Escape to Cornwall: On gardening leave at the Eden Project

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Cornwall’s popular attraction is now offering visitors the chance to become ‘Gardener For a Day’ in its artificial biomes. Sarah Baxter, self-confessed novice, puts her green-fingered credentials to the test. What could go wrong?

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.

Visiting there

The Eden Project (01726 811972; is near St Austell. The Gardener For A Day experience costs £99 for one/£175 for two, including lunch and refreshments.

Staying there

The writer stayed on the Boconnoc Estate (01208 872507;, 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.

More information

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own