TRESILLIAN ESTATE'S HEAD GARDENER TALKS ABOUT MOON GARDENING
PUBLISHED: 13:16 13 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:26 30 August 2017
Tresillian Estate head gardener John Harris has been gardening for almost 70 years - and his latest book focuses on the ancient craft of Moon Gardening
Think moon gardening – and you probably think of chanting druids planting seeds by moonlight. But for long-time Cornish gardener John Harris, planting by the cycle of the moon (during the day, John hastens to add) simply reflects a gardening methodology that has been practised throughout the world for centuries.
As head gardener at Tresillian House, near Newquay, for more than 30 years, John has developed the gardens to supply fresh fruit, vegetables and cut flowers to the many guests who stay in the Georgian House and the growing crop of converted outbuildings. John has worked tirelessly to bring the gardens back to life recreating how they would have looked a century or more ago. Today the gardens showcase local heritage varieties that have almost been lost and John is proud that they propagate everything that his now grown in the gardens.
Nowhere are John’s efforts more evident than in the estate’s apple orchard which
was created 25 years ago. The orchard boasts more than 84 varieties of Cornish apple – including the vibrant Ben’s Reds which originate from Penzance in the 1840s and the marvellously named Pig’s Nose which is a local cider apple. The trees have been underplanted and cleverly laid out so that wherever you stand the trees appear in a line – a favourite Victorian landscaping trick. In the spring the orchard will also feature thousands of Cornish daffodils sprinkled among the trees but on the sunny autumn day I find John and his two assistants in the middle of picking the thousands of apples that will end up in recipes in the house – or as cider.
In the centre of the orchard stands an ancient stone plinth that was uncovered by digger when the ground was cleared. In the ordnance survey map the area was called Chapel Close, and when we were clearing it, the digger driver came to see me and said they had hit something. It has been carbon dated and comes from the medieval chapel that was here between 1300-1600.’
The orchard is also home to beehives - John has kept bees since he was 11 - and at Tresillian they are busy pollinating the apple trees. We are trying to replicate something that would have been here 100 years ago,’ says John. We are trying to recreate a time capsule. In its heyday Cornwall had more than a hundred varieties of apple unique to Cornwall.
Sadly this type of garden and all the heritage varieties it features are all but lost as gardening underwent massive changes in the last century. John tells me many of the old ways of gardening were lost when estate gardeners didn’t come back from the two world wars. The advent of the supermarket also changed forever the way we bought food.
For John his interest in moon gardening began when he worked under a gardener who asked him to study it. He was immediately hooked and has spent the last 40 years researching and practicing the art of moon gardening. He has looked at the gardening methods of the Maoris in New Zealand, the native Americans and the Incas.
They all worked in harmony with nature,’ explains John. They all called it different things, but when I looked at the bigger picture they all worked with the moon.’ So what does moon gardening mean? Put simply it is planting based on the cycle of the moon.
At Tresillian, the resulting garden is perhaps typical of many Cornish – and English – gardens. It is an all-year garden supplying cut flowers all year around and there is a huge wildflower garden which provides vital pollen for the bees. The flower gardens supply the house with a ready supply of seasonal cut flowers and a kitchen garden which sits in a walled garden dating back to 1784. Inside you will find century-old onion varieties, heritage potatoes and peas, as well as an incredible selection of herbs and all the seasonal veg which finds its way into the kitchen of the house supplying the visiting chefs - all using moon gardening techniques.
Of course if you are supplying major super-markets, moon gardening might not work. If a supermarket wants a thousand lettuces a day, you can’t turn around and say you can’t have them as the moon wasn’t right for planting – they will just go somewhere else.’
As a result of his work, John has been featured on Canadian television, as well as a TV programme in New Zealand – and closer to home he has written for The Telegraph and has been featured on BBC TV.
It’s not just a job,’ John says, who has worked in various gardening roles from self employed landscape gardener to running commercial garden centres, but he is happiest on with estate life. It’s a way of life. I’ll be 76 on my next birthday and the minute it becomes a job, I will retire. Gardeners are not made they are born. The important thing is not to be selfish, to plant to leave something behind for others to inherit. I love tree planting because they are going to be there for another hundred years, long after I am gone.’
As well as a conservation garden, the gardens are completely organic and encouraging wildlife is key to its. Whenever they plant trees on the estate at last 25 per cent will be bird feeding trees.
The most important thing is the soil – there’s an old saying: tread lightly on the soil as it is tomorrow’s bread basket.’ w
Moon Gardening by John Harris with Jim Rickards (hardback £12.99) published by John Blake Publishing blake.co.uk
Now there was a crazy old gent, Rex Davey, a true country eccentric and owner of the Tresillian estate, who always used to come into the garden centre, buying all manner of seeds and produce and tools and the latest fads. It always seemed to be something different. The only constant was haggling over the price. I used to love him coming in for what was a good friendly sparring match. One day he bustled into the main shop and, instead of buying stuff, he announced directly to me, I’m looking for somebody to sort things out at the estate. It’ll be for a few weeks only, but the money’s good. Know anybody who would be up for it?’
I used to visit Tresillian unofficially’ as a lad and come back with a few choice apples. Even then, I loved it for its grandeur and the possibility of what it could be. It was a magical place, despite the fact that swathes of it had been too long neglected.
I named my price in response to his medieval starting point. Mr Rex mock-fainted and we found somewhere in the middle. The money wasn’t great, but the opportunity at Tresillian was. Mr Rex said to me, Only for six weeks, mind. Can’t afford you for longer, Harris’.
It was worth a punt. If I didn’t like it, or he didn’t like me, I was still young enough to do something else. But if I proved to him what could be done, offered him a vision of a different type of future for Tresillian, then I could make good on my promise to Noel and myself and finally put into practice the running of an estate based entirely on ancient, natural techniques.
I turned up on my first day with a spring in my step, but as soon as I got through the entrance I was utterly disheartened. The place was an absolute mess; overgrown, overrun, clearly chaotically managed, fertiliser bags everywhere, tools in all the wrong places, rusting machinery… Tresillian had been run by a farming family who had very little gardening experience, and it showed. There were sheep in the old walled kitchen garden and wherever you looked everything was running wild. Six weeks was barely going to make a scratch – a mere speck of time to make any sort of impression.
Things needed taking back right to the beginning. So it could only be a clean-up job, cutting back brambles and making sure it looked as if someone actually lived there.
After six weeks I was called into the office, my head low. I knew I hadn’t even achieved my first objective of making the entrance look half decent. Mr Rex was genetically incapable of getting to the point quickly… He talked about the state of the economy, the problems for great country houses like his trying to make ends meet, etc etc and I thought, if you don’t want me please just tell me. He was a lovable character but there were times when you just wanted a straight conversation.
Gardeners are not made they are born. Gardening is not just a job,it’s a way of life. I’ll be 76 on my next birthday but the minute it becomes a job, I will retire.’