Gardening on the Isles of Scilly, part I

Tracy Wilson looks at extreme conditions

24th October 2006

Having probably hit one of the best weeks of the autumn as far as weather is concerned (at least, on the Isles of Scilly), I’ve come back with only confirmed impressions of how lucky the islanders are with their climate and with the plants they can grow. The combination of the incredible harshness of the actual salt itself and the abuse from its abrasion, with the actual mildness of the islands, make for a quite unique climate.

Tresco is the most renowned of all the islands, at least as far as horticulture is concerned, but the main island of the Isles of Scilly – the capital, if you like – is St Mary’s, which is where I normally base my stay as indeed I did this year. St Mary’s has the biggest population, about one thousand of the two thousand population for the whole of the islands are on St Mary’s. The gardens there are not to be dismissed and in fact the gardeners on St Mary’s are probably closer to you and I, shall we say: where Tresco may be a people’s dream, the gardens on St Mary’s are much closer to what most people would be able to attain or achieve.

But even within a very small community like St Mary’s, there are a couple of public gardens which are rather lovely; and one of them, Carreg Dhu, is quite unique in the south west in that it is a voluntary garden, based on a piece of land which was given by June Lethbridge and her husband. They wanted to create a garden which everybody could enjoy, but they did it with a slight twist. The garden was started and it was all planted up with donations from anybody and everybody on the island. Basically, people turned up and said ‘I’ve got a Banksia’ or a Leukodendron or a Cordyline – whatever it might be, and things were planted. So it has continued and it has been very much the theme of the garden, although now – being slightly victims of their own success – they now request that people don’t plant things without their running it past the Committee! Otherwise they’d have all sorts of strange things coming up all over the place! But it has beautiful examples of Leukodendron – Leucadendron argentea – which would rival the ones that are on Tresco, I have to say. There’s a really stunning plant – Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’ which was in full flower when I went there a couple of weeks ago and looking absolutely glorious.

Tthere are also things like Fuchsia riccartonii, which were looking wonderful. My colleague Sue, from the nursery and our resident Fuchsia ‘nut,' has identified and collected five clones of Fuchsia riccartonii from the Isles of Scilly. They are quite distinctly different and we have brought back cuttings from them. Intially, we called them ‘Isles of Scilly 1’, ‘Isles of Scilly 2’, 3, 4 and five – not very original! – but they’ve now been named after various boats that belong to the Isles of Scilly Boatmen’s Association. So we’ve got Kingfisher, Sea Horse, Osprey and Meridian and so on. They’ve got very different habits with basically the same red and purple flowers: but the flower form itself does vary quite considerably between the different forms

So that’s the main public garden and it still continues: people will walk up there and maybe do an hour’s weeding. The weeding bags and wheelbarrows and buckets are chucked round the back by the shed and people can just go and do a bit. I always go up there whenever I’m over on the island: if I’ve got a couple of hours to spare I like to walk up there and I’ll just paddle around and do a bit of weeding, a bit of dead-heading. It’s extremely therapeutic, and you end up with that sort of nice fuzzy glow, a feel-good factor – you’ve done something that’s not just for yourself and which somebody else might appreciate. I think it’s a cracking idea.

In the centre of Hugh Town are ‘parades’ and a little central park. It’s a very small square, for most people it would be about the size of their garden, but it’s a very nice, even piece of grass and around it are flower borders. If you think of them as we would consider our flower borders over here, they’re just like something out of the Tropics – they’re full of Coprosmas, Echiums (the short ones as well as the very tall ones), Furcraeas, Beschornerias, Phormiums, Yuccas and Trachycarpus. The whole ‘feel’ is tropical and yet that’s very much the plants that one would expect to find. You’d expect to find a village green in England and very often it is fenced off with a public park. It’s just that on St Mary’s the plants that are involved with it look so weird! It’s ‘England’ – but it’s not! It’s rather like somebody from Manchester arriving in Falmouth and suddenly being assailed by all these Cornish Palm trees – they’d just look alien. I’m not saying that it looked alien over there but it accentuated the tropical effect, which we do get used to in Cornwall but which is without doubt accentuated over there.

But, as I said at the beginning, the mildness is tempered by the incredible harshness of the wind. And it is evil! The second night that we were over there, I went round the back of the Garrison and I was able to do my own, personal, Titanic impression. I was standing on the wall, leaning out over it and the wind was holding me up with my arms spread: it’s a good thing the wind didn’t drop otherwise I’d have been smashed. It’s just one of those fun things you have to do when it’s very, very windy.

You can only feel sorry for the plants!. The Ash, the Elm, the Sycamore which are all growing wild around the back of the Garrison, are just brown – cooked to a frazzle. They’re like that really from the middle of the summer, from the time we get the first of the worst summer gales, when they’re in full leaf, they get cooked by the wind. It just comes with the territory, unfortunately. So the islanders have learnt to build up the layers of shelter, which are absolutely critical for anybody who’s gardening in that sort of situation. You really have got to work on the basis that the first line of defence is never going to look pretty – it’s the stuff that’s going to get smashed by the sea. And you can never, ever say that anything actually enjoys coastal exposure: the best you can ever say about it (as I’ve said before) is that it will tolerate it and survive it. That’s the sort of plants that we’re looking for in that first line of defence. You’re either looking at deciduous things like Sycamores, Elms and Ash – that sort of thing – or you’re looking at very tough evergreens like Cupressus macrocarpa, C. macrocarpa 'Lutea' and some of the Pines. They’ll be ideal for mixing with deciduous trees, they’ll be very happy in that sort of situation – it does work really well. In fact, it is a blessing in disguise from one of those terrible storms we had around 25 years ago on Tresco. The main reason Tresco sports such a fantastic garden is from the forethought of the Smith family, where they planted the first C. macrocarpas and Pines to create a shelter belt. Well, unfortunately they were all planted at roughly the same time, which means that as a consequence that they’re all ageing at roughly the same time. So when we had a storm and so many trees came down – apparently it was quite terrifying over there. I was talking to Mike Nelhams (the Curator) about it when I was over there: he was saying that where he was living the trees came down and literally fell on all sides of his house but none hit it. They were so lucky that no-one was actually killed there. It took years to get all the debris cleared away. It meant that they had to re-evaluate the shelter belts over there because very few trees of the original shelter belt were left standing. As a consequence of this, there is now a much better, much healthier shelter belt because it’s more staggered in terms of age and in terms of species. I think it’s going to be much, much better for the longevity of the garden. I imagine the whole garden will become healthier and thrive more.

The same sort of thing has been done in a smaller way over on St Mary’s, particularly up at the eastern end of the island, up by Telegraph Hill at Trenoweth, which is a research station based on St Mary’s which very few people actually know about or realise is there. It was set up originally to do research for the Daffodil growers over on the island, because obviously growing the early Narcissi has for a long time been very big business for the farmers over there. So the research station was originally started for that purpose. It’s sort of mutated to cover all seasons because obviously the Narcissi growers are looking for something that they can also grow for the rest of the year when the Narcissi aren’t doing their thing. So they’ve been doing investigations into Pinks, Agapanthus and various cut flower crops – there’s a fairly thriving cut flower industry now with flowers being sent out direct out from the Isles of Scilly. The Isles of Scilly have been quite clever with branding themselves: they’ve sorted themselves out an identification whereby people know the Isles of Scilly, they know the name and scented flowers from there are a very lovely thing to receive.

(click here for part II)

Tracy Wilson, 2006