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Places To Visit : Gardens : Tresco Abbey Gardens

Tresco Abbey Gardens

Isles of Scilly TR24 0QQ
T: 01720 424105

Three “tiers” for Tresco.

Mike Nelhams, Curator of the world famous Tresco Abbey Garden, gives us a brief outline of the wonderful garden.

Picture if you can a small island no more than two miles long and thirty miles from the south west tip of England. On that island within the Isles of Scilly group sits Tresco Abbey Garden and within that garden there exists what can only be described as a unique collection of plants from the Mediterranean climate zones of the world.
A regular combination of mild wet winters and hot dry summers, a small temperature range and high humidity, coupled with external shelter protection enable the garden to be able to replicate the conditions from all five recognised Mediterranean floral regions, which are concentrated between latitudes 30 degrees and 45 degrees.

Tresco Abbey Gardens Tresco Abbey Gardens - Picture 1 Tresco Abbey Gardens - Picture 2

You would think that with the past winter just experienced by most of the country and for such a sustained period that Tresco may have suffered with plant losses….this is not the case. No snow fell and the garden did not drop below freezing. We felt incredibly lucky that no damage was done, but past experience tells us that Scilly often escapes the unpleasantness of an English winter.

Plants from South Africa’s Western Cape, Coastal Chile, California, Southwest Australia and the Mediterranean basin all jostle for position on a gentle south facing slope not more than a hundred metres wide from top to bottom. Not to be left out New Zealand , Mexico and the Canary islands are well represented with many fine garden plants used by gardeners across the County.

The variation in drainage, sunshine, shade, soil type and conditions on this small hillside mean that Tresco Abbey garden can grow tender specimens easily and outside all year round with over 4,500 different species represented.
  
The small hillside is able to reproduce three main types of growth habit using soil type and elevation which defines light levels within the garden and so determine where and how our collection grows.

The top and highest level of the garden concentrates on growing plants from South Africa and Australia with full sunshine and high light levels. They receive open exposure with very little protection to both drying summer breeze and also to winter salt laden gales and with a very free draining and more importantly a nutrient poor soil, low in both nitrogen and phosphates .

Plants represented in this area such as the exotic long lasting flowers of Protea, the candle like Banksia and brightly leafed Leucadendron all thrive in these somewhat harsh condition and will tolerate both drought and salt spray quite easily. Acacia or “Mimosa” thrive in this lofty position above the garden producing huge branches of yellow flowers in the springtime. Many of these plants have also developed subtle means to increase efficiency of nutrient and water uptake while withstanding these open conditions. Mild winter temperatures allied to high rainfall means that growth is also continuous throughout the year.
 
Moving lower down the hillside into the central area of the garden, the plant range changes to a wider mix. Specimens from practically all of the Mediterranean climate zones overlap giving the average garden visitor a visual display so varied they would have trouble knowing which country they were visiting.

With much more wind protection but still high light levels these plants from across the globe sit comfortably together. Self sown succulent Aeonium rosettes from Tenerife cascade down shallow cliffs while Phoenix canariense palms give semi-shade to forest’s of Echium and Geranium maderense. Large colonies of lime yellow Puya chilensis flower spikes,from South America ,erupt above colourful blankets of Mesembryanthemum and Pelargonium.

Many varying species of Californian Agave flourish on warm sunny banks alongside Mediterranean Cytissus which burst into flower as early as January. In the later summer months waves of Watsonia “Tresco hybrids” fill the terraces with tall delicate stems of creamy, orange and pink flowers. Agapanthus plants from South Africa burst into life from every nook and cranny. Many have developed as self sown seedlings to fill every spare border with tall blue and white heads of flowers the size of footballs.

The bottom section of the garden sits on nutrient rich soil built up over many years from the garden’s early beginnings in 1834. Many large mature trees in this area are able to still protect the middle section of the garden from strong winds while at the same time affording shade as an upper canopy to the understorey planting below. Without this overhead shade and wind protection many plants would simply not survive. Also high winter rainfall and Gulf stream temperatures will produce a high humidity in this part of the garden to which plants will respond. Protective plants include the majestic “Pohutukawa”or Metrosideros excelsa with its glossy evergreen leaf and bright red flower in mid-july. Quercus ilex the evergreen oak which has been grown into tall protective hedges and Araucaria heterophylla, the Norfolk Island pine with its distinctive symmetrical branches growing to a height of 30 metres. Most plants in this area also have larger, soft or fragile leaf types such as Entelia arborescens, Tetrapanax papyrifer, Macropiper excelsum ,Woodwardia radicans and the tree fern groups from new Zealand.

Tresco grows many species of palms, most growing in full sun but one that can perform in real shade is the Nikau palm , Rhopalostylis sapida. If this was put on Tresco’s upper sunny slopes, it’s large leaves would not tolerate conditions so easily. Deep shade and a good depth of soil will make this an exceptional plant that stands out in the crowd on any gardeners shopping list.

As the scientists of the world tell us the climate is changing and our temperatures are rising it may in the future be possible for all gardens across the country to grow plants from these warmer climes but for the moment a visit to Tresco Abbey garden will perhaps show a glimpse of what is to come for British gardening. Come and visit us we think you may be surprised.