I’m very bad at gardening – I kill plants and nurture weeds; I don’t even know if I own a spade. So enrolling as an Eden Project “Gardener For A Day” – a behind-the-scenes experience at the Cornish biomes – was both an intriguing prospect and a source of some concern. On one hand, I might learn something. On the other, there was a chance I might maim Britain’s best leisure attraction – a title Eden won at the British Travel Awards in both 2011 and 2012.
“You can’t do any serious damage,” horticulturalist Lucy assured me as she led the way into the Rainforest. I felt a wave of relief – or perhaps that was just the hot, moist air of the leafy biome, where conditions are kept at an Amazon-esque humidity. All around us coffee bushes, banana palms, kapoks and cassavas, papaya, cola, stinkwood and jasmine joined in a mass exhalation; the place felt intensely alive. And yet human life was virtually absent: the best thing about being an honorary gardener is that, as the day starts at 8am, you get Eden access well before the doors open to the public.
“The staff have to start early to deal with any hazards that have sprung up overnight,” Lucy explained, as we strolled from West Africa into Malaysia – two of the biome’s distinct zones – completing her daily check for dangerous foliage. She soon spotted a potential menace, a broken bough that could (worst case scenario) fall during the day and clobber a visitor. Our mission: to render it harmless.
Being careful not to fall into a rice paddy, Lucy and I hauled the branch out of harm’s way and set upon it with a saw. In minutes, it was kindling, and loaded into the back of the buggy for recycling. Horticulturist John – a former Savile Row tailor who’s swapped scissors for secateurs – had it much tougher. He’d spotted a frond about to fall from the top of a giant palm; no job for an amateur, he delegated his watering duties to me while he ascended via mechanical cherry-picker to carry out some vertiginous pruning.
Watering plants didn’t sound like a glamorous job, but it was curiously soothing. For a start, I was confident I couldn’t get it wrong and I certainly learned things – namely, don’t water an overhanging branch that you’re just about to walk underneath. But mainly it was rather therapeutic. I had a purpose, but a simple one; one that made me feel useful but also allowed time to absorb and enjoy the prolific green, exotic flora and enormous butterflies. I was almost disappointed when John wanted his hose back.
Time for a tea break, with horticulturalist Steve Burrell. “We tailor Gardener For A Day to the individual,” he said as I clutched my coffee with mucky fingernails (a badge of honour, I felt). “If someone is a keen allotment owner, we can get them working on our crops. One lady grew up in Malaysia. Her daughter bought her the experience so she’d be surrounded by the plants of her childhood again.”
I had no such specialism, so was enjoying a more generic day, which covered a bit of everything. So far I’d helped avert a tree-toppling catastrophe and watered a Rainforest; next up, the Mediterranean biome, to prune some vines.
This was a lovely job. For a start, tending neatly grown vines requires no bending. Also, I have an un-neatly tended grape-triffid in my own garden, so I actually picked up some useful tips, such as how ruthlessly they should be pruned (practically to a stump) and how frequent de-leafing would increase my grape crop. There was more to be done. I dead-headed the ornamental flowers, weeded some beds, harvested a few physalis and helped collect the Outdoor biome’s crop of tomatoes and green beans. I was even shown inside the usually off-limits tool shed by horticulturalist Catherine.
“I can tell you’re not a keen gardener,” she said smiling as I glanced perfunctorily at the piles of trowels and loppers inside. “Most people who do the Day experience are dying to have a peek in here!”
However, even for a novice, peering behind the scenes at this Cornish claypit-turned-horticultural Elysium was a joy. At 3pm, I was off-duty so I wandered round to enjoy it as a visitor. I was drawn back into the Rainforest – by its fecund otherness and to check on my disarmed tree (which was doing fine, I was pleased to note).
I was also keen to see the new Aerial Walkway. Opened in July, this raised boardwalk above the West Africa zone is the first phase in Eden’s elevated plan. The intention is for the Walkway to continue over other areas of the biome, to include a Weather Station, a wobbly Rope Walk, a treetop Fruit Bar and a path behind the churning waterfall. But all in good time.
For now, I’d make do with the existing section, where Yelli music, from Cameroon and Gabon, serenaded my ascent to the canopy-level lookout. From here, I was eyeballing the nuts of the cola tree and staring up at chandelier-like artworks that symbolise plant pollination.
And from up here, all looked well with the forest. I grinned. I hadn’t killed a thing.
The Eden Project (01726 811972; edenproject.com) is near St Austell. The Gardener For A Day experience costs £99 for one/£175 for two, including lunch and refreshments.
The writer stayed on the Boconnoc Estate (01208 872507; boconnoc.com), a 25-minute drive from Eden. This venerable stately home, set in private rolling parkland, has four hireable self-catering properties on site, starting from £460 for a three-night break.