Meet... Darren, Head Gardener at Trebah Garden
13 December 2023
Trebah Garden is a stunning 26 acre sub-tropical paradise with a private beach on the Helford river.
We meet Darren Dickey, Head Gardener at Trebah Garden to learn more about his role and passion at sub-tropical valley garden, Trebah.
Can you tell us how you became the head gardener at Trebah Garden and what inspired your passion for gardening?
I was lucky enough to have worked at Trebah from 1991 and up until 2002 (when I was made Head Gardener) and was lucky enough to work under several very good Head Gardeners. This gave me the confidence and experience to apply for the role in 2002. My main area of inspiration for horticulture was helping my grandfather in his veg plot and ornamental garden back home. I then stated working in a local plant nursery when I was still at school, which then led to me doing my City and Guilds in horticulture after leaving school. Having grown up on a farm I also had a great love of working outdoors.
Trebah Garden is renowned for its stunning beauty. What are the unique challenges and rewards of maintaining such a diverse and picturesque garden?
I have detailed below the key challenges to managing the garden. The biggest must be the current climate crisis and how global warming is affecting the existing collection. We seem to be experiencing more extremes of weather that challenges us to look at creative ways of maintaining and developing the plant collection. Other concerns are invasive species, pests, and diseases. One that also effects the business is visitor numbers and the revenue required to run a large tourist attraction. This in turn has a knock-on effect on the resources that are freed up for the garden. Another directly linked to employment is training and education in horticulture. It seems less common these days for those leaving school to look at a career in horticulture. Trying to encourage the next generation of horticulturalists to choose further education and making sure the courses are of a high standard is key. The rewards for me certainly out way the negatives. Working outside in a beautiful landscape with motivated people is not only good for your physical wellbeing but also for your mental health.
As the head gardener, what would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your role, and do you have any memorable stories or experiences to share?
The most rewarding aspect of being Head Gardener it contributing to the evolution and development of the garden. Adding new plants to the collection and creating more all year-round interest is a real pleasure and something that keeps Trebah very fresh.
Trebah has an exotic plant collection. What are some of your favourite and most unique plant species in the garden?
With so many diverse and interesting plants, choosing favourites is very difficult. If I had to name a few it would have to be the jungle giants. Gunnera manicata would have to make the list as it is one of those plants that always leaves a lasting memory for young and old. We always remember things being much larger when we were children but even retuning as an adult, they still tower over you creating that great sense of scale. Other highlights would be the giant timber bamboo - Phyllostachys edulis, that towers above you as you walk through the garden. It is not only the height that impresses as the canes can be anywhere up to 15cm in diameter. Other iconic plants that evoke memories of the journey through the garden include Jurassic tree ferns that create a wonderfully filtered light as you walk below them and large windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) that tower above you.
What can a visitor to Trebah expect to see and discover?
Many seasonal highlights including large collections of Camellias, Rhododendrons and Magnolias that start flowering from October. The Hydrangea Valley, a sea of mostly blue mophead hydrangeas that flower through the summer continuing right up until Christmas. A new walled garden called the Court Garden which features many seasonal highlights. Lush exotic planting of bamboos, tree ferns, schefflera, hedechiums to name but a few, and the crowning glory of a private beach and boathouse café with the opportunity to swim in the beautiful clear blue waters of the Helford Estuary.
There is a sense of peace and tranquillity at Trebah. How do you create and maintain this peaceful atmosphere?
I think one of the keys to Trebah sense of peace and tranquillity is the ability for the garden to absorb so many people. The garden has over 4.5 miles of paths with lots of resting spots on the way around. The garden also benefits from having other larger spaces such as the play areas in amongst the trees (good for absorbing sound) and large spaces such as the beach and Court Garden.
How do you and your team approach sustainability and conservation in the management of the garden?
Trebah is a member of the Green Business Tourism scheme. The garden is assessed and graded and has achieved gold in the last two assessments. This a great way of tapping into industry standards and looking at ways to improve. We also work with other organisations like the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, local authorities and the education sector. The network of gardens around the UK is also key and organisations like the National Trust and RHS are good for Trebah to benchmark against.
Are there any particular garden design principles or philosophies that guide your work at Trebah?
Big, bold, exotic and all year-round seasonal interest just about sums up Trebah.
For individuals interested in gardening and horticulture, what advice would you offer for pursuing a career similar to yours?
Start as early as possible. Volunteering is a good way of getting a foot in the door. This is especially useful if you don’t have a placement whilst going to college. As mentioned previously I had a seasonal job on a plant nursery when I was still at school.
Trebah hosts various events and activities throughout the year. Could you tell us about any upcoming highlights or special projects we can look forward to?
Heading into 2024, we have a range of events with something for everyone. If you are keen to learn more about nature and gardening, we will have talks, tours and workshops from conservation groups, head gardeners, and even some biofluorescent night walks. If you are hoping to step into 2024 with some relaxation, we will have a Winter Wellbeing Day, weekly yoga and hopefully meditation in the new Court Garden. If you are looking to learn some new skills, we will have art workshops such as Monoprinting, Hapa Zome, Kintsugi and botanical illustration, many linked to the monthly art exhibitions you will see in our Visitor Centre. Not to forget our open-air amphitheatre which will have a programme of performances such as Mid Summers Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Old Time Sailors and Squashbox.
As far as garden developments are concerned, we have a large area of clearance this winter which should in time create a good size area for planting. Planting is key to Trebah. We always add more interest every year. This includes additional bulbs, specimen trees and shrubs.
With thanks to Darren Dickey for sharing his knowledge and passion as Head Gardener at Trebah.