Tell us about your current role at Trewithen Gardens.
I don’t see myself as working – it is simply a part of my week including my daily commute to work photographs on social media (follow Gary at @Trewithengarden). I’ve been here since 2002, the third ever Head Gardener at Trewithen Garden in 100 years since 2004. My role changed in 2017 and I’m now in charge of the 30-acre garden as well as the 250-acre parkland estate with a team of five full-time staff.
How did you start with your ‘daily commute’ photographs?
I saw a drab photograph of someone’s daily commute and thought I could do better! In the last 3-4 years, I have managed to find a different plant every day.
As only the third Trewithen Head Gardener, you have a lot to live up to!
Jack Skelton, the first Head Gardener, started off as a rook scarer and then rose through the ranks. We’ve also always had a small team but during lockdown, this has been the first time there has only been one gardener in the garden. It’s great the team is back but I did enjoy having the garden to myself for a few weeks.
How did you get into gardening?
At school, I didn’t know what to do and we had to do a work experience fortnight. As there wasn’t much call for computer programmers at the time, my dad got me some work experience with a landscaper. I then spent the summer holidays with the landscaper but I didn’t like the idea of working from a van but very much enjoyed working in gardens – I didn’t realise the difference between being a gardener and training as horticulturist. A career advisor suggested two options – full-time college or youth training scheme (YTS) in a garden with one day a week at college. I went for the YTS option and worked under Barry Champion at Trelissick – I can still remember my first ident! This really sparked my interest. I then worked at hotels in Falmouth and helped win RHS Britain in Bloom for Falmouth. I moved to Tregothnan Botanical Garden as Assistant Head Gardener and helped plant the first tea plantation in the UK before moving to Trewithen. I’ve trained on the job and learnt as I’ve gone on. I’ve never worked outside the TR postcode – never needed to as there are so many gardens here. It is only through involvement with PlantNetwork that I’ve realised how our climate varies across the country.
You’ve just come through a very dry period (March-May 2020) – how has that been?
We’re not used to it. We can cope with rain but not dry periods. We’re not set up with stand-pipes or sprinklers. If we start getting more hot, dry spells, we will need to alter how we do things.
Can you tell us a little about the projects you are involved in at Trewithen?
A masterplan was instigated in 2017 which is being instigated now and over the next few years. One of the projects in the masterplan is the completion (not restoration) of the Eagle Ponds which was started in 1715 and not completed (it was to be completed ‘dreckly’ i.e. at an unspecified time!). This was due for completion this year but the winter and lockdown will mean it will be ready when we open in 2021. We also have a walled kitchen garden (3 acre) and working farmyard (heritage museum) to restore. and the parkland will be reclaimed, recreating the house and garden setting.
Will you be expanding your team as a result of all this work?
The Eagle Ponds is another 25 acres of managed garden and then the labour-intensive kitchen garden so we will definitely need to expand the team.
What is your ambition?
I always wanted to be a head gardener – and here I am! The masterplan programme of work makes it better than perfect if that’s possible.
What is your favourite area of Trewithen?
The Cockpit area – a fernery. We have receipts from the original tree ferns planted in 1906! It was then planted with rhododendrons and magnolias to make it shady and in the last 10 years we have added ferns to create a prehistoric feel.
What are your favourite gardens?
This is like picking your favourite child! Tregrehan Garden is a real plantsman’s garden and if you can get Tom Hudson to give you a tour, even better. Barry Champion at Trelissick was a real inspiration and I wouldn’t be here now but for him and the garden. Barry started what is now Cornwall Professional Gardeners Group with Sir Richard Carew Pole of Anthony, and I now help run this group which connects gardeners across Cornwall and South Devon.
What three plants or horticulturally-related products would you take to a deserted island (your “Desert Island Plants”)?
Camellia sinensis – how can you not have a cup of tea? A bonsai – Japanese azaleas work really well as bonsai. For a touch of luxury – Rhododendron sinonuttalli – lush metallic purple new leaves and fragrant white trumpet flowers with yellow throat make this the best plant ever.
Is there anything about you that might surprise people?
I’m a Formula 1 geek – the races are the boring bit as I’m interested in the statistics. I’m also very into Lego and have a very organised collection!
Do you have any advice to anyone thinking of or just entering horticulture as a career?
Focus on what you’re doing in the present and don’t look too far ahead. Get some decent books and read up on horticulture. You have to want to do horticulture – you don’t do it for the money – you need to have a passion for it.
Find out more about PlantNetwork events at Trewithen:
With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea