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The Isles of Scilly are comprised of 5 main islands, with a total population of approximately 2000 people.  The majority, about 1500, are based on the largest island: St Marys.

Tresco is a garden on a hillside.  An English garden that has its heart in many places.

One of the main influences on Tresco is the wind.  The garden and island to a large extent is defined by its capriciousness.  East winds can be dry and burn the plants.  Southerly winds are warm and powerful bringing heavy rainfall.  Westerlies seem to run over the island, having a reputation for damage.

Another major element affecting the garden are the tides.  These can cause flooding over the islands, but also retreat to reveal connections between other islands and the submerged land mass.

Tresco’s size makes it a desirable location, being two thirds the size of St Marys, whilst having only a 10th of the population. The gulf stream warms Tresco as it passes, meaning the climate does not get significantly cold to inhibit species diversity.  The summer has 25°C maximums with a cooling breeze, providing a genial climate for both plants and gardeners alike.  It has a maritime climate, with a small seasonal and diurnal temperature ranges.  Sea fog introduces some humidity into parts of the garden, balanced by the drying nature of some winds.

Augustus Smith founded the garden from 1834, after leasing the islands from the duke of Cornwall.  The garden was built around the historic abbey. The old abbey had walls on 2 sides, where their walled garden formed some of the earliest horticultural endeavours.  Initially as the house was built, a sheltering wall was constructed to protect intial plantings. All trees on the island were introduced.  Monteray pines and Cyprus trees were collected and proved to be well adapted to the island’s winds and salt sprays.  Their colonizing of the island sheltered the garden, creating its vitality.  Shelter is also provided by the Metrosideros, banksias, valeria traversii, and eucalyptus.

Augustus smith was an early social reformer.  He was a divisive character through his authoritarian actions.  His single mindedness took away choice from those living on the islands.  However, not all authoritarian decisions are wrong, and success was made on the islands.  He depopulated the islands, which upturned lives significantly, introducing industry in the form of flower farming, as well as boat building and fishing.  Due to the welcoming climate, bulbs could be picked between September and November, having a 3 month lead on bulb growers of the mainland.  Agapanthus, amyrillus and daffodils were all cultivated for sale.

Compulsory education was introduced.  Augustus was undoubtedly quite a character.  He could be criticized for not necessarily practicing all that he preached, notably his various mistresses and 3 children from various affairs.

The ethos of the garden is to show the plant collection in a natural state.  Growth is controlled to create plant associations, and the plants are able to move around the garden via self seeding.  The gardeners’ create balances between the flora, and promote associations and competition.  This provides a way of displaying a botanic collection in a beautiful, hidden and wild state, partially controlled by the formality of the terracing.

The garden is a series of these terraces, with the lower sections being service roads.  The garden has elements of rooms within.  Conditions vary from the hot, dry, windy, and relatively impoverished soil of the top terrace, to more moist enriched soil with a larger depth at the bottom.  The top terrace particularly suiting the cultivation of plants from hot, dry coastal areas.  More delicate plants are cultivated on the lower terraces, where the long walk is an environment of protection and shade, where plants from new Zealand and Chile are grown.

Broadly speaking the garden encompasses plants from different climatic zones.  These cover areas from California to the Mediterranean, and central chile, south Africa, west and south Australia, and new Zealand.  Mediterranean influences have been inspired by a close relationship with the Hanbury garden, at La Mortola.  Relative to land mass, south Africa is the region with the greatest concentration of native plants.

This is perhaps particularly symbolized in the wonderful collection of proteas within the garden.  These are tougher plants than are often perceived, being capable of withstanding temperatures of -4, but not regularly.  They are happy in poor soil, which must be deficient in phosphates, and require breezy locations.  Some, such as protea cynaroides, can be pruned to ground level.  Protea longiflora has lignotubers and are adapted to areas with forest fires.  The seed requires biochemical reactions to be brought upon by contact with specific smoke.

South African flora:

Protea eximia; protea grandiceps, protea magnifica

Strelitzia reginae

Coriaria sutherlandii: from natal, has its flower before its foliage

Sparmannia africanus

Aloe arborescens

Aloe striatula: a summer flowering species; one of the hardiest; easily propagated

Most aloes flowering between December and February

Aloe polyphylla: has spirally growth

Mesembryanthemum: in various shades, trailing and responds well to regular soil refreshment.

erica cerinthoides; cape heathers

Watsonia ‘tresco hybrid’


Australian flora

Banksia grandis: largest flowering of the banksias

There are 30 species of banksia in tresco, covering a full year’s flowering period.

Eucalyptus globulus: blue juvenile foliage

Hardenbergia comptoniana

acacia longifolia: may produce 9ft of growth in one season


corymbia ficifolia: September flowering

Norfolk Island pine: Araucaria heterophylla


South American FLora

Agave: monocarpic plants that provide large scale architecture to the planting

Furcraea: chile, has one of the fastest growing flowers

Mrytus luma

Abutilon vitifolium: fast growing, tough, and easily propagated from seed

Datura sanguinea

Fascularia pitcairnifolia: from the pitcairm islands

jovellana violacea

Puya chilensis

Puya bertoroniana: 6-8ft flower stalk, flowering with regularity in the 3rd week of may

senecio glastifolius: Hummingbird pollinated in the wild.  Starlings and red squirrels have taken on this feeding niche


New Zealand


Tree ferns


Cordyline australis

xeronema callistemon


other notables include:



Metrosideros robustus

Aeonium cunneatum: from the canary islands, wide ranging habitats


The garden is encouraged to self seed.  One of the principle skills on tresco is the ability to identify seedlings and to justify which are appropriate and where.  To thin these and to decide which dispersals require intervention is key.  The garden is one of recreating the natural landscape.  Horticulture helps to guide nature, but it is always subservient, particularly seen in the power with which has tamed the isles.  This close relationship with nature is portrayed by David Wynne’s sculpture of Gaia within.

The garden has been subjected to nature’s vicissitudes.  In 1987, snow fell on the garden.  The cold lingered, combined with a savage easterly wind for weeks.  The garden did not succumb to the snow directly, as this has some insulating properties.  However, it was subjected to repeat frosting and thawing which damaged stems and roots.  The garden died at a slow rate, over the course of 2 seasons, with only 20% of the original planting remaining.

The majority of shelter was lost.  Fencing was added to initially protect juvenile plantings.  As the garden was beginning to refilled, nature brought a 127 mph hurricane.  This entailed a 5 year program of clearing and replanting.  With help from Logan, Irvine, Edinburgh, Harewood, and Wisely botanic gardens, plants were introduced back to the Tresco.

The replanting is starting to mature now after 20 years.  Seeing photographs of the damage caused to the garden and comparing that with the garden today is staggering  Such maturity in the planting in a relatively short period of time, is the consequence of a talented gardening team and a special place.

Tresco is a beautiful place.  It seemed an adventure.  The journey in itself was exciting, requiring car, plane, boat, and robin reliantesque vehicle.  The flight was stunning, with the cockpit on view, you felt and saw all.  Access to Tresco is variable, particularly at this time of the year, due to the high winds and lack of visibility.  This only adds to the mystery of the place.  We were unsure of when the placement would end not knowing when we could fly home.

The garden’s location, combined with the nature of its collection, is its beauty.  The garden is very close to the mainland, yet seems remote.  The diversity and mix of flora on the island was beguiling.  Due to it’s scale and proportions, the garden is the island and the island is the garden.  You feel shelter within the garden, and it is somewhat of a labyrinth.  The vegetation dwarfs you in places and obscures other areas of the garden.  Then you stumble across vistas that traverse the garden, with axis in the vertical plane.  These have focal points, guiding your view when either looking up or down.

Its layering of plants from different parts of the world is clever.  The garden is shrouded from the outside world in places, but then opens up to reveal breathtaking panoramic views.  The garden has interest all year round.  It had approximately 30000 visitors last year, and the ethos of guiding visitors around the garden, like the original head gardeners, seemed a good way of managing visitor numbers.

I was impressed with the emphasis on learning about the plants within the garden, and the story of the garden itself.  Tresco contributes to yearly placements for 3 students.  The garden has a good balance of teamworking, with the whole team collaboratively tackling an area.  The knowledge of the students reflected a talented group, and of the time taken to teach.  The philosophy is one of all undertaking any tasks and learning new skills, and sharing any knowledge together.  These things are what good teams are made of, and the time invested in this is worth its weight in gold.

Being deceptively recent, considering the impact of the snow and hurricane, the garden belies its youth.  The island itself is beautiful, and intrigues being so vulnerable, particularly when it is being battered by inclement weather, and yet so calm and sheltered at other times.  The garden is a beautiful mix of planting, with the statuesque and the delicate.  The garden has a beautiful perennial architectural planting, and even at this time in the season the garden had flower and colour, although not as riotous as later in the year. A very hospitable community, the beautiful landscape, the physicality, resourcefulness, and being able to see ones interconnectedness with landscape and place was fascinating.





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