Ask the head

Garden at Caerhays

Garden at Caerhays - Credit: Archant

Cornwall is blessed with some of the world’s finest gardens whose magnificence is the result of so much guidance and strategy by their head gardeners. LOUISE DANKS profiles them

If you’ve ever wondered how these head gardeners got where they are today and exactly what inspires them, here’s a round-up of some of the best known Cornish gardens and the men and women toiling behind the blooms.

Gary Long, Head Gardener Trewithen Gardens, nine years


Earliest gardening memory

As a child, I remember being fascinated by fuchsia flowers. I would watch the bees busy collecting nectar from the open flowers. Also I would pop the buds open to look at the different parts inside.


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How did you become a head gardener?

My career, although I don’t really look at it as a career rather my way of life, started while I was still at school doing work experience for a local contractor John Bassett landscaping, leading to two years on a youth training scheme at the National Trust garden at Trellisick.

With hindsight, that training was a defining moment in my career; the experience, contacts and references and the life-long friendships I made have proved invaluable. It also opened my eyes to woodland gardening, plant names and botanical horticulture.


Career highlights

Easily my two trips to China. The first in 2007 was to study camellia species where I travelled throughout eastern china from Shanghai to Guilin and back via Jinhua where the International Camellia species garden is located. It houses over 180 different species all wild collected and laid out in taxonomic order - a living text book.

In February 2012 I travelled in the footsteps of the great plant hunter George Forrest. This took me through Yunnan province in the south western region of china. I also attended the ICS congress in Chuxiong. On this trip I got to see native, wild, Camellia reticulata growing on the mountains and walked through the same villages that George would of travelled through in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The icing on the cake was that Trewithen Gardens was awarded the ICS (International Camellia Society) international camellia garden of excellence at the congress, one of only 30 gardens in the world with this accolade.

Favourite job in the garden

Pruning is a satisfying past time and somewhat mystifying to most gardeners. It’s the sort of job where you stand back and see the fruits of your work instantly with the added benefits, if done correctly, of improving the plant. Basic horticultural techniques are required, plus knowing when to prune is a bonus. Making that first cut is the biggest hurdle - from then on it’s easy!

Gary recommends visiting…

Caerhays in early spring. If only to see the magnolias in bloom. Which should be one of the wonders of world and definitely is one of the wonders of the Cornish spring.

Enys gardens to see the second horticultural wonder that is the garden in April and May when the bluebells are in their full glory

Trebah gardens in early summer with the hydrangeas doing their thing, the lush tropical bamboo putting on amazing growth plus there’s a beach what more could you need?


Gary’s horticultural hero

Locally, Barry Champion retired head gardener from Trelissick. He totally inspired me during my YTS training course. During my first week Barry gave me the task of learning the plant name Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Atropurpureum’. It was very daunting for a 15-year-old, but has stood me in great stead ever since.

Plus the great plant hunters. Their legacy of plant introductions changed the way gardens look in the UK forever. Their relentless passion and personal suffering in the pursuit of finding, collecting and introducing new species from the wilds was huge. All gardeners are indebted to their work.


Trewithen Gardens in March

March is almost peak season for us. Our vast Asiatic Magnolia collection will be in full bloom. The award winning Camellia collection will just be starting its colourful spring display. Add to that some of the Rhododendron will be in bloom plus daffodils will fight for attention against the backdrop of an array of spring flowering trees and shrubs.


And plans for 2013

We have been removing unwanted Cherry laurel hedges this autumn and winter to make way for vast planting of new species and wild collected plant collections adding to our collection of plants.

We have also re-landscaped the garden area around the plant centre and tea shop. We have removed trees, raised the canopy of others and planted a camellia hedge, a Kurume azalea (evergreen Japanese azaleas introduced by plant hunter Ernest Wilson) border and various woodland plants in and around the lawn areas.

Our red squirrels have settled in really well and fingers crossed there may the pitter patter of tiny feet in spring. They are part of the Cornwall Red Squirrel project which hopes to be able to re-introduce reds back into the wild in Cornwall.

Trewithen Garden and Nursery





01726 883647

Richard Morton, Head Gardener Trewidden, five-and-a-half years

Earliest gardening memory

My earliest garden memory was helping my father sweep up privet clippings at my grandmother’s house, I think I was pretty rubbish at it, I was only about six or seven though!


How did you become a head gardener?

After training at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, I went on to work in a private garden in west Penwith, I then became the Head Gardener at Trewidden.


Career highlights

Going to the Nanjing Forestry University for three weeks to study the cultivation of temperate bamboos. At the time Kew had only sent botanists to study the taxonomy of these plants but no one had gone to China to see how they actually grow them.

Favourite job in the garden

My favourite horticultural task is sifting through weighty tomes trying to identify an unknown plant species or cultivar and trying to key them out, sad but true.

Richard recommends visiting…

I would recommend Caerhays Castle as a Cornish garden to visit, it probably has one of the finest and most diverse temperate woody plant collections in the UK. Its location is also stunning, next to the sea but nestled in a woodland garden.


Richard’s horticultural hero

Ernest Henry Wilson. He was active collecting plants from 1899 to about 1911 in China. At that time westerners were not very welcome and were often murdered, he was a prolific collector and many of our most garden worthy plants were introduced by him.


Trewidden in March

In March at Trewidden many of the Asiatic Magnolias will be in flower as will the Camellias but the Fern Pit looks amazing year round.


And plans for 2013

We have ongoing clearance work happening at Trewidden so every year a visitor will get a new view of the garden. This year we have incorporated the ‘Mowhay’ area into the garden route to make sure people see our huge Magnolia campbelli, which is quite often missed.

Trewidden Garden

Buryas Bridge,



TR20 8TT

01736 363021

Val Anderson, Head Gardener Antony, 37-and-a-half years

Earliest gardening memory…

Being given a cactus– Mammillaria wildii. It had such perfect form with a ring of delightful delicate light pink flowers containing almost geometric stamens that surrounded a golden stigma.


How did you become a head gardener?

I trained at Treseder’s Nursery, Truro for a year, then achieved my diploma after two years at Waterperry near Oxford, came to Antony in 1975 to work in their nursery and became Plant Centre Manager and Head Gardener in September of that year


Career highlights

Becoming an Associate of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Favourite job in the garden

Propagating camellias

Val recommends visiting…

Lanhydrock – a perfect setting for the house with immaculate formality near the house, beautiful views and wilder areas filled with interesting plants further away.


Val’s horticultural hero

Roy Lancaster - because he is such a wonderful “plantsman”.


Antony in March

Masses of camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons and wild flowers especially in the Woodland Garden (spectacular early white iris, pear blossom and Magnolia denudata in the National Trust part).


About Antony

A beautiful setting on a grand scale for a Georgian mansion in a dramatic Repton landscape; with formal gardens near the house and green vistas to the tidal river Lynher edged by the informal tranquil woodland garden which is especially good in Spring.


Antony House


PL11 2QA

01752 812191

Darren Dickey, Head Gardener Trebah, ten years

Earliest gardening memory

At the age of ten helping my grandfather in his allotment on the farm where we lived.


How did you become a head gardener?

I started working at Trebah in 1991 helping to clear up after the gales of 1990. I was later offered the position of Deputy Head Gardener by the then Head Gardener Rachel Martin, and then in 2002 offered the position of Head Gardener by our Curator Malcolm Mac Lachlan.

Career highlights

Apart from the obvious one of being offered the position of Head Gardener, for me it would have to be the removal of large areas of Rhododendron ponticum from the garden. What this enabled us to do was to create great planting opportunities in the garden and gave us space to further develop the wonderful sub-tropical plant collection at Trebah.

Favourite job in the garden

It has to be planting. There is nothing more exciting for a gardener than introducing new plants to the garden.

Darren recommends visiting

Trengwainton - for its mature collection of magnolias and rhododendrons and Trewithen for its wonderfully diverse collection of trees and shrubs with many champion trees. Caerhays ; in particular for its collection of magnolias. Trelissick especially its herbaceous borders and Glendurgan - again a nice mix of mature trees, conifers and new plant introductions.


Darren’s horticultural hero

For me it would have to be Geoff Hamilton who was the main presenter on Gardeners’ World. Although sadly no longer with us he was such a great inspiration for me and a very likeable character. Geoff was never afraid to get his hands dirty, had an infectious enthusiasm for horticulture and actually looked like he did all the work himself.


Trebah in March

Lots of colour with the rhododendrons, acacia, camellias to name but a few, all in full flower.


About Trebah

A diverse range of plants from flowering plants such as rhododendrons, acacia, camellias, hydrangeas, correa, grevillea, cyclamen and snowdrops to spectacular foliage plants such as Gunnera manicata (Giant Rhubarb), tree ferns, bamboos and wonderful mature trees including magnolias, Davidia, laurelia and copper beech. Trebah celebrates its 175th year in 2013 with a diverse programme of events suitable for the whole family and hopefully weather permitting visitors will be able to make use of our private beach on the Helford River.

Trebah Gardens

Mawnan Smith


TR11 5JZ

01326 252200

Jaimie Parsons, Head Gardener Caerhays, 16 years

Earliest gardening memory

My earliest memory of gardening is with my grandfathers, one used to grow chrysanthemums, the other fuchsias and camellias, I would help them both in their glasshouses, and I was amazed at how a little cutting would root in a couple of weeks, from there I was given many plants, and eventually I had my own glasshouse at about the age of ten.


How did you become a head gardener?

I used to work closely with Philip Tregunna (the previous Head Gardener) on day to day duties, propagation, potting sowing seeds, taking cuttings, planting, garden tours etc. He also taught me how to hybridise along with a few of his trade secrets; it was Philip who put me forward to take over from him.


Career highlights

I think the highlight has been my first Rhododendron hybrid, which I named Maisie after my grandmother. Also my first Magnolia hybrid which I did in the year 2000, and flowered for the first time spring 2012, so far it has proved worth, a good colour and shape flower, and the habit of the plant its self is looking promising, however we will give it a few years to see if it is consistent before we consider naming it.

Favourite job in the garden

I would say that to name a few of my favourite tasks to name but a few would be, hybridising, propagation and showing the public around.

Jaimie recommends visiting

I have many favourite gardens throughout out Cornwall, each for different reasons during different times of the year. But I do like Trebah, the view, a walk through a wonderful variety of plants and to end up on the beach.


Jaimie’s horticultural hero

I would say that Phillip Tregunna has helped me immensely, and with his knowledge and trade secrets that he has passed on, I would say that there are snippets from many people in the gardening world that I look up too.


Caerhays in March

Magnolia March as we sometimes call it, as we hold one of the national Magnolia collections with just over 600, there are always magnolias flowering somewhere in the garden from the time we open to the time we close, but mid-March is the best time to see them at Caerhays.


Plans for 2013

An extensive programme of restoration and clearance in Old Park Wood on the Caerhays estate in Cornwall will add 30 acres of woodland garden and at least an extra mile of paths for visitors to enjoy.

Caerhays Estate

Gorran Churchtown

St Austell,


PL26 6LY

01872 501310

When walking around these fantastic Cornish gardens you’ll now know that little bit more about the people who know the gardens best, it’ll feel like a brilliant botanical secret and what better garden recommendation to take than one from a professional head gardener.



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