Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2011: A conversation with owners Carol and Robert Moule
What’s the history of Chygurno?
Carol: The house was built just over 100 years ago by two suffragettes who set up a branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Penzance, and it was used as a refuge for ladies coming out of prison who had been on hunger strike. When we came here, it hadn’t been lived in for 20 years. You could stand in front of it and not see the sea, as the cliff was choked with brambles, hydrangeas and honeysuckle. In the 1950s, the then owner planted a row of Monterey pines to keep the weather out, but all except two had fallen.
A steep cliff facing north-east is not the obvious site for an exotic garden. How did you begin?
Robert: We started with the terrace and worked our way down. To create paths, we had to shoot 80 tonnes of gravel down long pipes. You can’t get a wheelbarrow down, and it would have taken a long time to carry 80 tonnes in buckets. We uncovered a lot of large granite rocks. We had a visit from the granddaughter of one of the people who once lived in the house, and she said: “Have you discovered the steps to Lookout Rock?” She helped us work out where it was, and then we uncovered the steps. We began planting in 1999. Everything you see from the terrace, apart from bamboo, sycamore and a few rhododendrons, has been planted by us.
How did you decide what to plant?
Robert: We knew nothing about more tender plants when we came here, but we had help from local nurseries. Apart from that, we’ve just picked it up as we went along. We haven’t done much with the lower part of the garden, apart from planting a few rhododendrons, as it’s too steep to work there: you would need ropes.
The garden has many stunning camellias. Did you decide from the start that you wanted to grow them?
Carol: We’re really rhododendron fanatics, but the ones we planted didn’t do well, so we moved them further and further down. We planted hundreds of camellias, which were all just a few inches tall: to look at them now, you wouldn’t believe it. I like self-grooming varieties, as the dead flowers just drop off. The single-flowered ones tend to do this, and they have a longer flowering period. Camellia bokutan has a frilly middle, and ‘Mary Phoebe Taylor’ has large, very pretty blooms. We had some visitors from the International Camellia Society recently, and they were very interested in our Camellia reticulata ‘Francie L’, which has fabulous flowers. It is very difficult to propagate, which is why it is so sought after. They’re a bit tender, but ours is sheltered from the wind.
Camellia reticulata ‘Francie L’
Which other plants thrive here?
Carol: Daphne is probably the most perfumed thing in the garden. It’s amazing, and it flowers for months. Chilean firebush is absolutely covered with flowers in June and July.
Robert: There are self-seeded tree ferns everywhere. Montbretias and crocosmias are very reliable and don’t get attacked by pests. The chain ferns are tip rooters: as soon as the tip touches the ground, it creates another fern. If we left them alone, they would go all through the garden.
How has the unpredictable weather over the past few years affected Chygurno?
Robert: For 10 years, we were growing semi-exotics, like protea, leucadendron and metasideros, but the first bad winter wiped out a lot of tender stuff. We’re now going for tougher things. In a garden like this, if you lose something fairly large, it leaves a huge hole.
Carol: We took our succulents — aeoniums, agave — indoors this year. We didn’t want to lose them for the third time.
What are the other problems with gardening on this site?
Robert: We’re extremely exposed to cold, dry easterlies and north-easterlies, which can cause a lot of damage. Some of our grevilleas have been blown out of the ground all the way down to the bottom of the garden.
Carol: We have slugs, vine weevils, snails and lily beetles — we’ve planted different species of lilies, but they were all eaten.
But the good points clearly outweigh the bad?
Robert: On most days of the year, the garden feels Mediterranean for some part of the day. It’s due to the vivid colours, the way the sun reflects the colour of the sky, and the Monterey pines.
What can visitors see in May?
Robert: Bluebells, azaleas and late rhododendrons, iris, and Chatham Island forget-me-nots.
Rhododendron ‘Scarlet Wonder’
Carol: The garden is steep, but it’s amazing how most visitors manage. And with our new path and seats, you can just do the top part of the garden and then sit down and enjoy the wonderful views.