I’m terrible at garden visiting.
I always mean to get out and see other gardens, yet by the weekend I tend to lack the enthusiasm to go far from home. In my defence I do see gardens all through my working week….
A recent trip to a garden in Cornwall, in the south west of the UK, was just the tonic I needed. Sure I see great plants every day, and sure the fundamental elements that go together to make a garden are found everywhere, but there is still nuance and artistry to be discovered.
In search of inspiration
Cornwall is a county with a long gardening history; it’s an area with a usually mild climate, with short winters and early springs. Magnolias, Camellias and Rhododendrons grow well here, and in the county’s venerable old gardens these grow to enormous proportions. I made the journey not to see these giants however, but a plant much lower to the ground.
The English ‘bluebell’, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is a treasured plant, and with 25-50% of the population of this species occurring in the UK it’s easy to see why it’s a bit of a favourite. Outside the UK you will find this species right through the western nations of Europe; unfortunately it’s become a bit of a nuisance in parts of the US but I ask you to bear in mind that I was travelling to see this plant in what is definitely a ‘proper place’ for it.
The country estate at Enys in Cornwall is renowned for its bluebells. At the cusp of May each year vast areas of the garden are carpeted in electric-blue flowers. The species itself tends not to vary much in height and colour (although pinks and whites can occur spontaneously), so in terms of the plant itself it’s very much a case of ‘seen one, seen ’em all’.
Yet as a mass these plants are so beautiful. I can’t even hazard a guess as to how many of these little stems there are through the gardens, but at the very least it will be a number in the hundreds of thousands.
Good stewardship of gardens requires great discipline. The small but dedicated gardening team are certainly equipped with an understanding of the importance of protecting what they have, yet for the bluebells to have reached the extraordinary numbers we see today means that generations of gardeners have also protected them. It takes one wrong decision to ruin the perfect carpet of blue, or one person to decide they want to sacrifice the annual spectacle for something else.
How the serene beauty of this scene would be ruined if someone decided to ‘improve’ it with some flowering trees for a bit more ‘interest’.
The bluebells are pretty much a motif of the garden, but there’s lots more at Enys to be enjoyed by the discerning garden visitor.
There are venerable trees and shrubs to admire, modern borders with herbaceous plantings, a stumpery, and even a large pond. It’s the ‘full package’, yet I’m going to skip over all of these things.
The thing that makes Enys an important part of the UK’s gardening scene isn’t its features, it’s its ethos.
This is an old garden with a long history, yet it’s a garden that lives in the ‘here and now’. To find a garden that respects its past, embraces its future and yet is firmly rooted in the present is always quite refreshing. All too often these big old estates become obsessed with trying to cling to the past, or conversely embrace modernity in a destructive way.
Gardens cannot avoid the future and it’s right to honour their past, but there is a balance to be struck. Enys has struck that balance.
The remnants of the old garden blend seamlessly with the newer elements, and the garden is at peace with its environment so there is little interest in battling nature. That said the garden does defend itself; many wildflowers are embraced but those that seek to conquer are removed without question. This is a garden, not a wild environment.
The Head Gardener, Danni Dixon, has found her space: her eye for beauty has undoubtedly been crucial for the protection of the many elements that gives Enys its identity, while also guiding the development of that special identity for future generations. It’s a credit to the owners of Enys that they see this gift and allow it to blossom; not everyone would.
Gardening, you see, is a craft. It’s a blend of art, science and technique; too often we gardeners get so absorbed by the technical and scientific side of gardening that we forget all about the art.
Brilliantly put. As a former artist i have to say that restoring & improving the gardens at work, while trying to tie the old and new elements together to enhance the sense of place has been the most challenging but satisfying creative experience i’ve been involved in. I’m way off where i want to be, but learning that the ever changing, dynamic nature of gardens are best when gently guided, not bludgeoned into submission has been the first, vital step. To try otherwise would be Canute level folly!
” The ever changing, dynamic nature of gardens are best when gently guided…”
You might be way off where you want to be but at least you’ve learnt how important it is to go with the flow!
Loved your article – I miss the bluebells now that I’ve moved back to Canada. They really are a lesson in leaving well enough alone.
I hope they brought back good memories of seeing them here. Absolutely agree that leaving them alone is the best way.
Beautifully written and photos. Like you wrote, its easy to add a flowering tree to improve an area. But creating large drifts of plants, that’s pleasing to the eye, that takes skill and artistry. Hat’s off to the gardening team.
Thank you. I think so much of the best gardening is about knowing when not to act.
Thank you Ben for your wonderful insight into our relationship with gardens and nature and for giving us a glimpse into a beautiful garden.
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be able to share these insights with others.