I recently spent two weeks working in Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly and was amazed such a garden exists in the UK. Situated just 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, Trescos’ climate warmed by the Gulf stream, with mild winters and long hot summers provides the opportunity to grow the large range of plants which can be seen here. Created by Augustus Smith in the mid 19th century, on what was mainly barren land, around the remains of a Benedictine Abbey originally founded in 964 A.D., the Abbey Garden is described by some as a perennial Kew without the glass, plants too tender to grow on mainland UK, from Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Burma, New Zealand and the Mediterranean amongst many others sit side by side and are blended effortlessly to create this unique sub-tropical garden which belongs in a niche of its own. Roughly 90% of these plants are evergreen providing an all year round canvas of mixed green, silver and acid yellow foliage punctuated by the showy flowers of these exotic beauties.
This year over 300 plants were in flower in January and during my visit I saw many Protea, Banksia, Grevillea, Aloe, Coleonema, Tibouchina, Clianthus, Correa, Leptospermum, Watsonia and even a Bromeliad in flower to name just a few.
Regularly battered by strong winds from the surrounding Atlantic Ocean, as I found out during my first few days! The garden is protected by a shelter belt consisting mainly of the Monterey Cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa, which though not impenetrable serves well to create an altogether more settled environment than the rather more exposed areas outside the garden. Combined efforts of Snow in 1987 and a hurricane in 1990 managed to take out large swathes of this shelter belt and devastated the garden destroying about 90% of the plants within and forcing the garden team to rely on their old acquaintance with Kew Gardens to provide a lot of the replacement plants. Curator Mike Nelhams spoke of the many journeys they made to London and returning with vans stuffed full of plants, making it more remarkable that the current garden appears so mature when it’s mostly less than 30 years old. This devastation served to shape the current garden as the relatively new Mediterranean Garden was designed and created to fill a void left by these events.
Possibly my favourite part of the garden during this visit was the fernery, with its myriad of interconnecting paths winding through the densely packed fern beds giving a lush tropical jungle feel. Large swathes of green cover the ground and tree ferns rise majestically above nestled in amongst mature trees, many with ornamental bark. Everywhere you looked was a treat for the eyes and of great interest to any plant enthusiast
Ground cover consisted of Cyrtomium falcatum, and a large number of Athyriums and Aspleniums, including Asplenium bulbiferum one of my favourite ferns where the young plantlets grow on the upper surface of the fronds, of course I took this opportunity to take many of these plantlets home with me.
Alongside the common tree ferns Dicksonia antarctica, there were great specimens of Dicksonia fibrosa, Dicksonia squarrosa, Cyathea medullaris with its jet black stipes, Cyathea robusta and Cyathea dealbata, the silver tree fern and national symbol of New Zealand. None of these needed the usual protective covering I am used to seeing in winter on tree ferns in the UK and in fact many new fronds were already unfurling from the crowns.
Making my way out of the fernery the iconic Tresco arch comes into view offering glimpses of the terraced slopes behind dotted with sun-loving succulents and shrubs amongst magnificent Palms and Cycads.
The arch is a remnant of the old mediaeval monastery that once existed in this space and typical of most of the walls around the garden it contains an array of succulents growing from every nook and cranny.
Continuing this journey led me through beds of large and healthy Agave nestled amongst the rocks
Before the full extent of the sun-baked terrace rockery with the magnificent red spires of aloes finally comes into view
From the top of the terrace you can enjoy vistas along the length and breadth of the garden and beyond with some views stretching out to the islands edge and across the sea beyond. Here you can fully appreciate the form and architectural qualities of the mature Phoenix canariensis standing high above everything else, fortunately most of these were spared when the bad weather ravaged the garden.
Sat on the bench on the top terrace when the sun was shining was a truly special experience both relaxing and invigorating and invoked feelings of being many miles from the UK.
From the far end of the terrace you descend into the relatively newly designed Mediterranean garden with the many shaped standard olives one of the few formal features in this mainly informal and natural garden. From this viewpoint I try to imagine how this would look in Summer with the large Metrosideros in the background in full flower. These mature Metro’s as the gardeners here refer to them are dotted throughout the garden and are apparently a riot of colour when flowering and a sight to behold. I have only ever seen pictures so will have to come back here to see the real thing.
The Metro’s were another plant to survive the storms of 30 years ago. As they age they produce aerial roots which when they reach the floor can sometimes thicken and act like a second trunk which has happened in the picture below.
One of the many features I love about this garden is the maze of paths constantly breaking off from each other with interest dragging you in both directions at all turns, meaning you have to walk round 3 or 4 times to cover all the paths and each time something new and different catches your eye.
The various entrances in an array of styles give a glimpse of a new garden room beyond and lead you in
Before I finish I have to include the wildlife in the garden, although introduced these colourful Golden Pheasants look right at home in this setting
And it was a joy to see these red squirrels, also introduced, despite the fact they make a nuisance of themselves in the garden mainly by eating and spoiling the flowers of the Protea.
Having few predators over here the native British birds seem tamer than normal. this Song Thrush which I have seen few of on the mainland in recent years followed me round as I was weeding and digging on my first day and the partridge which I have never seen in the wild seemed to think I was going to feed it, how wrong it was! I also saw my first House Marten of the year but was disappointed the puffins hadn’t arrived yet, though that’s another reason to come back in the summer.
Outside of the abbey garden Tresco flora is of a very different nature, though there are some garden escapees growing in the rocky walls and verges most notably at this time of year are Agapanthus, Aeonium and various Narcissi including the extremely pretty and highly fragrant ‘Grand soleil d’or’ which has up to a dozen dainty flower heads on each stem.
Without the favourable aspect and wind protection the far end of the island has a bleak but still beautiful appearance, vast expanses of rocky heathland with bracken and patches of gorse dominate the rugged landscape which looks very similar to Dartmoor.
During my stint here I was lucky enough to have a few days work on the neighbouring island of Bryher at the Hell Bay Hotel which is owned by the Dorrien-Smiths who run Tresco estate. Going to work on a boat is definitely a new experience for me. Hell Bay is named so because of the high number of shipwrecks caused by the treacherous rocks around the bay.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my experience on Tresco and would recommend it to anyone. It is more than enchanting in February but must be breathtaking in the height of summer. They have a small but dedicated and knowledgable gardening team who made me feel very welcome and it was a pleasure to work with them.