Saturday, June 30, 2012

Heligan - Lost & Found - Part 1

Well guys - I'm home in Nottingham now but my head still awash with horticultural highlights from my West country trip. Three days ago I went to the 'Lost Gardens of Heligan'. With the number of tourists attending even on a wet day, its hardly 'lost' but the name sticks! When I first visited Heligan in the early 1990's it had only just been found and I remember being shown around by Philip McMillan-Browse.  At that point I was running a nursery called 'Brockings Exotics' from our home near Launceston and I was there delivering plants. There was some clearance but little restoration and the buildings and glasshouses were still derelict. Whilst the job of restoration and replanting that has been done is commendable, the gardens have lost the magic and mystery of that early desolation. Although I only spent a couple of hours there this time, I'm going to write my blog in two chunks. I should have allowed more time but there was another garden to see that day. The garden splits quite easily into the Northern  areas around the house and the further Southern reaches of the jungle which I'll add separately. So be patient exotic fans!

First views - the West Lawn on a misty morning!
The visit started in drizzling rain and some photographs were taken one-handed, the other holding my umbrella, so apologies for the quality and some shadows. For those that don't know the story, Heligan was a traditional estate with a big house, extensive grounds and huge walled kitchen gardens to support the household. Sometime after the First World War, the house was rented out and the gardens were abandoned,  almost  forgotten until they were discovered by Tim Smit and restoration began in the 1990's.

Tim Smit & Jim Nelson - Heligan as it was early 1990's
Similar view as it is today

The main walled garden is laid out traditionally with long rows of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. No modern gimmicks just maximum production. The walls are clothed with trained fruit trees and the central walkway is covered with apple arches and lined with flowers. Traditionally a 19C family would have visited the gardens after church on Sunday, before lunch and whilst they would walk through the vegetable garden, there had to be flowers to make it presentable! Cabbages hidden well from view!

Cordon fruit trees in the kitchen garden

Serried ranks of vegetables growing to attention!
Heligan scarecrow or is it the ghost of a past gardener?

The apple walk

The walls show hundreds of holes where long gone vine eyes were used to train fruit

Next to the main walled garden is a smaller enclosure known as the melon yard, containing a restored glasshouse and numerous frames. Just look at the size of these huge 'lights' used to cover the frames. Tough guys these old gardeners - no need for the gym after lifting these. The glasshouse was traditionally used for melons and cucumber. Some of the frames or pits, as they were called, were used for growing pineapples, once regarded as the king of fruits. This skilled exercise involved heating with fermenting stable manure. Resurrecting this practice has been challenging, partly because of the need for large quantities of fresh manure! The yard also contains a toolshed, the original potting shed and the 'Thunderbox', the gardener's original  toilet, complete with names scrawled on the wall.

The melon house and pineapple pits - poor pic - such a dull day!

Heligan melons - internet pic - growth  much slower this year!
Heligan pineapples maturing - internet pic
Frames for early vegetables and seedling production

Just look at the size and imagine the weight of these 'English lights'

The toolshed

The potting shed

The 'Thunderbox'

A further walled area, known as the flower garden is a sheltered enclosure originally used for early vegetables as well as flowers and containing vineries, a citrus and a peach house. All of these were of course totally derelict until the 1990s. The glasshouses are of a type known as a Paxton patent house, a sort of 'flat-pack' greenhouse to a standard design that was assembled on site. These greenhouses have been faithfully reconstructed and are once again in use.  The adjacent boiler house  still contains the original cast iron Britannia boiler, dug out from years of accumulated rubbish, not surprisingly defunct but the cast iron piping is still present. The same building houses the Head Gardener's office. He must have been very cosy, not only having the heat from the boiler but also his own wood burning stove!

The Flower garden and its greenhouses

The flower garden and citrus House

The vinery - typical Paxton house
Before rebuilding

Inside the vinery
Cast iron heating grilles

The original Britannia Boiler
Head gardener's Office

Inside the peach house
The Pencalenick Greenhouse - from elsewhere - authentic Victorian but not a restoration, complete with 19C pelargoniums

Beyond the walled gardens there are the wider ornamental gardens with a huge collection of mature trees, immense rhododendrons and vast camellias all of which were disentangled from years of bramble, sycamore and other weed growth. Specific areas include the Italian Garden, the Ravine, New Zealand and the North Summerhouse. The Sundial Garden seemed rather in need of attention, with rather poor planting competing with a lot of weed. The rhododendrons had finished flowering but it was still impressive to see the size of some of these monster plants. Amazing to realise that some had been growing here since first imported as new introductions from Joseph Hooker's Himalayan travels in the 1850's. The collection has been documented and by means of micro-propagation has been secured for the future.

The Ravine

Sundial garden
Typical pathway under 19C rhododendrons

Italian Garden

North Summerhouse

Rhododendrons on the West Lawn

What a sight they must be when in bloom - just an internet pic for a taste of colour
Loved the pic - clay pots and architectural foliage but a real hazard - this is giant hogweed a VERY dangerous plant that causes severe skin irritation. Shouldn't be in a public area like this! Not a 19C greenhouse behind - just a production area! I put my officious hat on and told them what they were harbouring!
What an exciting morning! I loved it but still more to come, my visit ended with a trip to the jungle - I'll tell you about that next time!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eden - the garden of?

One of my reasons for this summer's West Country pilgrimage was to finally lose the reputation of being the only serious horticulturalist in the UK that had never seen the Eden Project. I have finally done it and I wasn't disappointed. The story of Eden is stupendous without even seeing it. And how does one describe it? It is a tourist attraction but that's too trite! It has huge educational values in terms of the environment,  ecology and sustainability but that sounds like hard work. But is it a garden? Well now its achieving some maturity, it is really quite beautiful.

Back to the story! Ten years ago this was a barren wasteland - the remains of a worked out china clay pit - desolate.  This is a story of success initiated by Tim Smit who was also key in the discovery and restoration of Heligan. (that's tomorrow!) Together, the local authority, architects and builders, most of whom took no payment for the first 18 months, rose to the challenge to build 'the eighth wonder of the world'. The biomes are the largest greenhouses in the world. If this wasn't challenge enough, there was no topsoil on site - a pretty basic need for growing plants. 83,000 tons were manufactured from recycled waste materials. Now ten years later and after £140M investment, plants are burgeoning both in the biomes and outside and the visitors are loving it.

Although basically dry, bar a few showers, the day of my visit was very cloudy so apologies for the grey skies and dull colours in the pictures!

First views on arrival
Part of the outdoor biome as its called

The Mediterranean Biome is divided up geographically and emphasises the importance of crops such as citrus, grapes, olives and sunflowers

Inside the Mediterranean Biome
The Rainforest Biome is huge, filled with tropical plants and various displays none of which I seem to have captured! But there are bananas, coffee, cocoa, rubber, palms, mangoes, sugar cane and a host more as well as a wealth of ornamental plants

The Rainforest Biome - Visitors can climb right to the viewing platform high in the roof apex bit I didn't!

Apologies some pics hazy - just impossible to keep the lens clean in the high humidity!

And outside there are some fabulous garden areas, a great range of plants and some thoughtful planting combinations.

Lunch was great, simple cafeteria style serving good but basic food fast. I chose the Cornish pasty - sorry predictable! I got to the pay station and was told I could have had roast potatoes and salad with it - 'just go back help yourself'! Long pine tables and bench seating, cups hanging on overhead racks - no napkins but a very practical kitchen roll on each table!

On the way out I picked up the Wild Cornwall walk - simple but beautifully done, the path changing from tarmac to wooden slats, to grass as the landscape became more wild, complete with Cornish dry stone walls, meadow flowers and native orchids.

If I have any criticism, and it really is the only one, it is a lack of labels for the cultivated plants - hence the lack of captions in the above pictures! Whilst there is a huge amount of interpretation about plants, their value in the world and so on, relatively few of the individual plants or groups, both outside and in biomes had labels. Such a pity!