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Clare Hillage, Gardener

Inspiration from St Michael's Mount for our own planting, the challenges of maintaining an island garden (tides!) and why abseiling is an essential skill.

Clare Hillage works as a Senior Gardener in the frankly gorgeous sub-tropical gardens at St Michael’s Mount. As a full-time gardener in a team of four, her main role is to maintain the terraced Gardens as well as the cut flower garden that provides fresh flowers for the castle. Intrigued by the challenges of working on a tidal island garden, we spoke to her for a Muddy catch-up.

What makes the garden at the Mount so special?

The Gardens have a unique microclimate. The Granite that makes up the Island stores heat during the day and expels it in the evenings. That, and the fact that the Gardens are predominantly South facing means we can keep a frost-free temperature in the Gardens that allows us to grow sub-tropical, southern hemisphere plants, and keep succulents outside all year round.

Did you have to learn any new skills to take on the gardening?

I had studied Horticulture before I started working on St Michaels Mount, but there was definitely a lot to learn when I started here. Seasons are different. Not just on the Mount, but in Cornwall generally. Plants flower for longer and start growing earlier, they just don’t stop. So, things you have read in books don’t always apply in practice. And then of course there is the abseiling!

The natural makeup of the Gardens means there are a lot of high ledges and cliff tops that need maintaining. It’s not just the plants that we grow that make the Gardens special, but the Granite too, and we like to try and keep it looking its best. The whole Garden Team are trained in fall arrest and abseiling techniques so that we can maintain the rock faces, keep grass down, and add the odd succulent here and there. Believe it or not, it is a lot easier, and safer, to abseil down, then it is to carry a ladder round and climb up!

Tell us about some of the challenges of working in an island garden?

Probably the two biggest challenges I find working on the Island are the weather and the logistics. We are exposed on all sides, so the wind and rain, and the sun, can get to you anywhere. But you can usually find somewhere to shelter from the elements. Often, if it’s blowing a hooley on the north side of the Island, the Gardeners can be in shorts and t-shirts around the back. Or sometimes vice versa. It can be very different depending on where you are working so you need to be prepared.

As for getting things on and off the Island, you are completely controlled by the tide. If we need supplies, or anything big, you have to plan getting it around when the Causeway is open. And it is different every day! So just because you can arrange something for 10 o’clock on a Tuesday this week, doesn’t mean you can do the same next week. It takes planning, or being able to adapt and change easily.

What drew you to gardening as a career?

I have always preferred being outside, rather than in a classroom or office. Having a hands-on, creative job is very rewarding, plus I am not bothered about having dirt under my nails, or bits of twig in my hair. Which is usually the case! I was lucky enough to enroll in a National Trust Apprenticeship Scheme at 16, and for three years studied and worked in a National Trust Garden learning all I could. Since then I have worked in a Zoo, and now on an Island.

What tips should we all take from St Michael’s Mount gardens, and what should we be doing in our gardens right now? 

Do whatever you like, and grow whatever you can! Every Garden is different, that’s the beauty of it. If we were all growing the same thing, that would be boring. So, don’t be afraid to do something that others aren’t and don’t try and do what everyone else is doing. We can’t all be Rose Gardens. Some of us are Rockeries.

Also, sometimes the best way to learn is by trial and error. But, don’t just try once. Always give things another go. It might work the next time.

When should we visit? Is any month more lovely than the rest?

There is something in flower all year round on the Mount, so anytime someone visits there will be something of interest. The Gardens are open to the public from April to September, but personally, I would say May is the best time to see the Gardens. There is a lot of colour, and everything still has that new, fresh spring look to it.

How is the history reflected in the garden? 

There are lots of little bits of history reflected in all areas of the Gardens.

There is an area of exposed granite bed rock, also known as ‘Mother Mount’, that we call Mackerel Bank. Back in the day, while the fishermen from the Island were out in the bay, their wives would sit and mend the broken nets and dry their previous days catch on the rocks.

We have three pillboxes on the Island that were used to defend St Michaels Mount during the Second World War, as well as a Gun emplacement. A flat grassy area originally part of the Castle’s defenses during the English Civil War.

In the East Terraces there is a grassed area called the Tortoise Lawn. The 3rd Lady St Levan used to keep tortoises there around the 1960s. We have a little stone one there today for the visitors to find. Also, in the East Terraces, there are unusual sets of stairs called Lady Steps. In the Victorian times, it wasn’t the done thing for a Lady to show anything above the ankle to a Gentlemen. So, these split level, half height steps would allow the Ladies to walk up through the Gardens without causing any embarrassment.

The Walled Gardens were designed by the daughters of the 4th John St Aubyn in the 1970’s. Built of red brick in contrast to the grey granite of the rest of the Gardens. Growing within them we have Medicargo arborea which first came to the Island in the 1st Lady St Levans wedding bouquet and has been growing in the Gardens ever since. Every time a family member has got married on the Mount a piece has been in their bouquet too.

Is there anything unusual planted in the garden/ part of the garden?

Because of our climate, and aspect, there are many unusual plants growing in the Gardens. We have Leucadendron, Protea, Metrosideros and Nolina, as well as Cacti, Agave, Aeonium and Aloe. One of our most popular plants is the Aloe polyphylla, or Spiral Aloe. It comes from Lesotho in South Africa, and as the name suggests grows in a Fibonacci style spiral from the center. We have had them growing on the Mount for over 10 years now, and flowering, outside, for the last 5.

What’s life like as part of an island community?

All the houses on the Island are lived in by people that work there. I don’t live on the Mount, but the Head Gardener, Head Boatman and other staff members do. The Mount has reduced opening hours over the Winter, but there is a core team of about 25 or so staff on the Island, doing work and maintenance in the Castle, Village, and Gardens, getting everything ready to welcome Visitors back in the Spring.

The ferry boats (the ones used to bring people to and from the Island when the tide is in) stop running over the Winter. Instead a large, wheeled boat called an Amphicraft is used. It was made specifically for St Michaels Mount, and gets a lot of attention from people on the mainland.

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