Head Gardeners

Ambra Edwards has given us a treasure of a book, a joy to read, insightful, informative and provocative. I have enjoyed it immensely and recommend it unreservedly.

She has interviewed fourteen head gardeners, a diverse group with only a few fitting the stereotypical image, yet all might be described as people at the pinnacle of gardening achievement with a wealth of experience, wisdom and green thumbs and, thankfully, a willingness to share their lives and insights with us.

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Those of us who are interested in this subject, this book and the people presented to us in it, are most likely gardeners ourselves and I feel this puts us immediately at a disadvantage as we begin our reading for we have a concept of gardening and what a gardener is based on our own experience and this leaves us frightfully ill informed and terribly misguided regarding the life and work of a head gardener. “Gardening” as we know it – the tending of plants and gardens – forms but a very small aspect of the work of the present day head gardener. Garden management is a major part of the job, the organisation, guidance and training of those who work with them. Gardens must not only be tended and developed they must also be sold to the gardening public so as to finance the garden work. He head gardener is the one who must look to the future, not simply a year ahead but to where the gardens will be in ten years or even one hundred years from now. And then, the head gardener will be the one who must ensure the gates are closed, the lights switched off, the staff paid, the blog written, requisites ordered and checked on delivery and the list goes on and on. The head gardener must truly juggle innumerable duties and be master of them all.

The selection of head gardeners featured in this book appears to have been chosen to present the reader with a wide range of garden types and head gardener experiences; it is certainly eclectic, interesting and entertaining. Some of the usual limelight head gardeners are here – Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter springs immediately to mind and the reader might wonder what is there left to read about him as he has been interviewed here, there and everywhere already but I found it one of the most insightful of portraits which revealed aspects of his character and practices at Great Dixter which I had not known of previously and was a perfect example of the depth of the interviews conducted by the author and representative of the others in the book.

As for the other thirteen head gardeners in the book, I feel I would spoil a great enjoyment on you if I revealed them to you here. Some you will acknowledge immediately as deserving of their place in the book while others may surprise you but when you have read their chapter you will understand why they were so very deservedly included. Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens at the National Trust is quoted in the introduction: “It’s difficult to imagine a class of people who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” I can only add that society needs to read this excellent book and this perception will be blown to the winds.

Finally, one statement which I loved and which epitomises the honesty throughout the book. When garden designers are hogging the limelight and are viewed as the stars of the horticultural world it is good to read Alistair Clark, head gardener at Portrack in Dumphries which houses Charles Jencks’ “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”: “Charles is a clever, clever man, there’s no disputing that. But he doesn’t know the first thing about horticulture. He didn’t when he first came to Portrack and I don’t think he does yet.”

Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today,  Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.

Paddy Tobin

 

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Too Good to be True?

Have some entertainment gardens left the practices of normal gardening so far to the side that they have become artifices of what a garden should be? Has the desire to be a constantly perfect attraction lead to gardening in a manner and style which is far removed not alone from the practices of the common gardener but from nature itself? Of course, the reasons are perfectly understandable – the desire to attract more and more paying visitors and increased cash flow – normal gardening practices, even good taste, are often sacrificed for these gains.

Troy Scott Smith is the latest head gardener at Sissinghurst Castle Garden has made some interesting comments on the state of the garden and his future plans for it. “Sissinghurst”, he says, “has lost its way. In becoming a totem of horticultural perfectionism, it has forgotten what it really is.” On his appointment, he gave himself time to review the present situation in the garden, going back to the gardening notes of the garden’s creators Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. He concluded that the garden had changed radically over the years since her death and nowadays could be more considered the garden of Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger who had been employed as gardeners by Viva Sackville-West in 1959 and who continued to manage the gardens until 1991. Their successors, Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta continued to maintain the gardens in the style and manner which Pam and Sibylle had established and which the visiting public had come to expect.

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Troy Scott Smith is pictured on the cover of Ambra Edward’s book

Under their care the gardens had been brought to a level of perfection rarely seen elsewhere as they wished the garden to look at its best for every day that it was open to the public. Troy Scott Smith believes that the garden no longer reflects the style or the intentions of its creator, being too perfect, fails to show how a gardens changes through the seasons and has concluded that two thirds of the plants grown were introduced by Pam and Sibylle with several of today’s much admired features introduced by Sarah and Alexis all distancing the gardens further from its creator and that now it is time to return it to how Vita Sackville-West imagined it.

Developments at Sissinghurst will be of interest as Troy Scott Smith makes the changes he has in mind. You can read further on his thoughts in a recently published book, Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, published by Pimpernel Press and you can hear Troy Scott Smith speak to the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society in Cork on Thursday, 25th January, 2018 or on Wednesday 24th January 2018 in Enniscorthy at the Co. Wexford Garden & Flower Club..   Both groups welcome non-members – at a small charge.

In general and for the sake of fairness and balance we should consider this perfectionism in gardens from another perspective. We must realise that all gardens are  the construct of the gardener and are always a departure from or, at least, a control of nature. Perhaps, those who have developed gardens of perpetual perfection as discussed above have simply moved further than most along the continuum between what nature dictates and what the gardener can control. We can admire them for the lengths they have gone to in achieving such perfection though it might be a case of being happy to admire such gardens rather than imitating them. It is a question of how much control is too much.

Paddy Tobin

Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today,  Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.

The Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society meets at the Lavanagh Centre, Ballintemple, Cork on the fourth Thursday of the month.