Inside the sterile crater of an old Cornish clay pit lies the Eden Project*. Here, massive Biomes that house exotic plants, exhibitions and stories serve as a backdrop to striking contemporary gardens, summer concerts and year-round family events. It’s Cornwall’s biggest tourist attraction by a mile, and provides a safe haven from the pasty snatching gulls and Poldark related frippery currently found on large swathes of Cornish coastline.
The gardens that surround the biomes are stunning. We catch up for a chat with Julie Kendall, the gin-loving, booze-making horticultural team leader of Eden’s fertile slopes.
How long have you been working for the Eden Project?
I’ve been at Eden since we started planting. I started in November 2000, so just over 15 years.
How many gardeners are on your team?
Including myself the outdoor garden has nine and a half full time roles covered by eleven gardeners
How close is today’s planting to the original vision, and do you regularity introduce new species?
I think the concept of the garden is very close to the original plan. We have specific zones – blue borders, hot beds and white borders, veg gardens including Cornish crops and global gardens, bog gardens, fruit gardens. But the planting within these zones changes and evolves continuously to keep the garden fresh. We are always looking for new and unusual additions and are willing to give most things a try. As a relatively new garden, we’re very honest with ourselves. If it doesn’t work, we fix it! Early this year we completely cleared a bed that had been taken over by one particularly aggressive spreading ornamental grass that had just out competed all the other plants. With the help of a digger, we took all the roots away, re-soiled and re-planted. Which doesn’t sound much until you hear that it was over 8000 plants that we planted and we are hoping that the bed will become a national collection of Kniphofias.
During the cold winter months, do you ever wish you’d landed a job in the tropical biome instead of the outdoor gardens?
No, we each pay a price and the rainforest team pay for it in summer when its sweltering in the biome, and we pay in the winter. Also, in the winter once a week we help each other out with clump days – all the gardeners get together and do a big job that would be too much for an individual team. And as much as I like to go into the biomes to help, I’m always happy to get outside again for some fresh air.
We hear you make cider…
I cannot confirm or deny these rumours, and don’t ask about the crab apple vodka.
Everyone (from Somerset) knows that Somerset ciders are the best. Hereford ciders aren’t too bad, and Gloucestershire make some nice ones too. Argue the case for Cornwall…
One of the things you learn early on when training to be a gardener is that you can’t grow apples or roses in Cornwall. Both ‘ facts’ are rubbish though. We just have a few more problems to deal with because of our damp atmosphere. I think the Cornish people have been keeping our cider making secret because it’s that good we don’t want to share it with anyone else.
How did you decide what varieties of apple to plant, and what’s your favorite apple?
We have always had a small orchard in the garden, but I was given an area in our outer estate to make a larger orchard. I started with a lot of research, because I always loved top fruit and – as you point out – there doesn’t seem to be much of a history of apples in Cornwall. From my research I found there were actually hundreds that had been bred in the county, but some were becoming very rare. So I started there and we now have a round 50 old Cornish cultivars. Probably my favourite is ‘Fairfield’, which is quite sweet and doesn’t keep, but picked fresh and ripe off the tree it’s full of juice. A close second is ‘Golden Knob’, a small russet gone in three bites and fits really nicely into a crib box.
Any plans to grow hops and start making beer?
Ah you need to visit! We have a brewing exhibit where we grow hops and barley. I’ve yet to make our own beer (although I have at home with ingredients I’ve bought) but a local brewery has used our hops before.
What outdoor plants / fruit particularly thrive in the warm climes of Cornwall?
We are SO lucky in Cornwall as we can grow such a range of plants. I love growing carnivorous plants and we grow species of Sarracenia that wouldn’t be considered hardy in the rest of the country. We can grow all types of fruit, but I leave the exotics to the biomes. They have to have something to show off with!
Do you have any animal species that have taken residence in the park since you started?
It’s been interesting to see the wildlife come into the garden. 16 years ago we had a sterile site – we didn’t even have soil for earth worms to live in. Now we have birds of prey, a plethora of garden birds including goldcrests, robins and thrushes. We have bats, stoats, frogs, toads, newts, all sorts of bees (we have several hives on site and yes, I’ve made mead as well). The only one I could happily live without is the rabbits. They do like to eat our crops and are a real pest.
Are your visitors respectful of the plants, or do you find that you are shouting yourself hoarse as kids run amok during the school holidays?
Most people are really respectful of the garden but of course you always get a few. Probably our biggest problems come from the sheer number of visitors. The amphitheatre lawn at the end of the music sessions we hold in the summer gets a real pounding and it always takes a while to bring it back.
The Eden Project is host to the World Pasty Championships. Nick knows a thing or two about savoury short crust treats. Can we come and help judge?
Yes! We’ll put your names down as judges.
Great! We’re off down Greggs** for a warm-up. We also note that you hold beer festivals at the site. We like beer – can you tell us about the festivals?
We’ve hosted one here for the past few years and it’s a great day featuring a huge range of speciality beers and ciders, fabulous food and live music organised in partnership with St. Austell Brewery.The next one is planned for October 2017.
Someone has hurled rocks through through the biome windows. Winter is coming, and the plants are starting to shrivel. Which three specimens would you save?
Whichever ones Hetty Ninnis the biome team leader told me to save! They are her plants so she knows which ones are precious. But I’d grab an armful of the Nepenthes on my way by – as mentioned, I love carnivorous plants and they are the only ones they have in the biomes so far.
After a hard day of gardening graft, what Cornish booze would you reach for?
Gin! A few Christmases ago I treated myself to a bottle each of the Cornish gins to compare and contrast. Suffice to say it was a good Christmas and New Year! Tarquin’s Gin, Trevethan Cornish Gin, Elemental Cornish Gin – I have tried and whole heartedly approve of them all. Plymouth Gin is also good but it’s from Devon. There are a couple I haven’t tried yet – Curio Gin or Wrecking Coast Gin – but give me time…
Planing a visit to The Eden Project? Go here for all the info.
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* The polar opposite of our allotment patch, where we took once fertile land and turned it sterile and inhospitable.
* * Savoury bakery emporium, born in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Responsible for ‘Greggs ties’ – the thin line of pastry crumbs seen on the shirts of countless office workers who like to dine ‘al desko’***
*** Al desko, the sad practice of eating lunch at ones desk.