View from the grotto

Photographs: Charles Francis

April 2011: A conversation with head gardener Gavin Vague

What is the history of the garden? 

It was laid out by Sir William Molesworth in the 1830s and 40s. We know there was a garden of note before, though we don’t know what it was like. Before that, it was a deer park, but that’s going back a long, long way — the Molesworth family have been at Pencarrow for hundreds of years. Sir William was a keen botanist and collector of rhododendrons. He also planted a lot of trees, including a fantastic Monterey cypress, which is now about 120 feet tall. The rock garden he created is the oldest of its kind the in the country. The rocks were brought up from Bodmin Moor by the tenant farmers: they gave their labour, horses and carts. It’s said that Sir William supervised the placing of every rock.


In front of the house, there were shrubs and formal beds — but they were all ripped up before the First World War to save labour costs. A lot of the orchards were abandoned at that time. By the Second World War, a lot of the garden had disappeared.

How was it brought back to life?

When Sir Arscott Molesworth-St Aubyn came here in the 1970s, he cleared the paths and opened the garden up again. He loved rhododendrons, and he rebuilt Sir William’s collection. He cleared a lot of laurel, and planted camellias and rhododendrons amongst what was left.

What’s the story behind Mole’s garden?

It was created in 2002 in memory of Sir Arscott — a fitting tribute to a man who did so much here. It’s a stream and waterfall garden, and very pretty in the summer, with marsh marigolds, hostas, astilbes and grasses. It’s one of my favourite parts of the whole garden.

What can visitors see in the American garden?

We’ve planted species from both North and South America, including Canadian maple and Fitzroya cupressoides, which can grow massive in Chile, where it’s from. It’s a lovely tree, but it never wants to grow upright! We also have conifers, cornus, and halesias, known as the snowdrop tree. There is a gingko and a Chinese fir – but my plan now is that anything planted here has to be American.

What’s been happening here in recent years?

Until relatively recently, a lot of the garden was covered in Rhododendron ponticum, but because of phytopthora infection we have cleared nearly all of it.  This has given us much nicer views through the woodland and opportunities for new planting. Nothing would grow under the ponticum, but now there are bluebells and snowdrops. We’ve also started planting ground cover — there’s a bank by the lake which we have covered with native woodrush — and rhododendrons at the edges of the drive, which is a mile long.

What are your plans for the future?

We don’t want to change the garden too much, but we have to be careful because of phytopthora. We will carry on with rhododendrons, camellias and conifers, and add some summer-flowering plants. There is an old path at the top of the American garden which links with the drive, and we plan to open it up and make a new part of the garden, which will be very exciting. In the American garden, we’re going to have a glade dedicated to the Lobb brothers, the plant-hunters who were born on the Pencarrow estate and brought so many American shrubs here, especially large numbers of monkey puzzle trees.

Is it true that the monkey puzzle was first named at Pencarrow?

A friend of Sir William, Charles Austin, was staying here, and helped him plant a monkey puzzle. He bent down to touch the tree, but it was very prickly, and he pulled his hand back and said: “This would puzzle a monkey!”

Monkey puzzle

There are 50 acres of garden at Pencarrow. How do you manage it all?

There are two gardeners, and a small number of volunteers who do a lot of weeding and deadheading, which is a great help. We let quite a lot of the garden look after itself; there are masses of bluebells, which have spread around without man’s help. We spend most of the winter clearing up and hedge cutting. We have a shelterbelt all round the woodland, so we have to keep it tidy. In the summer, the majority of the time is taken up with grass mowing. I’ve been here for more than 20 years. Sometimes I think the garden hasn’t changed much in that time, and then I look around and see new areas which have been opened up, and I realise we’ve done quite a lot of work.

What’s in bloom in April?

The bluebells will come out towards the end of the month. The camellias will be starting to come to an end, but there will be azaleas, and the rhododendrons are superb in April. Because we have so many, it’s quite a show.

Rhododendron x cilpense

Rhododendron x cilpense