Photographs: Charles Francis
September 2014: Over-ripe fruit in May Tree Garden is never wasted: owners Mike and Jayne Truscott are happy to share what they grow with their feathered friends. ”We always leave a hefty crop of blackcurrants for the birds,” says Mike. “And if you put raspberries on the ground, blackbirds will walk behind you and pick them up.”
This month, Mike and Jayne will be hosting an open day at May Tree in aid of Cornwall Wildlife Trust. Their garden was selected by the trust as a perfect illustration of how even a small urban green space can become a haven for wildlife. May Tree covers just a quarter of an acre and is close to the centre of St Austell.
The creation of the garden has been a 15-year project for Mike. He began with what was more or less a blank space, and he admits that when he started, providing food and shelter for birds and insects was not his priority. “It was about designing an outdoor room for us — and also making a protest about the over-development of St Austell, where gardens are now about the same size as postage stamps,” he says. “We believe in keeping Cornwall green.”
Within the outdoor room, he established a variety of planting areas, and discovered that this diverse habitat was attracting including hedgehogs, an array of butterflies — and, of course, blackbirds. “We now have quite a large amount of buddleia, which brings in the butterflies, and we plant a lot of highly-coloured flowers to attract bees,” he says. “There’s an area we leave wild, with a lot of stinging nettles, on the outside of the veg plot. And we have an awful lot of slowworms — so slugs and snails are at a minimum.”
May Tree is the last of 11 gardens which have been taking part in Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s open garden programme this summer. The trust sees the scheme as an opportunity to showcase wildlife-friendly gardens — some of which are not normally open — spread the word about its work protecting wildlife and wild places, and raise vital funds.
“The scheme is now in its fourth year, and 2014 has been the most successful so far,” says Chris Betty, the trust’s acting deputy head of marketing and fundraising. “The opening event at Pedn Billy on the Helford Passage set the tone, attracting a record-breaking 200 people and raising over £1,500 in just a few hours.” Pedn Billy is set in ancient woodland bordering Port Navas creek and the Helford River, and visitors were able to admire a floral firework display of magnificent magnolias, rhododendrons and azaleas, as well as meeting Maisy the brown long-eared bat, Norman the noctual bat and their friends in the Cornwall Bat Group.
“Another stand out event was the amazing 52-acre wildlife labyrinth of Lethytep, which is near Lanreath,” says Chris. There are meadows, woodland and lakes there, and it is a great area for dragonflies, wild flowers and particularly butterflies.” In contrast, Poppy Cottage on the rural Roseland Peninsula, is only an acre in size, but like May Tree, makes imaginative use of limited space, with a feast of wildlife-friendly flowers, and ducks and chickens ambling around the orchard.
Arundell, on a spectacular headland at Crantock, and the Barn House, on the cliffs at Poundstock, are both proof that an exposed, windswept location on the north Cornwall coast is no barrier to creating a tranquil, beautiful garden .Hedges protect the abundant wildlife and flowers in Barn House’s wooded valley, and clever use of shelterbelts at Arundell has permitted the creation of both cottage-style and exotic planting.
Trenarth, set around a 17th century farmhouse close to Constantine, will be the last garden to open for the trust before May Tree brings the season comes to a close. Visitors can stroll along an ancient green lane leading through woods rich with wildlife and a pond with a tree fern grove. Trenarth also has a resident colony of bats.
Cornwall Wildlife Trust is already sourcing gardens for 2015. “We’re hoping to build on this year’s success,” says Chris. “Our three brilliant volunteer coordinators — Belinda Brain, Jo Swingewood and Rebecca David — will be approaching owners of gardens with an interest in wildlife, and discussing how we can run an event with them. We’re looking at some very exciting locations, including one garden, owned by a long- term trust member, that has never been opened to the public before. The co-ordinators set everything up on the day with help from additional volunteers, and this year we’ve also been really helped by the kind donations of pasties and cream teas from Crantock Bakery and Roddas, two companies who clearly care for Cornwall’s wildlife and wild places.”
The trust shares Mike Truscott’s concern that an increasing number of gardens which have provided valuable wildlife habitats for many years are being lost to housing development. Alison Salisbury, who writes a blog for the trust about life in her wild garden, Old Zanzig, near Wadebridge, offers a series of tips for gardeners who want to do their bit for wildlife.
Go organic, she says, compost everything, plant a tree and create a pond. “However small, a pond provides an environment for many more garden helpers — all of them fascinating — and drinking water for birds and hedgehogs. Don’t fight nature: accept the plants that thrive on your patch naturally — including weeds, if you can — and grow a variety of shrubs, climbers and flowers, to provide food and shelter throughout the year.”
It is also important to keep some areas of the garden unkempt — piles of leaves, and dead wood and foliage, are useful to birds, insects or mammals — support native species, make sure that what you plant is useful as well as lovely, and go easy on the strimmer. “If you do things by hand, you see all the bugs, frogs, mice and spiders, and you don’t use petrol, make a horrible noise or create a cloud of pollution,” says Alison.
She also advocates sharing the fruits of your labour with visiting birds, just as Mike and Jayne do at May Tree. “If a blackbird eats some of your raspberries, enjoy the fact that you have a blackbird to sing to you.“