22nd April 2021
From 27th April until 2nd May it is National Gardening Week. To celebrate this, we have been speaking to National Trust gardeners who care for the most well-known gardens around the English Riviera. Today we’re meeting Ashley: Senior Gardner at Greenway Estate.
The holiday home of the beloved Agatha Christie, Greenway is set in a romantic woodland that drifts down the hillside towards the sparkling Dart estuary. The walled gardens are home to a restored peach house and vinery, as well as an allotment cared for by local school children.
I’ve been in this role for almost two years now. I’ve been working for the National Trust for over 6 years and in horticulture for 12 years.
I got into horticulture by going to a beer festival! I was complaining about how dull and uninspiring my job at the time was and how I wanted to do something more physical. My other half suggested that I join him in career changing into horticulture and setting up a gardening business. I said yes and couldn’t go back. Neither have I looked back!
I went part time, took myself off to college and also started volunteering. About a year later I took the plunge and set up self-employed. I went first and was so out of my depth it was scary. I remember phoning my other half, describing a plant and asking just what I was meant to do with it. I learned fast (I had to!).
We made a success of the business but changing circumstances and a desire to travel saw us sell the business. After a year cycling around the world, I came back and spent some time figuring out where I wanted to take my life and career. I spent the summer working on a farm, renovating a productive garden. Having always had an interest in history, it became clear that I wanted to work in an historic environment and also with the public. I got the second job I applied for with the National Trust.
I start the day with a quick check of the weather just to make sure that my plans aren’t going to be thwarted. I sometimes question why I do this as the forecast can be rather different to reality! It’s then a case of a quick brew with the team, talking over plans for the day and dividing out tasks whilst putting boots on.
The day ends with a calm few moments on my own. I like to be the last to leave and take a moment to reflect on what we’ve achieved. This helps me be clear about where we are heading the next day and what our priorities will be.
What’s not to enjoy?! I work outside, in a beautiful location in an historic garden that has seen more change and influence than I can even begin to fully comprehend. I work with a likeminded team who are passionate about what they do. And I share all of this with our visitors whose enjoyment of the gardens makes it all worthwhile.
There is over four hundred years of horticulture in one spot on an idyllic bend in the Dart. It’s magic! The potential of Greenway is huge. There are so many areas still awaiting restoration that for a gardener it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop.
In horticulture, I’m always learning. I want to know it all, but I can’t. There are people out there with an incredibly specialist knowledge on specific genera or other horticulture related areas such as design. I love immersing myself in this. This links to the second thing which is people. Those that have a passion or even just an interest or who love gardens. Everyone is always happy in a garden and it’s hard not to feed off that positive energy.
Hedge cutting. I absolutely hate it. I couldn’t really tell you why either! But I’d rather rake gravel paths all day long!
Not long after I first started, there was a heavy fog sat on the river. A real pea-souper where you could barely see a few metres in front of you. Walking out through the garden a sudden wailing noise came through the fog. This haunting howling was fairly incessant, rising and falling. The fog made it impossible to tell which direction it was coming from. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was making it and the fog just made everything rather eerie and creepy. As the sun quickly burned the fog off, it turned out that two seals on the rocks in the river can make one amazing noise!
I’m really proud of how the team have coped with the pandemic and the knock-on effects. They’ve unwaveringly risen to every challenge and been supportive through a big period of upheaval. The garden is looking amazing given how little we were able to do last year. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved as a team over the past 12 months.
Look up. The treescape is often full of gems. Different greens, barks and growing habits provide their own rich tapestry. And visit at different times of the year as the treescape changes. Winter is beautiful with the bare trees opening up views and the real bones of the garden on full display.
My biggest tip is don’t worry about being tidy. Nature loves a bit of mess. Leave cutting back borders to the spring. Not only will you provide shelter, food and nesting material to animals, birds and insects, you’ll be providing a bit of shelter from the frosts to the new spring growth emerging below. It’ll also mean there are fewer weeds as you’ll have less exposed soil over winter.
On that note, don’t be afraid to plant dense. Yes, you need to leave space for plants to grow. But plant in threes or fives to form dense clumps and you’ll have far less exposed soil. This means fewer weeds and also less water lost to evaporation.
Leave the hedge trimmer for hedges. If a shrub needs a prune, get the loppers pruning saw out and take it back to a frame rather than a ball or a box. You’ll get a more natural looking result with better flowering and better nesting opportunities for birds. Plus, a neat ball looks messy when it starts to grow. A naturally shaped shrub looks like a naturally shaped shrub when it starts to grow.
This is hard to put into words. But a well-managed green space that is briming with plant and animal life helps you feel grounded. The sights and the sounds are uplifting and calming at the same time. Scents provide a pick-me-up and even the feel of some plants can be soothing. It’s a cliché but they really are an oasis of calm.
I wish people knew just how much work we do in winter. So many people think that we are busy in summer and then rest in the winter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Winter is when we get all the big heavy work done. It’s the time we do significant tree work, major renovation, path repairs. We tend to lose weight over the winter months and put a little on over the summer when there is more weeding and mowing on the cards!
Remember it’s not all about gardening. Yes, you need excellent horticultural skills. But you also need to be able to share those skills and your passion with others. Volunteer or spend some time talking to one of the team to find out what it’s like. And remember that winter work is more plentiful and far harder than the summer work!
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.