An interview with Doug Stewart


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

Doug is the epitome of a horticulturist. He has done absolutely everything and is probably best known to listeners as a horticultural lecturer and tutor particularly within the RHS School of Horticulture. Doug is also facilitating The Modern Garden Conference workshop: Re-writing the Rules.

Tell us a little about what you have been working on recently.

It is a really exciting time at the moment, but then it’s always an exciting time in horticulture! The great thing about horticulture is that everything is always changing, and we strive to do things better. At the moment, the big projects I’m involved in include working with RHS Qualifications as a professional associate to help review the content of all RHS qualifications, writing new content, and helping to move the qualifications and exams online. When I’m not doing that, I’ve been writing a book – best described as a sustainability manual for garden managers. I was approached by a publisher at the beginning of the first lockdown and have been working on it since then, with lots of research and then writing. It has been very exciting and enjoyable.

Can you tell us a little about the book?

I was asked to write about sustainable horticulture. This is more convoluted than it first sounds. For example, take the management of turf: we have to consider terminology, emissions from mowing, use of battery powered equipment (for health and safety as well as environmental issues), when to let the weeds grow and when not etc. I’ve been working on a model to help us think through every horticultural process from a sustainable point of view, reviewing each process against a set of criteria. The starting point is to think “why am I doing this in the first place?”, then “what do I want to achieve?”. It is thinking about every stage in a process and the life cycle of all the items or equipment we’re using, including point of origin etc. If replacing a plastic pot with a clay pot, where has the pot come from and how was it made? We can go back one stage and say – why do I need to grow in a pot? This then allows us to rethink why we do certain things in certain ways. The same applies to garden design: why do you need certain design features and should we consider how the space will be used in the first place before moving on to rethink the sustainability of the space. The aim is to get the final draft to the publishers by the end of January with a publication date later in 2022. It might be on the shelves for next Christmas!

You’ve had a very varied career, from commercial horticulture to teaching as well as broadcasting – how did it all start for you?

It was a complete and utter lack of planning! From an early age, I loved plants and am probably better with plants than people, like many horticulturists. As a young teenager, I had an allotment and started to grow veg for my local village shop. Initially, I thought horticulture was just about growing to sell. I grew up at the very bottom of Hillier’s Arboretum and we used to play in the arboretum as children, building dens and climbing trees much to Sir Harold Hillier’s despair. I got a summer job there in the propagation department when I was at school and then went on to college. Another local company I worked for was A R Wills, a tomato grower. It was the year I spent working for them that was one of the most fascinating of my life as they knew everything about that one plant and they were using this knowledge to coax as many tomatoes out of these plants as possible. It was interesting to see how a business could be so focused on a single plant, benchmarking themselves against others working with the same plant. I then went to college and discovered garden management for the first time as well as other areas of horticulture: I wanted to do it all! I long to be a specialist, I want to try all horticultural areas so see myself as an equivalent of a horticultural GP! I went to Writtle College, did the MHort with the RHS and while studying, I realised I liked the idea of being an horticultural lecturer. I became a technician in Wales working at the Welsh College of Horticulture and then came across to a college in East Yorkshire in the heart of cucumber territory where I eventually became Head of Horticulture. We expanded what the college did and introduced plantsmanship qualifications and garden design. I’d always wanted to work for myself so I decided to make the leap and handed in my notice with no real plans! I started working for the RHS as a professional associate, then got some work with local garden centres and growers, and became a business development advisor with the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA): the north was my HTA kingdom! That involved going around garden centres helping them to sort their problems. I then expanded into garden management and the visitor experience.

Do you have a favourite plant?

I keep meeting new plants which become new favourites. I have a collection of containers near my garage which I will one day plant in my garden when it magically expands! The plant that brings me the greatest pleasure is my Ginkgo tree. I have always loved ginkgo trees: my first trip to the USA involved the ginkgo collection at the Arnold Arboretum. I planted my ginkgo about 30 years ago and it is now huge: it must grow a metre a year. I like stories about this tree species, the fact that it is a broad-leaved deciduous conifer, that it has a taxonomic group all of its own – it is a misfit and outsider like me. Plants generally are just amazing . It is great to meet new plants that are totally new and remarkable. Matt Pottage, curator at RHS Wisley, inspired me to experiment with Aspidistra plants. Conventionally a house plant, Matt plants them outside in dry shade. I’ve done the same and have experimented with different varieties so I now have an aspidistra glade beneath my ginkgo tree.

I also like pests. I have a Sarcococca by my front door and it gets scale insect. When you look at the little families of scale insects under the microscope, you see how well adapted they are and you get lost in their world. You can’t be an horticulturist with an interest in plants without also being interested in entomology and bigger issues such as the environment. We are more aware of the passing of the seasons and seeing the changes. Plants are just the most fascinating things to study. Horticulturists never retire – I know many who have retired from work but intensify their research or interest in plants.

What does the future hold for you?

I have had lots of careers from education to productive horticulture and garden centres, back to education. I love working with the RHS and the RHS Qualifications team. I’m really interested in sustainability in horticulture – unpacking what it is and how we can share this knowledge. There are lots of exciting things happening e.g. a sustainability rating for bags of growing media etc. Could this be applied to garden furniture and other garden related consumables? A guiding principle is to think what story would a garden bench tell? Might it be of illegal logging, child labour, shipping on a polluting vessel? If so, could we tell this story to the consumer so they would know why one bench is cheaper than another. It is all about communication, enthusiasm and passion. Which is what PlantNetwork does – connects people to share ideas and enthusiasm.

What advice would you offer to someone starting out in horticulture?

Just do it!

Horticulture can take you anywhere – even to become the National Parsnip Consultant. It is always changing: when I started out, nothing was IT-based but now most of my work is IT-based. We don’t know what the future challenges are going to be but horticulture offers a career that can really make a difference for the environment, climate change and people. It is often said that horticulture doesn’t pay very well but it really depends where you decide to go in horticulture – you can be very well paid but it really depends what you want to do in the sector! We need to be more positive about horticulture as a career and encourage people to come into the industry. When I was advising people on going into education, I told them to look at how many people completed the course as this was an indication of a good, interesting course.  If you’re choosing a career, ask yourself how many people count down their days to being able to retire and how many people just carry on because they love it so much. And maybe that’s the way that we get the message home. That it is so good, we never ever want it to end.

Would you do anything differently?

That’s such a difficult question, isn’t it? I think I’ve led a charmed life. I don’t think I would do anything differently. I am just so grateful and so happy that by having an allotment and my father saying if you really enjoy that, why don’t you do that for a living? No, I wouldn’t do a thing differently because I absolutely love it.