman seven years ago, he was invited to take on the role. “We have an excellent team who run the various activities that we provide for our members, and my role as chairman is to make sure it all runs smoothly.”
CGS, set up in 1832, with the help of a donation of 10 guineas from King William IV, aims ”to encourage and improve the science, art and practice of horticulture, promote good gardening principles and promote, conserve and protect the national environment in Cornwall”.
A current scheme is to support 21st century plant-hunters. Thanks to CGS sponsorship, Ned Lomax, a gardener at the National Trust’s Glendurgan, travelled to the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan, to learn more about magnolias and other exotics which are grown in Cornish gardens, and research new plants that might be suitable for introduction to Glendurgan’s own Bhutan-themed area.
Andrew is enthusiastic about the benefits of the expedition: “Ned’s interest in rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias and the exotic and tender plants of the southern hemisphere has already resulted in some very interesting work at Glendurgan. He is now lecturing on the subject to Cornwall Garden Society members and writing a report for our journal.”
Ned Lomax with Andrew
As well as running a programme or lectures and garden visits, CGS also encourages Cornwall’s gardeners, both amateur and professional, to exchange ideas and knowledge to help them make the most of their gardens. “Cornwall is a wonderful place to live,“ says Andrew, “and a wonderful place to garden.”
The garden at Ethy