Davies relishing challenge after eyeing top Heligan job for 16 years

Becoming Heligan's head of gardens and estate was 'a match made in heaven', says Iain Davies.

Davies: Heligan's head gardener
Davies: Heligan's head gardener

Bringing the Lost Gardens of Heligan into the 21st century while honouring those who worked there 100 years ago is proving to be a perfect challenge for new head gardener Iain Davies.

Davies spent much of his career in private gardens but had been eyeing up a role at Heligan for 16 years. Being hired as Heligan's head of gardens and estate last November was "a match made in heaven", he said.

He now has a team of 32 staff including 18 full-time gardeners, covering more than 300 acres of the estate. Next year it will be 25 years since Heligan opened to the public and Davies is working out how to "plan for the next 25 years".

At the top of his list is an overhaul of some of the champion trees in the Jungle. Originally a Japanese garden and arboretum, the area was left to grow unchecked for 70 years. Camellias and rhododendrons now tower overhead. Davies is creating a seven-year plan to prune them without making the area unsightly for visitors.

Other projects include the gardens' entrance, which has been transformed with subtropical planting and rusting metal gates for an old-world feel. A festival for big vegetables is planned for 2016 and an extensive renovation of the Ravine that began before Davies arrived has been halted so staff can catch up with other tasks.

"When you're restoring something like that sometimes it's good to pull away and look at it again to make sure you get it right," he said.

"Come next spring when we open, it's going to be really special, with the planting, the water features and the way the structure's put together."

Davies is of the school of thought that a public garden should be a showcase so he tries to demonstrate as many gardening techniques as possible, even within period-correct areas such as the vegetable gardens.

In the Stewardry and the Jungle, where his remit is more flexible, adding new material is a great way to honour the old tradition of exotic plant hunting, said Davies.

"When the great estates were about they all clubbed together and sent people like (Frank) Kingdon-Ward and Joseph Rock off in search of these plants, and the seedlings ended up going to the estates that paid for the trip."

But these days plant hunters often self-fund their expeditions and bring back specimens for special nurseries, so Davies follows their hunts with interest and tries to source their finds for the Heligan gardens.

"People are always finding something new and something exciting, and to me as a plantsperson that's what being a gardener is about."

Potted history - The Lost Gardens of Heligan

The "Lost" refers to both Heligan's gardens and to its former staff. Its stunning 19th century gardens fell into disrepair after dozens of staff went off to fight in World War One and never returned.

Seventy years later, Tim Smit was invited to take a look at the gardens with the new owner, who had just inherited the estate. He came across many champion trees and decided the gardens should be reclaimed for the public. Twenty-five years on, the now world-renowned gardens offer a showcase of best practice from gardening history.

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