An interview with Frances Porter


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

Frances Porter at Valley Gardens

Could you tell us about what you’ve been doing recently, and what it’s been like during the Professional Gardeners’ Guild Traineeship?

I’m a Professional Gardeners’ Guild trainee and that’s means I’ve spent the last three years in three different gardens. For the last year, I have been at Savill Garden and Valley Gardens in Windsor Great Park. They are two separate gardens – Savill is a garden of gardens which you pay to enter while Valley Gardens in more of an open park. So I have experienced two different gardens in one placement. Last year, during the first COVID lockdown, I was at Beth Chatto’s Gardens in Essex and it was really interesting working with the staff there, learning about Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’. I also got to spend a week a month in their propagation department. Before that, I was at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire for my first year of the three-year traineeship.  Waddesdon is a Victorian chateau which looks like it has been parachuted into the Buckinghamshire countryside and is one of the few gardens in the country to have Victorian parterres which are planted with thousands of plants twice each year for spring and summer bedding displays. The traineeship has been something which I’ve been really lucky to be a part of.  I’ve had previous experience of going through academic qualifications in horticulture: I did a foundation degree in horticulture at Nottingham Trent University after deciding I wanted to do something that would get me in the outdoors after completing my A-Levels. At the end of that degree, I didn’t really want to be a garden designer or crop scientist as they would take me indoors again. So I enrolled on a Level 3 Diploma in horticulture at Broomfield College, part of Derby College. I really enjoyed that course, and did some volunteering in between university and college as well. It all set me up well for the traineeship. The traineeship only takes about ten young people and career changers a year, with an interview in London’s Belgravia and then allows this small group to get hands-on practical horticultural experience. It harks back to the journeyman gardener idea – to gain the best skills in horticulture, you need to travel and work in different gardens. They also provide accommodation on-site: I’ve lived in some wonderful accommodation like the old stables at Waddesdon, and this really lets you get involved in the life of the garden.

Is there anything you’ve taken from that experience of working in very different gardens?

I have had a very varied experience which is pretty much what I asked for at my interview. I said I wanted to go to an historic garden, a plantsman’s garden, and a botanic garden. I wasn’t feeling too sure about what kind of gardening I wanted to go into so the different gardens have allowed me to experience different gardens and gardening types. There aren’t that many placement gardens so it wasn’t guaranteed that I would get a varied experience but I would say to future PGG trainees – trust the traineeship director to get you the best experience possible!

What got you interested in gardening and plants in the first place?

That’s really hard to put my finger on. I originally come from Derbyshire, from 300 feet above sea level, on a wind blasted hilltop with a postage stamp garden. I had some pots of spring bulbs and I suppose I became a gardener through lack of a garden, although I think it has more to do with a real love and appreciation for nature. I grew up living in quite isolated countryside, and when I think about my first experiences of plants, it’s about being surrounded by plants [in the landscape], walking the dog through the fields and verges filled with wildflowers. My brother and I found it completely normal to go into jobs where you are outside all the time: at the same time I was studying horticulture at university, my brother was studying arboriculture at college. My brother has set up his own independent arboricultural company which employs my parents and my mum has become a freelance gardener. So we’re all into plants now.

Are you happy with how things are working out or, if you could go back, would you do anything differently?

I wish I had started listening to podcasts sooner than I did. Although I love reading books, I really struggle to find the time to read them.

So you’re just starting out, so what’s happening for you next, particularly as your traineeship is coming to an end?

I didn’t have an easy time finding a job, although I have found one now. I’ve been made a job offer from the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire which is really the absolute garden I want to work, with a reputation as a plantsman’s garden, and a public garden as well because I really enjoy working in a garden which is open to the public.

Do you know what you want to do in the future or are you just quite happy starting out and finding your feet?

I do have quite a bit of ambition in horticulture, which I’ve already shown by being willing to travel with my traineeship. I would like to keep travelling too as I really enjoyed visiting and being in new areas with new gardens to explore. I think I have a case of wanderlust . I want to visit Ireland, Scotland and America!

Tell us about the gardens you’ve trained in or your favourite gardens.

I took a huge interest in the management styles of gardens. For Waddesdon, this is the parterres with the annual bedding which is at such a huge scale. Beth Chatto’s is very picturesque in all seasons and you can readily take photos. At Valley Garden, it is a spring garden with magnolia, cherries and particularly the camellias. There are valleys dedicated to different plants. Savill Garden is a garden for all seasons – winter walk, spring azaleas etc.

Can you tell us your favourite plant, tool and horticultural book?

My favourite plant changes from day to day. Recently, I was working in the heather garden in Valley Gardens quite a bit: it was planted up with dwarf conifers (now not so dwarf) and heathers in the 1970s. It is full of heathers – winter and summer flowering – and they are a plant that reminds me of home, the Derbyshire moorland. There are so many different colours, very hardy but can be quite fussy to establish. They are also part of the amazing Ericaceae and so related to rhododendron – I couldn’t believe this at first. I’d love to go to the Himalayas to see rhododendrons in the wild.

This has become quite popular in this podcast but I would say my hori hori – great for digging out pernicious weeds like oxalis. I’ve also bought a Sneeboer planting trowel, which really helped me out in the Savill Garden as we had some quite tough soil. It’s called a Dutch planting trowel which is the shape of a heart with a pointed end making it easier to push into the soil.

A book which made a big impression on me was ‘Plants: from Roots to Riches’ which started off as a BBC radio show. I listen to a lot of radio as well as podcasts. This book and programme told stories that have informed modern horticultural thinking from explaining plant genetics to how RBG Kew learned about the impact of compaction on tree roots. They were probably things I knew from my degree but they really came to life as stories.