An Inspiration to us All

by David Pearce

When an invitation comes to visit a garden in mid January then you might expect to go wearing wellyboots, a woolly hat and thick anorak, but not so in this case – the visit was done in shirt sleeves and carpet slippers!


The invitation came from June Twentyman, a Life Member of Cornwall Gardens Trust since its inception in 1989 and one who has been energetically involved in gardening all her life. She tells of creating gardens in and around Truro, some of which have featured in radio and television programmes. Now, admitting to being in her 80’s and not in good health, she is scaling down, but is still actively interested in her garden which is a major source of pleasure in her life.

She says, ‘Although I can’t garden physically, my main object in life is to keep going mentally. I have a gardener in to help, but I’m still in charge and am able to ‘fiddle with the plants’ for five minutes at a time. I’m still interested in my plants and am able to enjoy the ever changing scene outside my window. You must never give up – too many people give up and lose interest in life’.

June’s garden is a small south-west facing balcony high up and, although near the centre of Truro, gives the impression of being in the countryside when viewed from the sitting room. The trellis around the perimeter not only blocks out the roof tops but also serves as a wind filter enabling a number of climbers to be grown. These include clematis, honeysuckle, jasmine and ivy. The clever arrangement of assorted containers of all sizes makes it hard to believe that none of the plants is in bare earth. In all, there are over 200 plants arranged on this small balcony giving year round interest. ‘When I came here six years ago, I didn’t want to create an area of pots but a garden – all the containers are graded down so you see nothing but the green of plants’.

During my mid-winter visit, I saw colour from the flowers of fuchsias and snowdrops, bacopa and crocus – strange combinations of flowering, attributed to climate change. In flower too were pelargonium, Clematis freckii, Coronilla glauca, Christmas Cacti, Christmas Roses, begonias, hyacinth and hibiscus.  Colour too came from the foliage of a range of plants including a purple leaved cordyline, variegated jasmine, chlorophytum, ivies, from the yellow fruits of Solanum lacineatum and the coloured bracts of bougainvillea. In one corner, the brilliant red from the base of the leaves of Fascicularia really shone out in the weak winter sunshine.  The Euryops pectinatus had been cut back to reduce the size, so it was not displaying the mass of flowers that normally persists throughout the year.

Height on the balcony is achieved with the clever arrangement of containers, and by planting specimens of Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’, Cercis siliquastrum, a standard bay tree, a walnut, rose and an oak of local provenance raised from seed. The wooden trellis, clothed in plants on the perimeter also adds to the height.

This garden is not without its problems. I was most surprised to see snails in this elevated spot, even in mid winter.  Sap sucking insects such as aphids and mealy bug are dealt with by incorporating Provado, a pesticide based on Imidacloprid, into the compost. In order to contain the size of the larger specimens, regular root pruning is necessary – a form of bonsai treatment – which gives the opportunity to re-pot using the new compost.

Even on a small balcony, there is a range of microclimates which June has studied and she appreciates that dissimilar plants require different growing conditions. She says, ‘knowing the plant’s growing conditions and cultural requirements are more important than remembering the name!’ We had an interesting discussion on shrub pruning and agreed that there really is an art in achieving the correct results.

There are two plastic greenhouses against the wall on one side of the balcony. These not only house a collection of cacti but also grow edible crops; in fact, the last of the tomatoes kept until the New Year were ripened with a little help from bananas! Roses had been picked on Christmas Day as usual.
During my visit I was introduced to a number of plants new to me. There was a fine specimen of Coleonema with its dainty white flowers amongst foliage which could be mistaken for heather. I later learned from W Arnold-Forster’s book that this used to be erroneously called Diosma ericoides.

Every plant in this garden has a story to tell and June is able to reflect on from whom and where each plant came, together with anecdotes associated with the plant. The ‘Cruel Plant’, Araujia sericofera – a twining shrub with racemes of fragrant white flowers and flat spreading terminal petals that trap nocturnal moths holding them until dawn, created much interest for June when she found Hummingbird Hawkmoths attached for pollination and tried unsuccessfully to remove them. The RHS were interested to learn of this to add to their information database of plants pollinated by Hummingbird Hawkmoths.  Another plant, Strobilanthes atropurpureus has connections with Captain HW Abbiss, an advisor and leading figure in Cornish horticultural circles in the early 1900’s. Many of the plants are connected with Treseder, the well-known Truro nursery family.

I was delighted to meet another plant previously unknown to me; this is Pereskia aculeate – one of the few terrestrial cacti which is a climber with true leaves. I saw it growing not outside on the balcony, but inside a conservatory room – another area with a different range of plants full of interest.

June, despite being limited physically, has proved what can be done within a very small space to create planting interest all the year round. She is an inspiration to us all, both in her achievements and in her philosophy of maintaining the momentum of life despite the inevitable advance of age. In this respect she makes an inspirational contribution to the Cornwall Gardens Trust.

June is very kindly inviting members of the Cornwall Gardens Trust to come and visit her to see the balcony garden in the summer. Arrangements for this will be announced in the summer Newsletter.