Wonder Walls Part II

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Each time I return to the West Country I am reminded just how damp it is compared to Kent. A crude comparison of averages would tell you that twice as much rain falls in Devon or Cornwall versus Kent or East Anglia. On the surface, the impact of rainfall on landscape and nature is minimal: many of the same plants grow on either coast of the British Isles. However, many more, including ferns, mosses and perennial wildflowers, excel in the mild maritime counties of the West. I’m always staggered by the profusion of foxgloves, campions, lady ferns and cow parsley that explode from Cornish lanesides in spring; at the speed with which new Cornish hedges are cloaked with growth after construction; and the way every surface – hard or soft, dark or light – provides a refuge for some living thing or another. In the West Country, even exposed granite boulders and sheer cliffs shelter an extraordinary abundance of plants that have adapted to survive salt spray and extreme exposure. Their existence relies on one factor above all: the availability of water.


Pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) in a Cornish hedge at Boscastle


Two years ago at Easter I wrote about Cornish hedges in a post entitled Wonder Walls. A typical Cornish hedge is a stone-faced earth bank with bushes or trees planted along the top. It is always referred to as a hedge, rather than a hedgerow or wall. Farmers have constructed these stone hedges over the ages to keep livestock in and intruders out. They are part of the very fabric of Cornwall and create a species-rich habitat of national importance.


Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), colonising the top and sides of a low Cornish hedge


The ecosystem of a Cornish hedge relies on maintaining moisture in an earth core. The hedge must be correctly built, founded on subsoil and with more subsoil or clay-shale at its core. Clay and stone are cooling and encourage moisture condensation. The laying of stones with a proper batter allows just the right amount of water to seep into the core. Dampness inside is conserved by green growth, which should never be removed by trimming in summer. The low fertility of the subsoil and the tightness of a hedge’s construction make it difficult for invasive weeds like nettles, elders and docks to encroach. The result is a complex, abundant and visually exciting ecosystem supporting hundreds of plants and thousands of insect species.


Common scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis) and sea thrift (Armeria maritima) at Port Gaverne


Holidaying in North Cornwall I am once again hemmed in by walls and rocks literally dripping with plants and flowers. At Port Gaverne, just a 5 minute walk from our cottage, there are colossal boulders sheltering dwarf hummocks of sea thrift and common scurvy grass. In more exposed positions, common orange lichen, Xanthoria parietina, colonises stone surfaces where little else would survive. The lichen derives essential nutrients from bird droppings and water from dew and rain.


Common orange lichen on granite at Port Gaverne


Today at Boscastle, we took a route down Old Street to the harbour. Here in a valley, conditions on the vertical are very different to those found on the clifftops. Cornish garden walls are famed for their colourful cascades of aubretia, alyssum, Sicilian camomile (Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana), osteospermum, campanula, phlox, saxifrage ….. you name it, it grows.


Saxifrages and aubretias find a home on a sunny wall


And where walls are left shaded and uncultivated they are rapidly colonized by hart’s tongue and lady ferns, wild garlic, dog’s mercury, ivy and, in the image below, a foreign interloper, mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii). Once you have this invasive little creeper in your garden you will never be without it – it’s like terrestrial duckweed – and chances are it will escape to any neighbouring spots that offer its preferred cool, damp, conditions. If mind-your-own-business has one saving grace, it is its ability to create an attractive green carpet in places where a lawn would be a disaster. Used well, between paving stones, as an edging to a fernery or as a houseplant in a shady bathroom, it can be very pretty indeed.


Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) and mind-your-own-business (Soleirolia soleirolii) cloaking a shady bank


Walls and Cornish hedges offer shelter from the elements and exposure to, or shade from the sun. Combined with a ready source of moisture from core of cool earth, spring, rain or mist they become unique, vibrant, colourful, multi-layered habitats that enhance our countryside and gardens in equal measure. Here in the West Country, where rain is plentiful and regular, they are one of the most attractive landscape features … unless, that is, you are trying to pass a car coming in the opposite direction.

For a moment of zen, here’s a very short video of spring water dripping down a moss-covered wall on the way to the harbour at Boscastle today.



Categories: Cornish Gardens, Flowers, Foliage, Perennials, Photography, Plants, Wild Flowers

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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27 comments On "Wonder Walls Part II"

  1. Dan such an interesting post and not like anything I remotely understand as the climatic conditions are just so different for us. Is that ‘mind your own business’ also known as ‘baby tears’ ? It also grows very readily here and looks super between pavers etc. HaHa….video is very much spa material…can you provide the masseur to accompany the soundtrack please!!! 😂😂😂

    1. You’ve got it Helen. It’s also known as baby’s tears, angel’s tears, mind-your-own-business, peace-in-the-home, pollyanna vine, polly prim, mother of thousands, and the Corsican curse according to Wikipedia! Hopefully we will get to enjoy some West Country garden visiting when you come over. Not long now!

  2. Do you know, Dan, this blog has to be the very very best of all!! And as for the video, well………………….pure tranquility! Photos with accompanying info is superb.
    I can’t believe that you are on holiday, are you??

  3. A really wonderful blog post. Living in Cornwall, quite wrongly I take all this for granted since it’s the backdrop to our every day comings and goings through the lanes – this makes me look at our landscape quite anew!

    1. Hi Adele. I’m glad, because, as someone who spends most of their time away from the West Country, I cherish the difference between east and west. The West Country climate is very precious and allows so many wonderful plants to give of their best. In the east we can take a much more Mediterranean approach.

    1. I know it well Marian. One of my favourite gardens. No such environment exists where I live, in fact, because of the chalk rock, we have no rivers, streams or springs at all in Thanet. When is your next UK visit? Would be lovely to meet up one day.

  4. Great Post, Dan!
    Reminding me of my former home.. I’ve always loved those stone walls, who provide at close inspection, such a rich environment for plants and animal life alike, just as you so richly describe.
    Greetings from Baden by Vienna, which has, due to the hot sulphur springs underneath the area, it’s very own special climate and I’m very fortunate to live right next to the ROSARIUM, one of the largest Rosegardens in Europe.

  5. Always love your posts, thank you for them, just curious have you been to Heligan, read about it years ago. My number one dream is to do a tour of gardens in England, Ireland, Wales, and Heligan is definitely on my wish list. Beth Chatto’s garden is at the top of that list, and of course a lot of others. The list is long. One can dream.

  6. Yes, Dan, the ROSARIUM is at its best from about middle of June, a wonderful birthday treat for me …so lucky.
    We have 25 000 Roses here, in 900 different varieties all tended organically and laid out as an English garden.
    Doesn’t get much better then that and soothes my longing for the great Cornish Gardens of old, somewhat.

  7. Such a brilliant post Dan, we holiday in Cornwall about twice a year – either side of the high summer silly season and the unique ecosystems of the dry stone walls always intrigue me. We have similar walls here so it’s wonderful to have an authoritative guide to draw upon. (BTW : have you come across The Gunnards Head, Zennor, or The Old Coastguard, Mousehle, 2/3 of the Inkins’ chain of award winning modern inns? We love all three of them!) .

    1. Yes, these were all taken with an iPhone 6. Very lazy of me, but it’s much more convenient when I am out with a group of people who might not appreciate me stopping and changing lenses all the time, which I am prone to doing.

  8. Thank you for this post, especially the info how this unique ecosystem works! The Cornish hedges are the most cherished memory from our first trip to Cornwall several years ago – topping Heligan by a mile! This year is the first Easter since that we haven’t been back. However, a navelwort I once poked from a hedge and thought dead has risen again via a seedling and is now starting to flower in a pot. While dearly loved as a souvenir, it is but a sad reminder of the lush growth in C..

    As for mind-your-own-business: Despite its tendency to take over, I’m still fond of its cheerful green carpets and delicate foliage. Years ago (in a colder climate) I kept it as a houseplant in a small pot, fretting whenever it turned dead brown because I’d been away or simply didn’t notice early enough that it needed watering (and yes, I’ve managed to kill a fair few that way). Now I have to regularly rip it out by the fistful from cracks in the pavement just so it doesn’t swamp and swallow the big pots with other plants stood there…

    Have a lovely Easter Monday, Dan!

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