Secrets of the Lost Gardens of Heligan by Tom Petherick
My time at The Lost Gardens
of Heligan began in the autumn of 1993 when the restoration was in its
infancy. I had just come back from a lengthy trip to India where I was helping
on another restoration project, this time a redundant coffee estate which had
fallen badly into disrepair.
The garden at Heligan was also in a very poor condition but plenty of work had
been done by the time I arrived and gardening, rather than slashing and burning,
was all set to get under way.
The vegetable garden had been cleared of all the undergrowth that had engulfed
it over some 70 years of abandonment. Following that a great deal of it had been
sown with potatoes, ostensibly to Ďclear the groundí. An interesting concept
this and one that I have never quite been the right side of. The process assumes
that the ground has already been cleared of perennial weeds because the only
weeds that ridging up will clear are annual ones, perennials such as docks and
or nettles will only re-root and possible multiply if chopped up.
Once the potatoes were lifted that autumn the process of planning the gardening
came into view. Today the vegetable garden is worked on a six course rotation
but back then we started with only four courses. Plot One was potatoes with
winter brassicas in the same year, Plot Two was roots such as carrots and
parsnips, Plot Three was legumes i.e. peas and beans and Plot Four was
miscellaneous including summer brassicas and onions. All the crops moved on one
plot each year roots following on from potatoes and so on.
The purpose of rotation is twofold - to keep plants in the same family together
and therefore break the cycle of soil borne pests and diseases and to build soil
fertility adding the correct nutrition for each crop at the right time. The
practice has been in use since agriculture began and it works. So for example
letís take the profile of Plot One over four years. It has potatoes in the first
year and these are gross feeders and require liberal dosings of well rotted
manure. As such the ground is dug over and the organic matter is added. After
the potatoes are harvested the ground is raked over and the winter brassicas are
planted. Whilst the potatoes have used up most of the nitrogen supplied by the
organic matter there will be just enough left for the cabbages and kales which
follow on. When planting these it is important to remember that the ground
should be firm, especially for cauliflowers and brussels sprouts. The next year
is the turn of the carrots and parsnips. By the time the brassicas come out
there is not too much nitrogen left in the soil which is perfect for these
straight growing root crops. What they like best of all is a sandy soil without
In the third year the plot has its nitrogen replaced by the leguminous crops in
the shape of peas and beans. To me it has always been one of the great miracles
of nature how a plant can take atmospheric nitrogen, store it in bacteria which
is held ion nodules on the plantís roots and release it to nourish itself and
other plants around it. Astonishing but that is what peas and beans do and when
you dig up a broad bean or runner bean plant at the end of the season you will
see the funny pink wart like growths in which the nitrogen is found.
The fourth in line are the miscellaneous crops that donít fit in such as
spinaches and chards, onions, summer brassicas and oddities such as celery and
celeriac. Today at Heligan there are six courses to the rotation and the plot
would get onions after the legumes and then be trench dug with manure added for
pumpkins and squashes, the miscellaneous following these.
So the rotational aspect of managing the vegetable garden at Heligan continues
to this day and the results are a testament to the old fashioned system of
growing in rotation. The garden is almost entirely organic, apart from one
systemic fungicide used to counteract potato blight on the main crop potatoes
and there are no herbicides or pesticides used at all.
It is the same with the flower gardens and the borders. They too are managed
organically with the emphasis on soil fertility and correct nutrition. For
annual cut flowers too much nitrogen will lead to lots of lush leaf growth and
not too much in the way of flower but for perennial plants which are bigger and
older there is definitely a considerable nutritional requirement and the use of
winter and spring mulches in the form of compost is widespread.
Tom Petherick was the head gardener at the
Lost Garden Of Heligan and
is also a renowned writer who currently provides his expertise on the web via
the website www.dancing-bee.com.