Sitting in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly on a sunny day, it’s hard to imagine that there’s ever any bad weather here.
But all you need to do to convince yourself is to look beyond the shelterbelt of trees and hedging that surrounds the now world-famous, seven-hectare site. There, heathland stretches to the sea, with a few trees attempting to grow, but they are currently no taller than a small child.
No wonder. Tresco – like all the Isles of Scilly – gets the brunt of the weather hitting the British coast. It’s the first landfall for weather coming in from the southwest. The winds can be ferocious, the sea swell huge. Even on a balmy summer’s day in what looks like flat calm, the waves are being recorded at 1.6m. In a bad winter, they overtop the seafront homes.
Tresco Garden was created in the early 19th century by Augustus Smith, who had bought the land from the Duchy of Cornwall. He was a man of considerable vision who commissioned the gathering of plants from all five continents to grow at Tresco.
But he also knew that these precious plants, all from coastal Mediterranean regions, wouldn’t grow unless they were protected from the elements.
The answer was hedging, and trees.
In some places, the shelterbelt of trees that surround the gardens is some 200ft deep. The hedging is also on a grand scale. Holm oak hedges were planted in 1890 to protect the 4,000 different species of plant that grow here. It was chosen because of how tall the Holm Oak grows. It’s at least 9m (30ft) high and grows 18 inches annually. Pruning it involves some perilous clinging to a ladder (itself tied to another ladder) during not-so-windy days in the autumn.
The whole procedure takes from October to Christmas. Worse, some areas of the Holm Oak hedging are pruned twice a year. It’s surprising that the team of nine gardeners has time for anything else.
But, says curator, Mike Nelhams, the hedging is vital to the Gardens’ survival. ‘Eighty per cent of what we grow here needs protection,’ he says. ‘We want them to look attractive, so that’s why they need all this protection. If we didn’t have the hedge the plants would always look broken and brown.’ Instead, it’s a riot of colour. Aeonium, mesembryanthemum, fuchsia and proteas make this tiny island seem more like the Mediterranean than a dot of granite rock off the coast of Cornwall.
Augustus Smith planted the first shelterbelt of trees, which is in fact extensive woodland. But few of the original trees remain today. The majority were felled by the gales of 1987, Nelhams says, the bulk of the rest in the storm of 1990. The team replanted using 12–18” Monterey Pines and Monterey Cypress, just as Smith had done more than 100 years before. They put their roots out horizontally over the granite bedrock, along the topsoil which is barely a foot deep: tough conditions for tough trees.
Nelhams points at a great swathe of the 25 year old trees, which are looking a little worse for wear. ‘In 2014 we had storms from November to April. We regularly have winds of 100mph, but that winter they reached 124mph,’ he says. ‘The sheer amount of wear in wind and salt spray has killed them.’
Some are recovering. But for Nelhams, that winter is etched on his memory. ‘It looked as if someone had been along here with a flame-thrower,’ he says. ‘The trees were bright orange.’ So the re-planting continues on a perpetual basis, with a father-and-son team responsible for all the arboreal work.
‘These trees are here to protect the garden,’ says Nelhams. ‘Without them, the wind would raze everything to the ground.’
The hedging and trees create the microclimate in which the rich variety of Mediterranean plants can flourish. They take out the wind and the salt, but also raise the temperature.
‘In the winter I can walk about in my shirtsleeves,’ says Nelhams. ‘It can feel like 15 degrees in here, whereas it’s more like –2º outside the gardens.’
This warmth is as good for banksias, echiums and aloes as it is for people. And so people flock here. The hedges are good for business too. Five generations of Augustus Smith’s family have tended the gardens. Their renown brings in around 30,000 tourists annually, and turns over roughly £360,000. Some 46 cruise ships are expected to dock nearby in 2015 bringing in day-trippers.
Just outside the shelter belt stands a memorial to Augustus Smith and other members of the family. Out here the wind blows ferociously, even on a sunny day. Perhaps the greatest memorial to Smith is the hedging at Tresco Abbey Gardens that enables his vision to survive.