THE DAY I went to Cornwall, the sun was at last shining, the sky was blue, the air still and the light had the sharpness of cut diamonds. As I passed through the narrow lanes, each turned into a cathedral nave by the tall columns of foxgloves on either side, I thought: 'Problem? What problem?'
But standing in John and Sally Russell's garden, looking out to a glittering bay, I began to appreciate the price you pay for a sea view. Here there were no tall trees, nothing to baffle the wind. There had been days, the Russells said, when they had had to hang on to each other to stay upright on the lawn.
The garden lies mostly to the front of their granite-block farmhouse, which faces north-east. There is a very good, solid stone wall, about 7ft high on the left- hand side as you look at the garden from the house. An old Cornish 'hedge', a stone wall topped with turf, runs along the bottom boundary. To the right is a piece of pasture, which John Russell is turning into a vegetable garden.
Mounds of old hydrangeas were dotted about the lawn. Bits of beds - too many of them - contained remnants of shrub planting, and couch grass. There had evidently once been a flower border under the tall stone wall, with a path alongside. On the other side of the path was a bit of an orchard where one old apple tree survived, looking remarkably healthy.
The Russells bought the house two years ago. They wanted a garden that would give them pleasure without being too demanding. He is a neurosurgeon now indulging an old ambition to be a smallholder. She is a physiotherapist. He likes growing vegetables and propagating. She would like to grow flowers. Both have been mightily discouraged by the effects of the winds.
The most important task in a coastal garden is to create a first line of defence: a sacrificial offering of trees and shrubs to absorb the worst of the wind and shield the choicer plants behind them. In large seaside gardens the Monterey pine has often been used. The Monterey cypress is equally good, as are plants with tough, leathery leaves (such as griselinia) or minimal foliage (tamarisk).
The Russells' garden is not big enough to absorb a belt of pines, but one, I suggested, would look good in the particularly bare and open far right-hand corner. Sycamores sheltered the aspect to the west, behind the tall stone wall, but there was nothing in the way of the winds coming over the bottom of the garden boundary.
Sycamores could be a possibility here, too, but they are not what you would call gardenesque trees and they provide shelter only in summer. Ilex, the evergreen oak, would be better, providing shelter all-year-round. They might get threadbare on the seaward side, but the Russells would have a view of the good side, the silvery, leathery leaves looking remarkably like those of Mediterranean olive trees.
If you were being politically correct (there is xenophobic pressure from several quarters at the moment to plant only British native species), you might go for hawthorn as your first line of defence. Sculpted by the wind, it may become bare on top, but will still manage a spring show of white and pink blossom, and some weatherbeaten red berries in the autumn.
I am deeply attached to hawthorn. It is a stoical, tenacious tree. It grows old well. Even in youth it has great character, which is rare in a tree. The bark has deep fissures, like the cracks in a dried-out river bed. It would hold the line manfully at the bottom of the Russells' garden and, being smaller than the ilex, would never completely block the view.
Where you are trying to establish trees in difficult conditions it is vitally important to give them a good start. Dig a big planting hole. Pack lashings of compost and bonemeal into the planting mixture. Make sure the tree is well watered through its first two years and keep a 4ft circle round its trunk clear of all other growth.
The Russells have the remains of a shrubbery at the bottom of the garden, with a path leading between this and the stone boundary hedge. I would abandon this path and use it as a slightly protected strip to establish my shelter belt. When this was growing well, I would start to thicken up the shrubbery itself.
Berberis, silver-leaved elaeagnus, escallonia, Olearia haastii, prickly pyracantha, Scotch briars and forms of Rosa rugosa are all stalwarts in the face of wind. I would use these in the second line of defence to thicken up the existing shrubbery inside the treeline.
That leaves the boundary on the right-hand side of the garden. Mr Russell has already built a low fence to protect his fruit and vegetables, but the garden proper needs more shelter than that. There would be the pine in the bottom corner, growing in a sward of tall grasses and wild flowers that had already made themselves at home. What else?
I would try eucalyptus at intervals along here. They may get pruned by the wind, but they are very fast-growing and soon replace themselves. In fact, they would be better treated as multi-stemmed shrubs than as single-stemmed trees. They would produce more sideways bulk.
With them I would try some of the ornamental elders, the ones with finely cut leaves. There is also a beautiful variety called 'Guincho Purple' with purple-flushed foliage and huge flat heads of pink flower. These, too, would develop more as shrubs than trees. With the grey/purple foliage of the eucalyptus and the elder, you could use pink tamarisk, purple buddleia, magenta fuchsias, spires of rosemary and low, foreground mounds of cistus. When the two shrubberies were established, you could start some fancier gardening inside.
The Russells, I could see, were dispiritedly ticking off the years before this longed-for state of calm would settle on their farmhouse above Carbis Bay. They wanted something to happen now. The border under the big stone wall on the left-hand side seemed the most promising place for them to start.
Wind and salt may cause difficulties, but there are blessings, too. The sea acts as a giant eiderdown, keeping the temperature of coastal regions higher than those inland. Frosts are rare. Spring comes early, winter late. Under the Russells' wall you could make an outrageous border using exotics that would not have a chance of surviving further up country.
'Plant cannas,' I cried. 'And castor-oil plants and bananas. Put in datura and melianthus and huge paddle-leaved Nicotiana sylvestris.' That's the fun of meddling in other people's gardens: you walk away before the hard work begins.
In that border there were seedling plants of giant echiums from the Canary Islands. These grow at least 10ft tall, with dense spires of blue tubular-bell flowers. I would put up with a lot of wind to be able to grow an echium.
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