A Blossoming Business

PUBLISHED: 15:41 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:11 20 February 2013

Gazebo and edge of the Mediterranean Garden

Gazebo and edge of the Mediterranean Garden

Our June garden visit explores Peter and Tricia Howard's Hidden Valley Gardens near Lostwithiel, which is an enterprise they have developed from a neglected 'pick-your-own' business into a successful smallholding.

Terry Underhill visits Peter and Tricia Howard's Hidden Valley Gardens near Lostwithiel, an enterprise they have developed from a neglected 'pick-your-own' business into a successful smallholding

In November 1999, Tricia and Peter Howard moved from a cold, dry garden in North Yorkshire to a wet, four-acre Cornish smallholding, bringing with them more than one thousand plants. "We wanted to develop a garden to share with others and return to our favourite county," says Tricia. "And Hidden Valley has not only been that, but the whole venture has been, and still is, a very steep learning curve."

The smallholding had been run mainly as a 'pick-your-own' but had been neglected for about twelve years, allowing many pernicious weeds, such as bindweed, docks, nettles and thistles, to thrive. Now, eight years on, they have 'turned the corner' with Hidden Valley Gardens, having created a thriving bed-and-breakfast business, a small nursery and a garden with many themes.

Hidden Valley is a very apt name as it is at the end of a series of narrow lanes at Treesmill, about two miles south-west of Lostwithiel. Being in a valley and the soil being clay, the ground can become sodden, which presents problems during very wet winters. However, clay soils, if handled correctly, can be excellent for a wide range of plants. Furthermore, the valley and nearby railway embankment make the garden a frost pocket and early casualties were Tricia's favourites from Yorkshire - dianthus and lavenders that hate the wet clay. The soft fruit, much of it virus-infected and swamped with weeds, had to be replaced in clean soil. Fresh plants that were planted into the clean soil included currants, strawberries and autumn-fruiting raspberries, which have been very successful, along with apples, pears, Victoria plums and damsons, which are now coming into production.

In the beginning, major earthworks were carried out behind the house and outbuildings. The topsoil was removed prior to pulling soil back from the buildings, installing drains and building terraces. The topsoil was then returned and, because of the improved drainage, work began on developing a Mediterranean garden, with an Italian cypress, cistus, myrtle, rosemary and some lavenders. A small greenhouse protects some delicate plants and also acts as a feature, although the main focal point is a newly built gazebo, the design inspired by one in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. A pair of wooden obelisks, made by Tricia's father, stand either side of the gazebo.

A series of land drains in the garden lead to a boggy area and a spring-fed pond, perfect for wildlife, although because it's shallow and has a muddy bottom, water weeds grow at an alarming rate and have to be thinned about three times a year.

Visitors enter the garden under an arch and down a short flight of wooden steps from the small plant nursery, where virtually everything has been grown from plants in the garden or from seed, the main sources of the latter being the Royal Horticultural Society, Hardy Plant Society and Ray Brown's Plant World. Growing plants from seed is one of Tricia's favourite jobs, and a treasured memory is her first drift of Love-in-a-mist grown from seed when she was a small girl.

Beyond the steps, on the right is a superb 'hot' border of herbaceous plants and grasses, in shades of orange, red and russet, with a few foliage plants such as Phormium and purple-leaved hazel to help give a permanent structure. Opposite this border is an oval bed that has a subtropical feel because of the cannas and grasses it contains. Below is a boggy area ideal for primulas and our native yellow Iris pseudacorus, and then there's a wildlife pond, where a pump supplies water to three taps within the garden.

Taking a route along the lower boundary, there is the new Japanese garden, and among the mixture of shrubs are some excellent forms of autumn-flowering Hydrangea paniculata, then a fernery interplanted with spring-flowering bulbs. Here in the lawn is a large circular bed devoted to plants for butterflies and bees. In the bottom corner, fenced off from visitors, are the bee hives.

Returning to the house you will pass, on the right, an area for nursery stock, a wooden glasshouse and the 'pick-your-own' area, plus rows of plants for cut flowers. On the left of the lawn are a series of beds; the first of these is somewhat boggy, ideal for a growing collection of Iris including Iris ensata, sibirica and laevigata.

One bed surrounds a tulip tree, and another is mainly for hydrangeas. The path leads to a relatively new Tea Hut with 'do-it-yourself' tea or coffee with biscuits, next to the nursery sales area, an ideal place to relax and look at photographs showing various stages of the garden's development. This is also where visitors will find a very useful leaflet describing a guided tour of the gardens. Nearby are a number of plant beds and a potager with the Mediterranean garden in the top corner. From there a series of steps leads down by the side of the house, alongside beds and borders. There is also a fountain and goldfish pond in a courtyard area between the house, garage and barn, which has been converted for self-catering.

Tricia somehow manages a balancing act between a thriving B&B business and maintaining and developing the garden and nursery. When asked for tips, she replies: "The garden tells you what to do. Resist the temptation to plant an area before eradicating all perennial weeds, and when you do plant, avoid planting shrubs and trees too closely." Asked what is her favourite plant, she says, "It depends on the time of year and what I am into at the moment, although I would not want to be without snowdrops, agapanthus and aquilegias."

The garden is open until the end of October, 10am-6pm, and entry is £2.50. For further information (01208 873225, or visit www.hiddenvalleygardens.co.uk

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