National Gardening Week: Meet the gardeners at Coleton Fishacre - English Riviera Attractions Partnership

National Gardening Week: Meet the gardeners at Coleton Fishacre

19th April 2021

From 27th April until 2nd May, the UK celebrates National Gardening Week. We’ve been speaking to National Trust gardeners who care for the most well-known gardens around the English Riviera. Today we’re meeting James: Senior Gardner at Coleton Fishacre.

James, Senior Gardener at Coleton Fishacre. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

How did you get into your role?

Having worked in horticulture since 2007, I decided to increase my horticultural knowledge by spending one day a week volunteering with the garden team at Coleton Fishacre in 2015. I enjoyed it so much that when an opportunity arose to apply for a permanent gardening job arose, I grabbed it with both hands! 

What is the daily routine of a gardener at the National Trust?

At the start of every day, I sit down with the garden team and we discuss the plans for the day. If we take too long over this, Clarence the garden cat is very vocal at reminding us that our priorities should be feeding him! The day ends with us checking the plants growing in the glasshouse before heading home.

James working in the Rill Garden. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

What do you enjoy about working at Coleton Fishacre?

Gardening is my hobby and Coleton Fishacre is my favourite garden. I literally couldn’t wish for a better job. It is such a special garden, with spectacular views out to sea. Designed in the arts & crafts style, the house and garden are subtly integrated into the wider landscape. The mild micro-climate enables us to grow an incredibly wide range of plants. The centrally located stream links the formal herbaceous borders in the upper garden to the lush sub-tropical planting lower down in the valley.

At Coleton Fishacre we grow many unusual plants which are native to the southern hemisphere and would be too tender for most regions of the UK. King proteas (Protea cynaroides) and the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) flower being two of those.

I like working in the tourism sector – being able to connect with people and hopefully have a positive impact on their visit is very rewarding. It also reminds me how lucky I am to be living and working in such a beautiful part of the country.

The Rill Garden and Coleton Fishacre house. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

What’s your favourite task as a gardener?

I love the variety of jobs that being a gardener in an historic garden offers. The importance of conserving these special places cannot be underestimated, both in terms of places to visit for future generations, but also as important wildlife habitats. Horticulture is such a diverse career and the seasonal variation in tasks that we undertake keeps it enjoyable. At present we are preparing borders for spring planting. Over the winter months we have grown approximately 1,500 plants from seed or cuttings which will take some planting!

What is your favourite area of Coleton Fishacre?

My favourite part of the garden here at Coleton Fishacre is, ironically, the least ‘gardened’ area. At Scout Point, you emerge from the woodland shelterbelt and are presented with incredible views down the coast towards Start Point. It’s a fantastic reminder that as much as we try to manipulate these landscapes to create beauty, mother nature does it effortlessly better.

Sea view at Coleton Fishacre. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

How has your job been affected by the lockdown?

We’ve had to adapt our ways of working to account for reductions in staff and volunteers during the lockdown. One of the decisions we took was to develop wildflower meadows in more areas of the garden. This attracted more butterflies and moths into the garden and will permanently influence the way in which we manage our grassland going forwards.

Has gardening helped you cope with the pandemic?

Definitely. Working outdoors in beautiful spaces is ‘food for the soul’. There’s something very grounding about connecting with nature and undertaking physical tasks that have visibly positive impact. The social aspect of gardening is hugely important as it provides an opportunity to connect with like-minded people and learn from one another.

Steps through the camellia grove at Coleton Fishacre. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

Why are volunteers important to Coleton Fishacre?

We have a great team of volunteers who help with the maintenance and development of the garden. Without their assistance it would be impossible for us to look after the gardens and maintain the high standards that we aspire to and we are hugely grateful for the time that they donate to the garden. As well as the gardening, coffee and cake is traditionally an integral part of the gardening day and an opportunity to reflect on the work that we’ve collectively carried out. 

Cherry blossom at Seemly Terrace. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

As a National Trust gardener, what’s your top tips for creating a successful garden?

When choosing new plants for your garden, always consider the ‘right plant, right place’ mantra. Read the plant label before buying as this will always include useful growing advice. Specifically look for sunlight and soil requirements and consider whether this matches the area of the garden that you are planning on siting the plant. If they don’t, then the likelihood is that the plant will struggle.

Do you have any tips for wildlife friendly gardening?

One of the simplest ways to help wildlife is to delay tidying your herbaceous borders until spring. Here at Coleton Fishacre we do this for two reasons. Firstly, the leaf litter, old stems and general debris provide a great place for hibernating insects. We have particularly noticed the increase in the ladybird populations at Coleton Fishacre, which helps us to control any aphid infestations. The second benefit is that tender perennials (such as penstemon and salvias) are afforded some extra protection from the winter cold. Embrace untidiness and delay cutting back until the new season’s growth has started and the risk of frost has passed.

Ladybird at Coleton Fishacre. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust.

Do you have any tips for those aspiring to work as a National Trust gardener?

If possible, volunteer. It’s a great way to understand what is involved with being a gardener in a public garden and, by donating your time, it shows real commitment.

Study. There are many routes into horticulture. A good start would be looking at the industry standard courses and apprenticeships offered by the RHS.

National Trust School of Gardening book. Credit: Lauren Hutchinson/National Trust

Pick up a copy of the brand new School of Gardening book by the National Trust packed full of hints and tips to inspire amateur and advanced gardeners alike. The gardens at Coleton Fishacre are open, as is the café for takeaway. Pre-book your visit online here.