Meet Abbey Garden Curator Mike Nelhams

We spent a day with Mike on our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, to learn about the Tresco’s unique subtropical climate and the treasures of the Abbey Garden.

One of the highlights of our trip to the Isles of Scilly was strolling the pathways and sketching the exotic plants in Tresco Abbey Garden. Just 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, Tresco in the Isles of Scilly is home to plants from across the world’s climate zones.

We talked to garden curator Mike Nelhams, who has spent more than 35 years working in this subtropical paradise.

What’s special about gardening on Tresco?

Nowhere is like it. We have the Gulf Stream that comes by and warms us, lovely sea fogs and just the right amount of rain. The garden is sheltered from gales and the wind, so we can grow wonderful plants here. At any time of the year you can see something special. I’ve always been drawn to plants from the warmer climate zones – the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, California.

What was your path into horticulture?

I was very lucky when I started in horticulture as I talked my way onto a three-year course at Wisley Garden, the home of the Royal Horticultural Society. I ended up here by complete accident. Somebody had come into my room at college with a whole handful of paperwork about different colleges and opportunities and I spotted the word ‘Tresco’ on a flyer. I came here to work with the gardeners on a 12-month scholarship. It was fabulous.

What is a normal day in the garden like?

Living on an island, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen. Even though the garden is static island life makes every day completely different. You have things in your diary, but the weather or tides might change, boats don’t arrive, tools break down, plants flower unexpectedly and you need to rush and get your camera…

Who do you have in your team?

I’m very lucky. I’ve been here for over 35 years running the garden and I currently lead a team of nine. I’ve got a Head Gardener who looks after the practical side with the team and I’m able to waft about gently supervising and bringing everything together. We have somebody who grows the plants in the glass house and somebody who looks after the productive garden. We have three scholarship students and, in the winter, international students come and work with us.

Can you tell us a bit about the garden’s history?

It’s amazing – there was nothing on this hillside until Augustus Smith came and leased the islands in 1834, built his home and started a garden above a ruined priory. He found that it never got cold here. Five generations have built this unique garden with plants from every Mediterranean climate zone in the world.

We’re already planning for the next generation to take over the running of the island and the garden. I know that the team here will carry on looking after it, which is fabulous to know. When I’m sat on a rocking chair somewhere with a rug over my legs, I’ll be thinking about what a great time I had here.

What’s your perfect day on Scilly?

Gardening in the day, golf and a beach BBQ in the evening. All the islands are very special, but Tresco probably has the widest range of landscapes. The north end is rocky with cliffs and caves, the middle is full of woodland and the southern end has sand dunes and beaches, so you can take your pick. Whatever you want to do on the islands, whether it’s tennis on St Mary’s or going out fishing on the boat, it’s to hand. If the tide is right and the sun is shining, off you go. I don’t know anywhere else that you can do that.

What might we see on a visit?

The fact that visitors to the garden come in by ship is always very satisfying.

I particularly like Palm trees because as soon as somebody sees a Palm tree they think of warmth and sunshine. On the top terrace we’re full of Protea plants, the national flower of South Africa. In the middle there’s wonderful spiky plants from California and Mexico, and lower down we have big shady trees from New Zealand and Chile. That’s the exciting thing about this garden – it never disappoints you.

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