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While on a last minute pre Christmas break in Cornwall last week we visited the nearby Pinetum Park and Pine Lodge Gardens, a series of ten themed gardens set in thirty acres on the outskirts of St Austell. The gardens are family run and were painstakingly developed over more than thirty years from what was a disused tin and copper mining site. Of particular interest to us was the winter garden, said to be one of the most extensive in the West Country.

Pinetum Park view of Japanese garden across lake

On our way to the winter garden we wandered through the Japanese garden, even at this gloomy time of year it is full of welcome green foliage and contrasting textures.

Although it might not be the best time of year for many of the flowering shrubs or trees, or, for that matter, many gardens, I particularly liked the ground cover and edging provided by a mixture of evergreen grass-like plants : carex, ophiopogon and flowering liriope. The paths feature reclaimed granite insets that looked good glistening with damp and trails of mind-your-own-business, it was interesting to see how this had been used instead of grass (or moss) to create a bright green carpet in shady areas. If it can be contained like this it makes a fine alternative to a lawn, especially in tricky sites. Many of the plants throughout the gardens were grown from seed or cuttings collected by the Clemo’s from their travels, this particular garden was inspired by visits to Kyoto Botannic Garden where they were befriended by a gardener who then sent them material to propagate. Over the years, Shirley Clemo earnt such renown as a distinguished plantswoman that she was awarded the MBE.

The lake on an overcast day

By the time we reached the lake, the light levels were threatening to plummet to a low, smudging the woods and water into a murky blur. We hurried on.

Boundary to the winter garden

The circular winter garden is shown clearly on the map, there are two entrances both at the far side as you approach it from the lake. We avoided the lower sodden path bordering the woods and walked anti-clockwise around the fenced boundary, wondering what lay beyond.

Memorial stone winter garden

From the outset this garden makes a statement, perhaps one which explains why it is so lovingly cared for. Compared to some other areas of the garden, the winter garden is maintained to a very high standard, a great credit both to Shirley Clemo, who designed the garden as a memorial to her brother, and her son who now manages the gardens as a whole. Containing about 600 different plants there’s a lot of plants to see, most remain clearly labelled. Despite the grey day, the first view of the garden promised light and warmth aplenty.

There are many beautiful mature specimen trees with interesting bark and wizened structures, including a stunning multi stemmed Prunus Serrula close to the entrance, a stand of elegant triangular leaved Acacia pravissima and a handsome trio of Acer grosseri var. hersii.

Birches and Cornus

Where the trees were concerned, my absolute favourite was a seemingly infinite sweep of 100 birches underplanted with the complementary red stemmed Cornus alba and Nacissi ‘Miss Muffet’ all planted in turf.

From the moment you step through the gate there’s a wide range of eye catching shrubs but for me the lesson was the way in which they are combined to provide contrast. Even quite ordinary ones that I wouldn’t usually pay much attention to won me over, particularly the topiarised dark leaved Thumberingii ‘Tom Thumb’ spheres placed next to orange stemmed Cornus ‘Midwinterfire’ plus the conical shape of the variegated ‘Siver Queen ‘ creating a nice foil for the plump red buds of the distinctive Salix fargesii.

I’m a bit hopeless when it comes to planting shrubs for scent in my own garden, but my nose always twitches when I encounter it elsewhere. Shirley Clemo’s design incorporates several different cultivars of daphne, mahonia, rosemary, and scented heather with the added bonus of lots of benches neatly placed in niches from which to sit and appreciate them. Hitesh and the dogs did a fair bit of that while I searched for labels, one or two proved elusive. I was quite taken with the wild and willowy form of Cestrum parqui.

Spice stones

There are many pieces of interesting sculpture throughout the gardens, notably four giant spice grinding stones that were originally from London’s East India Docks, they once dominated the tea shop/nursery courtyard as in the image above which is from the garden’s website. These days they are looking a bit cluttered, when we visited, some very sad looking plants for sale were strewn around the base and perched on the ledges. The stones do, however, have a fascinating story to tell of how Roy Clemo discovered them in a local quarry and then acquired them from their P&O owners.

Stag statue

Back in the winter garden, the magnificent bronze stag stands proud, as intended, at the heart of the garden. Tantalisingly, there is only one clear view of him, skirting the base of his lookout is as close as the visitor can get, which I thought seemed right and fitting.

Stag seen through Stipa gigantea

Otherwise, when circling the planting, the stag rises above generous and imaginative waves of grasses and restios with sculptural blocks of heather and rosemary filling the mid ground to the base. I loved the glimpses of the stag’s head and shoulders glimpsed through the natural looking grasses, here it was the evergreen Stipa gigantea with a surprising number of dried flowering spikes still intact and looking good for mid December – unlike mine at home that resemble a pile of pick-sticks.

Chionochloa conspicua

Chionochloa conspicua

Variegated pampas grass

Cordateria selloana ‘Aureolineata’

It was wonderful to see some other well chosen stands of grass crowning the planting. I also couldn’t help but admire the cascades of rush-like Restio tetraphyllus with its rich bronze fruits shown below.

For me, this, the designer’s centre of her ‘rose’ design motif, was the highlight of the whole garden, the largely evergreen combinations were unusual but worked well from whichever angle I looked at them which impressed me as large round beds often seem to have a weak side to them.

Pinetum park summer website image

The Pinetum in summer

I’m told that there are some good online two for one offers for garden visits, this one included, and perhaps in retrospect such a deal would make this sort of out of season visit better value. That said, the Japanese garden was very interesting and the winter garden which was so full of colour and scent was inspiring. Although I didn’t spend as much time as I’d have liked in The Pinetum, I saw enough of it to consider going back for another look on a summer’s day plus, as we were heading for the car park, I caught a glimpse of a grassy planting around a statue in The Slave Garden …. As they say, where restaurants or gardens are concerned it’s always good to leave wanting a little bit more.