An interview with Lucy Bell


An abridged version of the podcast.

Lucy Bell with Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ on the Broad Walk (©Kew Foundation)

Tell us a little about what you do.

I am a botanical horticulturist at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and have specific responsibility for one part of the garden, the Broad Walk with the double herbaceous borders which run between the Palm House and Orangery. I’m part of a larger team, which looks after various areas in the gardens and sometimes I work in these areas: over the last couple of weeks, we have been pruning in the Rose Garden.

The Broad Walk was redeveloped relatively recently – were you involved?

I was recruited (with another colleague; Maija Ross) to be one of the Broad Walk horticulturists in October 2015.  The Broad Walk borders project started in 2014 with a design by in-house designer Richard Wilford. In our first week, we were involved in the planting up of the borders: 30,000 plants were added to the borders from October to December 2015 and then in the spring of 2016. From the very beginning, we made detailed observations on a regular basis, working with Richard to monitor establishment. In the second year we planted 13,000 bulbs and since then, it has been about keeping the borders to as high an horticultural standard as possible – with staking, Chelsea chop, division, weeding and editing. In 2017, we went on a garden tour to Germany and the Netherlands to specifically visit places with expertise and experience of looking after and maintaining herbaceous perennials: Hermannshof and Cassian Schmidt, Weihenstephan and Bernd Hertle, and Hummelo and Piet Oudolf amongst others. All were hugely inspiring and we gathered lots of practical advice from the gardeners there. They don’t use chemicals, for example, and don’t add manure to their composts. We’ve applied as many ideas as we can to the Broad Walk, adjusting irrigation for example and adapting our mulching practices.

The Broad Walk (Photograph by Jeff Eden 2016; ©Board of Trustees, RBG Kew)

Can you tell us a little more about what has happened to you since March 2020?

I use the overground railway to get to work so was one of the categories of RBG Kew staff put on full-time furlough in March 2020 until 30th June. It was really difficult being on furlough but I kept connected to horticulture through the PlantNetwork coffee mornings and the Garden Masterclass series. I found it difficult not working and felt guilty too as there was a small team still working. I did get interested in horticultural therapy so did a couple of online introductory courses through Thrive. I returned full-time to Kew in July until the end of October: from November to December, many of us were on part-time furlough which has reduced a little in January and will again in February. Of course, the aim is to get everyone back full-time. The gardens being open has been a lifeline to visitors and to me too.

When you went back in July, what was the Broad Walk looking like?

Friends had sent pictures while I was furloughed and there were frequent email updates from the garden reporting on what was happening so I knew it was looking fantastic before I got back to work. Lots of visitors and staff commented on how good the Broad Walk looked but I soon realised that there was a lot going on out of sight, beneath the vegetation; editing and division hadn’t taken place and there were weed issues. I started to get very worried  about the work needed but we have got on top of most of it. So once we finish mulching, which I really hope is going to be about now, Kate and I are going to have a day walking down the borders with lots of notebooks and lots of pens to plan editing and division for next month.

What do you enjoy about your current role?

We start work at 07:30am so coming in, whatever the season, you have the garden to yourself. It is dark at the moment but you get to see the garden waking up. When I leave the Melon Yard and head out to the Broad Walk, sometimes on the tractor which I love driving, I pass the Rock Garden on the left and Grass Garden on the right, with the Hive which is still lit up early on a winter’s morning. Then round the corner to the Broad Walk which looks spectacular on a frosty morning, with the yew pyramids marching along the walk. There is wildlife everywhere. Working at Kew, you are always learning from others – another thing I really enjoy.

How did you come to work at Kew?

I’m a classic career changer, working in adult education for 16 years. I enjoyed work but wanted to do something outside work so when I heard about the Capel Manor courses offered at the Regent’s Park site, I enrolled on the general principles of horticulture evening class. I never missed a class and I really loved it. And I think because it was an evening class, there were other people like me, who were doing it just out of interest. From one of my classmates I heard about WRAGs which is run by the Women’s Farm and Garden Association (although also open to men!). I joined the scheme and after only a few weeks, I got a WRAGs placement with Garden Associates, gardening contractors who look after private and communal gardens around the London squares. Rob Player, of Garden Associates, was instrumental in my early career in horticulture. That first day, I couldn’t believe I was a gardener. I hadn’t taken the gardening course to change my career but I had got more and more interested and eventually taken the leap. The WRAGs placement lasted for a year, two days a week which quickly became three days. I took on private work and after WRAGs, went back to Capel Manor to do a design course (L3 NOCN Diploma in Garden Design) while also working for Garden Associates. I wanted to move on to do something different after a few years so volunteered at Chiswick House and Gardens before being accepted onto the HBGTP course as the Chiswick trainee. I learned loads and became responsible for the heritage collection in the conservatory at Chiswick. I would have stayed there if there was an opportunity but there wasn’t so instead, I applied for the role I have now at Kew.

It sounds like you learnt about the various horticultural training opportunities – WRAGs and HBGTP – by talking to colleagues.

I think that shows you how important it is to talk to people. I found out so much information and about so many opportunities through doing that. I try to pass this advice on to others too.

What does the future hold for you?

You never stop learning and my goal is become an expert in herbaceous perennials. I can do this through my job and also through courses and garden visits, especially study tours. The generosity of other horticulturists all around the country and the world is amazing. I mentioned earlier that I had also become interested during lockdown in horticultural therapy and I would like to explore this further in future.

You’re stuck on a deserted island. What three plants would you want to be stranded with?

I can think of at least three hundred! I’d probably take cardoons, Cynara cardunculus, which we grow on the Broad Walk. It’s one of the most spectacular and therefore is popular with visitors. It is lovely to look at and can also be eaten, with the seed heads proving popular with birds. I’d take a tool also, an hori, as it is so versatile: you can dig holes, use it to plant or use it as a knife. Just for beauty, I’d also take Echinacea ‘White Swan’ which stays in bloom for months and has gorgeous seed heads.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

If anyone’s listening and they know me, they’ll be rolling around on the carpet laughing their heads off when I say that I was a model. I’ve got photographic evidence! When I was at Chiswick House and Garden, the first free Camellia Festival attracted a lot of press attention and one photographer asked for a photo shoot with a gardener in the Camellia House. I spent five hours up a ladder, dusting Camellia leaves and moving slightly for the camera! 

Is there anywhere in Kew you would suggest people visit?

I get asked this on the Broad Walk and always suggest that visitors go to the Natural Area which has a relatively new boardwalk that goes around an area that was previously closed to the public. It’s about encouraging people to go out into the gardens and the Arboretum rather than just stick to the Board Walk and main sites.

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