An interview with Lettie Irving


An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about your role at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

Lettie teaching at a community allotment project ©RHS

I work for the Royal Horticultural Society as a Senior Community Outreach Advisor, and I’m lucky enough to be based at Wisley gardens, the flagship garden of the RHS. My role is to support communities to develop gardens, using our regional and national campaigns such as Greening Great Britain, and at Wisley, we’re also supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund so we’re able to run additional projects. We offer community groups visits to the gardens, help people from all walks of life engage with plants and the outdoors, and more recently we’ve been focusing on supporting good mental health through accessing gardens and nature. Some of the projects will just access the gardens at Wisley and we’ll run sessions there, but for others, we go out into the community and will develop gardens within the community: they might only access Wisley once a year for one of our free community ticket days. Some people we work with never come to Wisley at all.

We’re trying to create community hubs, outside the garden, so that people can access green spaces and gardens in their local area and on their doorstep. The work is quite diverse and we work at lots of different levels, from simply providing some advice to getting involved with the planning and build. Each project is different but it is important that everyone feels engaged with the project and it feels like their garden and not just a garden we’re building and leaving for them. We also run sessions that highlight what gardening can do for communities and individuals, and encourage different groups to visit gardens and green spaces: lots of people don’t do that and don’t feel like green spaces are for them. We try and break down those barriers, and to engage as many people through horticulture as possible.

How did you get into horticulture and into your role?

My mother and my grandmother were very keen gardeners so I suppose I’ve had it in my blood. I’ve grown up with lovely gardens and been very lucky. When I decided I wanted to go to university, I went to study wildlife photography at Falmouth University as I wanted to do something with animals, something with nature and be outdoors. I then went to work at a film production company, but didn’t really like being in the office so I decided to start volunteering with the gardeners at Hampton Court Palace. I really loved it so I applied for a seasonal role and worked as a seasonal gardener there for a couple of years before moving to a charity which supports adults with learning disabilities, working on a gardening project. As I wanted to get some horticultural qualifications, I then did an apprenticeship at Hampton Court Palace which allowed me to achieve the RHS Level 2. I then got a role with the community outreach team at Wisley where I’ve been for the last three years. I realised that I loved gardening but I also wanted to interact with people on a daily basis and I wanted to match up my love of working with people with my love of working with plants, so it was the perfect role. I didn’t even know the role existed when I was at school or even when working as a gardener….

Do you still take an active interest in photography?

Yes but more as a hobby although I do use photography every day, like everyone does as we all have cameras on our phones. I forget to take my proper camera out but I do love documenting the projects I’m involved with through photography. I definitely take lots of photos as photos tell such a good story of the journey of a project, from a patch of grass to the final product.

What happened for you during the recent lockdown?

Most of our team were furloughed for about six months, but when we came back to work, we really noticed that there were more people engaging with the outdoors, even people just noticing local green spaces for the first time. I even found little nature reserves near my house that I had never found before – and I’m quite keen on the outdoors! There’s also a lot more interest in growing food, and maybe having a bit more control about where food comes from. There’s also been a shift in focus on boosting our mental health through gardening and we’ve definitely run more activities that focus on mental health than we have ever done before. We’ve even run sessions on Zoom, which have worked really well and actually been a bit more accessible for some people, especially people who aren’t able to leave their homes, or have a lot of anxiety which prevents them visiting green spaces. It’s amazing what you can do online: I’m working from my kitchen but I’ve been teaching things like seed sowing and taking cuttings. We’ve sent out kits to groups so that when they join a Zoom session, we can all use the same materials together – from seeds to compost. For instance, we’ve grown chilli peppers from seed and then organised a chilli challenge for the hottest chilli. We’ve also organised blossom identification sessions and looking at fractal patterns in autumn leaf fall.

Is there anything you might have done differently in your career so far and what does the future hold for you?

I don’t think so. I think that each role I’ve had, even when I was working when I was much younger and working in a quilting shop, has given me skills which are transferable such as dealing with the public, being creative, etc. I think you can bring a lot of different skills from a lot of different jobs to horticulture, and it all builds up so I don’t think I would have done anything differently. It’s really good as well to remember that you don’t have to have always been a gardener or always been into horticulture to get into it – anyone can get into gardening at any stage, from just growing something on your windowsill to getting a job in horticulture. I’m really enjoying my current role at the RHS and I really hope that we can continue to build on the projects that we’ve started and create more community hubs so people can learn from each other. We’re also growing the team and hope to have another community outreach advisor join us towards the end of the summer. Personally, I’ve just started a diploma in permaculture so I’m really excited to develop my skills and knowledge in that field and hopefully be able to use them in some of the community projects that we’re working on.

Do you have a favourite project or a project you are working on now?

We’ve got a lot of different projects on the go at the moment and normally support projects for a fixed period of time although we do maintain connections with the project when we step away and hand over fully to the community. Community groups can always access the resources we offer and can come to Wisley but we do need to provide support to new projects. A project I’m really excited about at the moment and I’m really pleased that it looks like it’s actually going to happen with all the pandemic, is a project at Guildford Nursery School and Family Centre. The students at RHS Wisley have designed a garden for the Family Centre to use for their sessions but also for the community groups around them such as the local church group, local special needs school, and youth groups. The garden will be built by the students in a week at the end of June or beginning of July, and then we’ll have a big opening and we’ll run sessions throughout the summer with the Family Centre to really embed it into the community.

How do people/groups get in touch with you for assistance?

Over the last three years we’ve built up lots of connections in the community so we have a lot of people referred to us by word of mouth, but we’ve also got communities pages on our website so people can go there to find out more or contact us online. We have lots of free online resources including lots of information about the Campaign for School Gardening. We have a lot of enquiries but also lots of offers of help that we can direct people to so if we’re not able to help them in person on the ground, then we will direct people to different links either on the website, or different projects that we know they could benefit from visiting or benefit from learning about. We do have a few key areas that we focus on including working with young people aged 11 to 24 who aren’t traditionally interested in horticulture, supporting young families on low income, and encouraging involvement of people from diverse backgrounds.

Do you have a favourite garden to visit?

My favourite garden to visit is in Cornwall: Trebah Garden on the Helford Estuary. It’s in a valley which runs down to the beach. I would recommend it to anyone who’s interested in gardens and wants to learn a bit about tropical plants to go visit. I loved working at Hampton Court Palace as you can’t really beat the Palace as a backdrop and the gardens were beautiful. As RHS Wisley, we have three new gardens set alongside our new hilltop building which is the home of gardening science, and these gardens are the World Food Garden, the Wellbeing Garden and the Wildlife Garden so I’m really excited to explore them when they’re open. The World Food Garden will be wonderful to take people around and show how you can grow different vegetables in this country and the Wellbeing Garden will be really great for people to just take a moment and sit out in a peaceful area.

Do you have a lot of connectivity between the different RHS gardens?

The community outreach team is national so I’ve got colleagues based near to most of the gardens. I haven’t visited all the RHS gardens but I do hope to have the opportunity.

Do you have a favourite plant or a plant you recommend to the communities you work with?

Gertrude Jekyll Rose at Hampton Court Palace in 2016 ©Lettie Irving

I keep noticing geums everywhere, and I would always encourage people to grow geums as they are colourful with nice open flowers so that they’re great for bees and pollinators, but also look really cheerful. Personally my favourite plant, and this has an emotional connection because my grandmother was a very keen gardener who grew this, is the Gertrude Jekyll rose. When I smell this rose, I think of my grandmother and her beautiful garden. I don’t have my own garden yet but when I do, it will be the first thing I plant!

What is your favourite garden tool?

I think my favourite tool in the garden has to be a camera. A camera makes you observe things in a different way, it makes you slow down, and I think that’s so important when you go into a space. It is also important to take photos at different times of year to really observe the space, and also take photos of what visits your garden. I’ve got bad memory so it also helps me to keep track of every project that we visit!

Is there a gardening or related book that you would recommend or has inspired you?

I bought ‘The Wild Remedy’ by Emma Mitchell during lockdown and it’s really captured my imagination. Emma is a naturalist, designer and illustrator, and she’s written this book about how she has helped her depression by spending time out in nature, and she’s included some beautiful illustrations that she’s done herself. It tells you what to look out for each month and how best to see it. It’s really beautifully written.