This gardener’s journey through horticulture: Part 1

By Beverly Law, BSc., MCIHort, MPGCA
Freelance Horticultural Consultant for Lady Penelope Gardens and others

Part One – Childhood memories

In the garden of my early childhood, I remember the rose petals from which I made perfume; the Pyracantha berries that I picked and mashed up; Dad’s regimented narrow borders of Snapdragons which were great to open with my hands; the pampas grass that Dad periodically set fire to (so exciting!) and the big cherry tree whose delicate blossoms I put in my hair. We lived in a tied cottage belonging to a Nursery where Dad worked for 24 years. My mother and I would help to pick the soft fruit in summer, my mouth blackened by the blackcurrants and juicy raspberries. My Dad would cut the acres of daffodils to sell in the Spring, his arms burning red from the strong sap. When I was allowed to visit Dad at the Nurseries, I remember the warm smell of Geraniums in the propagation glasshouse.

When my Mother left my Father and I had to go to a huge new primary school, one of things that comforted me most in that turbulent time, around 8 years old, was the school greenhouse, where you would find me in the summer, deeply inhaling the warm smell of the geraniums.

A large part of my childhood was spent on my Auntie’s farm where my cousins and I would redirect standing water, making new channels and controlling the water flow. I got my worst childhood injuries on that farm, yet I loved being there, waking to the sound of the cockerel, looking out of the bedroom window onto the cow yard and really engaging with, and feeling part of, nature. The seeds had been sown…

Part Two – Teenage years

My first job when I left school was working in the local fruit and veg shop. I wanted quick cash but what I also got was a deep curiosity about vegetables. Each pay day I would spend half my wages buying a range of vegetables to experiment cooking with. Nothing exotic…i was only 16…but my favourite was stuffed marrow, and still is. I wanted to know how to use all these vegetables around me and would cook for my Dad and brother.

A few years later I got my own first floor flat, which came with a tiny square of garden in the back right hand quadrant of four patches. I had absolutely no interest in this. Once a year, my neighbour would help me strim it down and that was all I did.   However during this time I got a job in a little, old fashioned Nursery. Here I really learned about plants. Latin names stuck in my head, although often mis-pronounced (Cotton Easter??). Customers’ enquiries were a delight and I would reach for the thick blue RHS book that was my bible to research suitable plants for them.  I began to love handling plants, caring for them, watching their changes during the season. I finally wanted to do something with my little garden patch, but I had no tools and absolutely no gardening knowledge and anyway several flats looked onto my patch so I felt self-conscious. Learning and putting a new skill into practice required privacy for me, and I didn’t have that there. It would be sometime before the act of gardening was begun…

Part Three – My twenties

For a while I worked for a Dried Flower Wholesaler. I learned so much there. In particular…dried Statice is dangerous! My hands were full of razor sharp splinters from the stuff…evil! I don’t advise trying it. I learned to make floral arrangements for large department stores to sell, which were made up of dried Proteaus and exotic looking greenery (and brownery…a lot of it was brown). I also made arrangements with dried Roses, Delphiniums, Achillea ‘The Pearl’, and so many more. Again, I learned so much about the detail of flowers and their beauty. I found it a shame when I was trained to dye the flowers. People back then wanted ‘colour co-ordinated’ dried flowers, so we would heat up the water in the huge dying tank, and add the colours necessary for that particular batch. The virgin dried flowers would be dunked into the hot, coloured soup and then strung up to dry. A hot and smelly business. The flowers would take several days to dry thoroughly before they could be packed up into boxes ready to be shipped out when ordered.

Around this time I moved in with a boyfriend who had a garden, and we would sit out on summer evenings making plans; a pond, a vegetable patch, chickens perhaps. I got a chance to begin the act of gardening and I loved it! I was excited each day to come back from work and get out into the garden, changing, sculpting, prettying this little back yard. Investing my energy, ideas, enthusiasm and time and in return, getting the satisfaction of watching things grow and evolve, meanwhile getting fitter, healthier and more suntanned! What’s not to like?

The boyfriend was transient, sadly, therefore, so was the garden for me. However, I had understood that boyfriends come and go, but a love of gardening would stay for life…

Part Four – My early Thirties

I worked at the DHSS (as it was then) for 5 years but the sedentary nature of the work and the lack of sunlight in the office really began to affect me. Everyone there was so miserable but hung on to their jobs, waiting for their pensions. I felt suffocated and knew I wasn’t going to live like that, so….  I decided to leave to be a gardener! First I found work in a wholesale nursery on the south coast but although I was working with plants, it was no more than a factory production line. This was not what I meant! Next I worked in a beautiful garden next to the very famous Woolbeding Gardens. I realised here just how little I actually knew about gardening so signed myself up for the 2 year RHS General Certificate in Horticulture at Brinsbury College alongside working with my Dad at the Manor of Dean near Petworth. I absolutely loved it! I had a particular interest in Allolobophora caliginosa which I think is what got me a distinction in the exam! I am still close friends with my tutor who taught me so much.

It was around this time that the series about The Lost Gardens of Heligan was on TV. What an inspiration! I was utterly hooked! It was fascinating watching the gradual discovery of the garden, uncovering beautiful original plants, plants that had survived the war and many years of neglect. I was astonished, plants just getting on with it, without man’s interference. What stories they could tell!  Whilst on one of my many visits to the Lost Gardens I came across John Nelson in a pub nearby. I just had to shake his hand and tell him how much his work had inspired me and got me hooked on horticulture…..