Gardening on the Isles of Scilly, part II

Tracy Wilson looks at extreme conditions

30th October 2006

(click here for part I)

It always seems slightly surreal for me when I go over there in October that they’ve been picking Narcissi for three or four weeks before I even get there: I’m thinking to myself, ‘this is not normal, Daffodils flower in the spring’ –but not in the Isles of Scilly! Obviously they’re aiming at catching the early florists’ market and also sending the flowers out by post. I’m very lucky that I’ve got a couple of friends on the island who, when they see me there on holiday arrange to send a couple of bunches over for me when I come home, which is really rather nice.

But it’s evolved into quite an industry over there now in that they don’t only do the Narcissi (which are obviously short season), so they’ve now developed other crops to fill the gap at the other ends of the year. So, for instance, they do a lot of Pinks, on St Martin's in particularly there’s quite a good industry over there. It sounds a little odd – but they now import flowers from elsewhere in Europe to the Isles of Scilly to bunch them up and send them out in mixed bouquets. That’s how successful the industry has become. It’s rather nice to see that an industry built around flowers has become so successful out there: and that has been purely and simply down to ‘branding’. People associate the Isles of Scilly with plants and gardening. I'd be very interested to ask whether a hundred years ago they grew the same things. They certainly did the Isles of Scilly Narcissi even then. The Smiths were among the first people to organise a steamship to take the Narcissi flowers over to the mainland to catch the train to get to the London market. It was one of the first exercises in early marketing from the Island.

If you walk around St Mary’s now you’ll see the Daffodil fields in flower in October – although you don’t actually see them in full flower because they’ve usually picked them before then – but you see the foliage is up and next day’s pickings are all waiting. OK, it looks slightly surreal, but if you actually look at the fields they’re growing in: they’re small fields, very well sheltered with high hedges. I suppose it’s the sort of thing you might expect to see on the mainland down at St Agnes, Hayle or St Ives and very exposed places on the mainland. But it is so extreme out there that they really do have to put their hedges very close together. They farm in very small fields, there’s none of this grubbing up of hedges to make extra big fields over there: if they did, they soon see their soil vanishing off into Europe or somewhere – and they haven’t got enough to spare! So they have to conserve what they’ve got.

On the domestic scale, that’s been taken on to another level again. Obviously, they’re rather small gardens round the houses and that’s fine: people have got fences and hedges and the other houses next door. But on one side of St Mary’s, particularly, there’s an area of allotments – and again, it’s something you don't somehow expect. You might think of them being, I don’t know, outside Plymouth or on the outskirts of Manchester or somewhere where a lot of other people live in flats, haven’t got their own gardens and so allotments are a very necessary part of life.Somehow you wouldn’t really think of them on the Isles of Scilly, but in fact there’s a small thriving allotment community over there. They’re delightful to look at, almost feudal, all these very narrow strips of land, on the side that’s below the hospital and the airport, facing south south-west so that they’re maximising the sunlight that they get. Each plot is probably no more than 10 or 15 feet wide but maybe 25 or 30 feet long, running up the slope. So from any wind coming from the south-west, or the north or the east, they’ve got that extra protection, and from due south they’re getting the best of the sunlight. They have very long, narrow strips with tall, narrow hedges, mostly Pittosporum crassifolium, also Olearia traversii. Those two items along with Euonymus conicus probably make up the mainstay of what I would call domestic hedges on the islands, ones that can be maintained at around 6 to 8 feet quite happily – very neat little hedges there. The allotments themselves are typical, some are growing cut flowers, some are doing vegetables, the main difference being that if you look at the soil it’s more sand than soil, shall we say. And obviously everybody does a huge amount to recycle on the island, recycling their own compost, their green garden waste, their kitchen waste material. Allotment holders are probably more fanatical composters than anyone else! Also on the island they use quite a lot of seaweed – not something that’s in short supply: it’s a good traditional fertiliser and has been used for thousands of years, so that’s often used on the allotments as well. It’s great fun walking round: OK, I’m talking about mid October and everything’s winding down, but even then you can see that there are some good crops out there and people have been keeping themselves self-sufficient with vegetables, flower crops, whatever it might be. It’s really rather charming to see that, the very domestic side of the gardens on the island as well. If you’re walking around, whether it’s through Hugh Town, or walking right round St Mary’s or you could be on St Martin’s – if you’re like me, you can’t help nosing in other people’s gardens. One of the delightful things about the Scillies is that there are so many of the gardens are open: they’re open to the road or you can see them when you’re walking round the footpath, and you can see what is actually doing well.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are 10 or 15 plants on the Isles of Scilly that do really, really well and are very easy to propagate: as a consequence of which everybody propagates them and everybody switches them around with everybody else’s gardens so that everybody ends up with the same ‘palette’ of plants in their garden. But there is in fact a much wider range of plants that they can grow over there, depending on the level of shelter (OK, if you’re hanging off the beach at Old Town it might be slightly different). But we’ve experimented with some plants up on the top of the Garrison in the Duchy property up there. In particular, plants like Coprosma ‘Pride’ and ‘Pink Splendour’ have done very well at the front of the office there – and that is bleak, man, bleak! Plectranthus argenteus, which has a beautiful silver-grey leaf with a spike of flower (almost like a Salvia or a Coleus flower) does particularly well. Both of those ones have two of the characteristics of typical coastal plants. The Coprosmas have very shiny, glossy, almost succulent leaves, and the Plectranthus has very fine hairs on the surface of the leaf to give it that grey appearance. These are two classic self-defence mechanisms for plants in a coastal situation. Another one that does really well, and for the same reason, is Rosemary, because the leaf has evolved, over aeons, in the Mediterranean climate where it originates from in coastal areas, to a narrow needle. Again, what this does is to reduce the surface area of the leaf so that there is less area for the moisture to get sucked out of and it makes the plant better able to survive in an extreme coastal situation. So you’ve got those sorts of plant showing up. The Agaves have very thick, leathery leaves – three-dimenionsal – deep as well as being wide, and that succulent leaf is again a protection. Most of the moisture is within the body of the leaf: it’s not a long, narrow slice as most leaves are( which makes them very vulnerable to drying out and most windburn damage occurs, with the moisture sucked out more quickly than the roots can replace it). There is a wider pallete of plants which can be tried in those sorts of situations.

Tracy Wilson, 2006