A postcard, probably early C20th, showing the cordyline avenue near the south entrance to Morrab Gardens

U for Unwelcome Visitors!: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

Reaching U in her blog, Julia considers unwelcome visitors – both human and non-human! On a happier note we remember Reginald Upcher, who designed Morrab Gardens more than 140 years ago, and celebrate a garden writer who has provided her readers with a great leap forward in UNDERSTANDING how to garden better

In a public space open to all such as Morrab Gardens it’s UNSURPRISING – although always depressing – that its peace is occasionally USURPED by the behaviour of anti-social elements, resulting in visitors being UNSETTLED, their quiet enjoyment marred by noisy disturbances, careless littering and even vandalism..

According to Joe Palmese, the Gardens’ Head Gardener, UNSUPERVISED children who haven’t been taught respect for nature are a cause of concern for the welfare of the Gardens. When their parents are otherwise occupied these children run wild and do all sorts of damage to borders, plants and shrubs by knocking into or climbing on them.

People who act inconsiderately are the worst of UNWELCOME visitors for a gardener anywhere – but Joe reminds us that at Morrab Gardens he and his team must also contend with non-human adversaries too.

The seagulls and the herons,’ he answers immediately when asked about predators. He describes how a heron will swoop down in early morning to one of the ponds and use its sharp beak to pierce and devour toads and slow worms.

And are dogs a pest? ‘Cats are – killing birds – shame they can’t be kept on a lead,’ Joe replies. (I tell him once I did see a family near the bandstand walking their pet feline insouciantly on a long lead.)

And as it transpires in regard to dogs behaving badly, the fault is by no means always the canine’s – as is clear when the historical record is consulted. In the minutes of a Penzance Council meeting of 9 November 1931 is the following, ‘The Head Gardener reported that a certain person refused to put his dog on a lead when passing through the Gardens.  It was resolved that the Town Clerk be instructed to caution the offender.’ 

U is for Reginald UPCHER, about whom not a great deal of information is available, although for Morrab Gardens he’s of principal importance as it was Upcher who devised the winning entry in the 1888 competition for the Gardens’ design. The prize for the plan was 21 guineas.

Upcher’s original design – which can be consulted in the County Record Office, Truro – was faithfully followed in the laying-out of the Gardens’ sloping three acres site into planted areas with sweeping gravel paths traversing lawns.

A postcard, probably early C20th, showing the cordyline avenue near the south entrance to Morrab Gardens
The Cordyline Avenue was a notable feature of Upcher’s design for Morrab Gardens. When the Gardens opened in 1889, the Gardeners’ Chronicle wrote: “One of its features is a Palm-grove, where tourists may fancy themselves in the tropics or on Mediterranean shores.”

Today Morrab Gardens remain listed as a Grade II site on an English Heritage National Register which includes thousands of designed landscapes of national significance. In the Gardens, now under the care of Cornwall Council, some of its buildings are also Grade II listed, including the bandstand, the fountain and the Boer War Memorial.

Among the many gardening writers across time there are some whose legacy will always remain as having provided their readers with a great leap forward in UNDERSTANDING how to garden better, more wisely and thus more rewardingly.

Beth Chatto OBE (1923-2019) was one such, her work throughout a long gardening life placing her in the vanguard of modern pioneers of sustainable garden design.

In her gardens and the books she wrote about them, beginning with The Dry Garden (Littlehampton 1978), Chatto advocated an influential ecological approach. Never having had any formal horticultural training but based rather on her husband Andrew’s lifelong research into plants growing in the wild and her own trial and error style, Chatto came up with the successful formula epitomised by the system she described as ‘right plant, right place.

Today the Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market near Colchester comprise a varied range of planting sites totalling 7 acres.

Visitors can wander among the alpine plantings to the Gravel Garden, Woodland Garden, Water Garden, the Long Shady Walk, the Reservoir Garden and Scree Garden, all of which provide flourishing and vividly appealing visual proof of the wisdom of her teachings.

Originally it was very different. Begun in 1960 on land that was previously a fruit farm, the whole area was a wild tangle of blackthornwillow and brambles, the soil considered too dry in places for a garden, too wet in others.

Chatto writes of being intrigued by ‘the extreme variation in growing conditions, such as the hollow where the soil lay black and waterlogged surrounded by an expanse of sun-baked gravel,’ and the urge of rising to the challenge of, ‘successfully growing plants adapted to our situation in Essex, one of the driest parts of the country.’

“Dry Gardens in England (3 of 21) | Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex, UK” by ukgardenphotos is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The development of the sites prompted Chatto’s books about how, using the plants that occur and flourish naturally under difficult conditions, such areas, which might otherwise be considered impossible to cultivate, could be transformed. Growing plants in conditions in which they naturally thrive, Chatto correctly maintained, would result in sustainable gardens requiring less human intervention.

Chatto’s aim was to convince gardeners to be less concerned with insisting on flowers and strong colour, encouraging instead an appreciation for the more subtle form, texture and natural beauty of foliage and species plants in native settings.

A major focus was on nurturing soil quality and the crucial importance of gardening in a manner to minimise impact on the environment, Chatto showing herself as ahead of her time in recognising the need to reduce the amount of watering done in our gardens.

Not merely a practitioner but also an artist, Chatto wrote of her garden design benefiting from ‘Balance, repetition, harmony and simplicity, basic principles which apply to all forms of creativity: drawing on these in painting and architecture, or hearing them in music, has certainly influenced me as much as knowing whether to put a plant in the shade, or in full sun.’

With the success of Gold Medals at the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Chelsea Flower Show awarded over ten consecutive years of the 70s and 80s came a significantly increased public interest in and enhanced understanding of Chatto’s unusual plants and ecological approach to gardening.

By 1990 she had written five books, given numerous interviews and undertaken five international lecture tours. Honours included an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Essex in 1987, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal 1988 and the granting of an OBE in 2002.

URSULA K. LEGUIN 

“Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth”

Although American author Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) wrote conventional novels, non-fiction and poetry, her stellar reputation rests firmly on her genre-defying science fiction, ground-breaking in subject and subversive in style. After the 1968 publication of A Wizard of Earthsea (Penguin 2012) – wildly popular despite initially being promoted as a work for children – Le Guin went on to forge a new path in the fantasy field. Setting herself against stereotyping and discrimination, righting social injustice through creating complex but morally relevant stories was powerfully motivating for her. Author Joyce Carol Oates praised her ‘outspoken sense of justice, decency, and common sense,’ calling her ‘ a visionary artist whose work will long endure.’ About the future Le Guin herself prophesied, ‘We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.’

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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