An interview with Katy Merrington


Katy at work
(Image credit: Charlotte Morgan)

Katy, you are the Cultural Gardener at The Hepworth Wakefield – can you tell us a little more about your role.

The Hepworth Wakefield in an art gallery built in 2011 which houses the city’s art collection as well as a collection of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures. To the side of the gallery was a patch of land just over an acre in size and we are currently developing a free garden on the site, designed by Tom Stuart Smith. We completed the first phase of the garden last year and are currently completing phase 2. I came into the role of Cultural Gardener just over a year ago: the title reflects that the role isn’t just looking after the plants and vegetation but is also about the community and use of the garden by the community – for looking at art, visiting the garden for peace and contemplation or walking the dog. I work with a team of volunteers to maintain the garden and work with the learning and events team to develop the space as a community venue. During lockdown, I wanted the garden to be there for those who live in the city but don’t have a garden.

Where you open during lockdown?

It is a very young garden and I was very anxious at the start in case we had to abandon the garden, preventing watering and weeding, and secure it with a fence as it is a very open site with no walls and eight entrances. We asked the public to follow the social distancing guidelines and I worked throughout the lockdown when it was clear that I could. It was lovely to see people discovering the garden for the first time during their daily exercise! I think it was a time for people with no outdoor space of their own to feel that this garden was for them. We were fortunate that we were at that stage of the building programme that the garden had begun to look like a garden. We planted over 9,000 tulips and daffodils last autumn to celebrate our first spring: these bloomed during lockdown and because it was so bright, I think it encouraged people to visit.

The Hepworth Wakefield Garden
(Image credit: Katy Merrington)

What are you working on at the moment?

We planted 80% of the garden last year and the remaining stage, the Woodland Edge, is being completed at the moment with planting later this year. There are lots of weeds due to soil disturbance and we had a dry spring so there was watering to do earlier this year. I’m keen for the garden to become a little oasis in the city so I want to keep it looking nice, tidying the litter, weeding etc. I think if the site is cared for, the community will feel cared for.

Do you have a special area in the garden?

The garden was deigned by Tom Stuart Smith who is well-known for layered planting with year-round interest and it is fun for me as I’ve seen the garden come alive from plans and drawings to its first year as the plants knit together. I see things I’d not expected before such as how different combinations of plants work and also how the plants interact with the hard landscaping – shadows and shapes. Some beds have established quicker than others – geraniums don’t seem to like Wakefield! I feel privileged to be the first custodian of the garden which is a result of collaboration and conversation – and is still being tweaked. It will change and flux over time.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

It is a unique garden and I’ve been thinking more about this recently given the ongoing discussion on equality and inclusion. Many of our beautiful and historic gardens require a car to get to and charge an entrance fee so many people are excluded – and there are many people who have not visited a National Trust garden or heard of the RHS. I believe in the power of gardens and a human need to be in touch with green spaces – gardens can play a transformative role and build pride in communities. Our garden at The Hepworth Wakefield is a thoughtful and well designed garden by an internationally renowned garden designer whose work you would usually have pay to see but here you can see a quality garden that is free and open all the time , cared for to a high standard with a series of events throughout the year. We are at the start of a journey to see how the local community engage with the garden.

How did you get into gardening?

I studied art at university and then had different jobs working in the arts and architectural lighting. When I graduated, to make some money, my friend and I offered housekeeping services in our neighbourhood but people started to ask us to help in their gardens and so I ended up helping some keen gardeners. One of the people I cleaned and gardened for left me a little money and I felt that I should use this for learning as he was a lecturer who believed strongly in learning and training. I signed up for the RHS Level 2 and realised you could have a career in horticulture. I then went to the National Trust for Scotland’s School of Heritage Gardening at Threave. I saw a programme called the Victorian Kitchen Garden which introduced me to the idea of a journeyman gardener – where you would travel around different gardens and experiencing different garden concepts, climates and soils. As my stuff was all in storage, I thought I’d keep going as a ‘journeyman gardener’ and did a number of classic years at places that offered formal work-based training opportunities – I spent a year at Tresco Abbey Garden, then RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Longwood Gardens and Logan Botanic Garden before arriving at The Hepworth Wakefield. I have come back to a position that combines visual arts with my love of gardening – it’s funny that I work in an art gallery but as a gardener!

Do you have any advice to anyone just entering horticulture as a career?

People are really generous – you can ask questions of gardeners and they are happy to share. Always carry a notebook to note down the answers, learn the plants etc. Build up experience by volunteering and work experience at gardens as most are keen to encourage you. Working in gardens allows you to see gardens in different ways – like the Longwood Gardens Conservatory at 6am!

What plants or horticulturally-related products would you take to a deserted island (your “Desert Island Plants”)?

You don’t know whether to go practical or emotional! Beach-combing on Tresco introduced me to sea beans which are washed across the Atlantic so I would like some of those to write messages on and send out. I always have a banana for my morning break so banana plants would be useful.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I’ve been ‘full horticulture’ of late but I used to do synchronised swimming….!

The Hepworth Wakefield
(Image credit: Katy Merrington)

Anything else?

I write a monthly diary about the garden at the The Hepworth Wakefield and a bimonthly newsletter if you want to keep up to date with garden news. The gallery opens on 01 August if you would like to time your garden visit with a look at the gallery.

With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea