Toby Ashworth, proprietor of The Nare Hotel in Cornwall, always has a cunning plan up his sleeve to entice early spring visitors. His famous ‘Bloomometer’ decrees that once enough magnolias are in flower in six Cornish gardens, spring is officially in session. This date often falls in mid-February, well before most UK gardens wake up. This year, however, Toby’s promotional genius has been outdone by a plant in his own garden – a specimen of Agave americana has just begun its once-in-20-years flowering process.
The promise of warmth and exotic plants was enough to lure two of us on a spring break at The Nare (see box below) and the hotel, agave or not, made an excellent base for our daily forays. Three garden visits are included in your stay, although we found it hard to stop even at five, there are so many to see on the doorstep.
One of many local National Trust gardens, this late-Victorian, Jacobean-style mansion nestles in the acute angle of a valley, backed by a riot of rhododendrons and magnolias in ice cream shades, all ranked up the hillside like a florist’s display. Meandering the garden takes visitors via parterres of box and clipped yew full of fat globes of ‘Menton’ tulips, and past Cornish surprises such as a wonderful akebia on the wall of the herbaceous garden, where a tapestry of all-green foliage was pushing up through a velvety dark mulch.
The stream garden leads to the woodland, from where one has an aerial view of the Gormenghast-like turrets, slate roofs and courtyards of the house. Rhodos and magnolias were just coming into their finery, but the less-familiar white flowered drimys trees were an unexpected highlight.
Gardens open Feb 10, 10am -4.30pm (nationaltrust.org.uk).
Pinsla Garden and Nursery
This small, bohemian artist’s cottage garden takes some of its cues from ancient Cornwall: a stone circle in the lawn and a bamboo-forested mount. On our visit, a pale pink flowering currant was in full flow, along with ‘Knap Hill Scarlet’ quince, and the nursery was stuffed with early treasures – bulbs, hardy geraniums, shady woodlanders, primulas ‘Guinevere’, ‘Innisfree’, ‘Strong Beer’ and Drumcliffe, plus unusual hardy ferns including the oak fern, Gymnocarpium dryopteris ‘Plumosum’, and greenhouse rarities like pleiones and bletilla. Perfect for an early plant buying spree.
Garden opens Feb 23, 9am-5pm (01208 821339; pinslagarden.net).
Wendy Perry’s garden in Truro, also on a steep site that wraps around the house, has a national reputation. In spring, before leaves open in the beech and sycamore woodland garden, the ground is carpeted with drifts of snowdrops, hellebores, wood anemones, epimediums, erythroniums and scented daffodils. There is so much detail and variation here, it was a lesson in plantsmanship of great subtlety and artistry. Later in the year the hot borders come into their own along with the enclosed Vean garden. The famous annual hellebore day is very popular and well worth a trip.
Open for hellebore day, Feb 24, 10am-4pm. Then March 7-Sept 30, Wed-Fri, 11am-6pm (01872 275774; bosvigo.com).
Tregrehan, with long views over the sea to St Michael’s Mount, is famously associated with trees and camellias, collected by different members of the Carlyon plant-hunting family. Now the estate is run by Tom Hudson, a New Zealand relative, who has concentrated his efforts on collecting endangered trees of temperate forests from around the world; the arboretum is internationally renowned.
The garden as a whole has a beautifully soft, laid back but cared-for quality that is very atmospheric, with an avenue of old limes on the approach, and twisted acers flanking the path to the central pond and framing the restored greenhouses. Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia), pops up everywhere, with huge glossy leaves and pale blue flowers. One of the pleasures of old Cornish gardens is the carefree overspill of plants like this that can be tricky for most of us to grow.
Echiums and Geranium maderense have also taken over the old estate buildings (now open to the sky and used for plant sales and teas), happily seeding around each other and thriving within the sheltered stone walls.
Gardens open March 15-May 31, Wed-Fri and Sun, 10.30am-5pm (tregrehangarden.uk).
Tresco Abbey garden
The flight in a Twin Otter plane from Land’s End to St Mary’s, followed by a jet boat crossing to Tresco then a truck to Spindrift Sea Garden Cottages for a luxurious overnight stay makes a visit to Tresco exciting at any time of year.
The Abbey Garden is a botanical collection that ranks with important Mediterranean gardens the world over, although plants from Australia and New Zealand dominate, rather than the classic Mediterranean palette.
The broad, plant-stuffed terraces are spliced with sunny ocean views; microclimates range from deep, damp shade in the lee of the evergreen wind breaks to arid sunny upper slopes. Banksia, proteas, agaves, puyas, Norfolk pines, Wollemi pines, silver trees, aeoniums, and many different echiums create an exhilarating Martian effect – their spiny silhouettes a total contrast with the lush woodlands of the mainland.
Gardens open daily, 10am-4pm (01720 424108; tresco.co.uk).