An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Misako Kasahara is Head Gardener at Riverhill Himalayan Garden in Kent.
Tell us about your role at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens.
I’m Head Gardener at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, which is located just south of Sevenoaks in Kent. I’m responsible for looking after 12 acres of formal and informal landscape. The garden was originally developed to accommodate new Victorian introductions from Asia and it’s a lovely place! It’s quite a new job for me – I’ve been here 8 months so while I’m getting to know the garden quite well, it is still very new to me. As well as me, the full-time head gardener, there are three part-time gardeners who are the equivalent of one full-time staff. We also have six regular volunteers, some of whom are studying or about to study horticulture. It is really good to have them as one of my passions is to pass on my knowledge to others. Riverhill has grown quite quickly in the last few years, with visitor numbers increasing rapidly. We have a very dynamic team and we are trying new things all the time, so it’s very exciting time for the place.
You have a small team so how does that work for the management of the garden?
Until quite recently, there was only one full-time head gardener plus some occasional help. As visitor numbers have increased over the last five years, it was becoming more difficult to maintain some areas of the garden. My predecessor did an amazing job, especially creating the new rock garden with an amazing collection of ferns. A management decision was made to increase the team, first with an additional gardener for three days a week and then help with mowing and hedge cutting. I think this is the same story for many gardens across the country: we have much less labour now than when many of these gardens were created. For instance, there were eight full time gardeners here, albeit with glasshouses filled with tropical plants so much more work to do. It is my job to prioritise jobs and try and find a way to work more efficiently.
What else does your role of head gardener involve, particularly in a private garden that is open to the public?
I like working for private estates as I like to work in a relatively small place without too much paperwork! Having some [creative] freedom is important to me as is working with a small team. Having said that there are many jobs where you simply look after private gardens just for the owners. Some gardens are open to the National Garden Scheme for maybe couple of times a year while others are completely private. For me, it is important to have that interaction with the public so a private garden that is open to the public is the perfect fit for me. The Riverhill owners also like to open their gardens for others to enjoy: we really benefit from the interaction and feedback from visitors. While it is always good to get positive comments from owners/management on the garden, it is even better to get good responses from visitors. Having nice plants and even unusual plants that can really engage visitors is important as education is really important to me too. I studied horticulture for quite a few years and I was given a lot of help from other people, so being able to pass my knowledge on to others, including visitors, is a key part of my role.
You gave a little tantalising glimpse then into your training so can you tell us a how you got to your current role?
I grew up in Japan, and I was interested in ornamental plants growing up. I looked after flower beds in junior high school, and I was very proud when a letter was sent in by a neighbour praising the flowers: the letter was read out by the school principal in front of the whole school! I think it is a similar story in the UK, but gardening was not on the list of jobs presented to you when discussing careers. At that time, there weren’t any formal horticultural qualifications in Japan and it was much more vocationaI, learning on the job. It also wasn’t a very highly respected line of work which surprises many people outside Japan as Japanese gardens are so famous and require considerable skill. Not only wasn’t it something discussed as a career, it wasn’t considered a job for women. It was only when I came to Britain and realised that there was a gardening programme at eight o’clock on Friday night, did I see how mainstream gardening was in this country. It was a real eye opener to see gardening on TV at a golden hour for programming! I started to watch TV programmes and visit gardens, discovering that you could make a living as a horticulturist or gardener. I didn’t really have a career as such, I did a bit of office work and other roles so I eventually thought I’d give gardening a try.
I went on a working holiday to Canada for a few months and contacted a few companies in Toronto saying I had no experience but really wanted to learn. Luckily, one got back to me and gave me my first gardening job – mostly mowing and blowing! I really enjoyed being outside so really thought I could explore this further. When I settled back to Britain, I found a job as a gardener working for a private garden maintenance company in London. I worked for someone who was trained in horticulture and she took me under her wing, teaching me everything she knew even if I couldn’t take everything in at the time. I completed the RHS L2 course by correspondence and moved to a couple of other private gardening companies before realising that I wanted to learn more. I went on a big adventure with the PGG Traineeship – an excellent course and I thoroughly recommend it. Over three years, as part of the traineeship, I spent a year in three different gardens around the country, learning as I worked and meeting so many lovely people who generously shared their knowledge with me. At the start of the traineeship, I thought that by the end I would be very knowledgeable and could then start my own company or find employment in a lovely garden. Towards the end, I realised that I wanted to know even more so instead I applied to the Kew Diploma and was taken on Course 52 with a great bunch of fellow students for a further three years of learning. I loved being a student so much, I applied for another year, this time as a Specialist Student in Arboriculture at RHS Garden Wisley. After seven years of training, I got a job as a head gardener on a private estate in Surrey before moving to Riverhill last year.
What does the future hold for you?
I’m concentrating on Riverhill gardens because I’ve just started and I’m really enjoying being here. I’m spending my first year mainly observing the garden, getting to know the microclimate of different areas, checking out the movements of visitors, keeping up with maintenance work for the summer and looking for areas of improvement. We’re already making a lot of small changes but I hate to rush in to do things because gardening is not an instant thing, certainly not if you want to get things right. You have to know the garden and the place, to see if your ideas fit.
You haven’t been there long, but I wondered whether you could tell us a little bit about your favourite parts of Riverhill.
There are distinctly different areas in this garden. The Walled Garden is quite formal, and we have a peony border, potager, mixed and herbaceous borders. It’s not super manicured, but it’s a pretty area that visitors love. I specialise in woody plants, trees and shrubs, so the other distinct area is the Wood Garden which is of particular interest to me. Here, there is a good collection of rhododendrons as well as original introductions from the plant hunters, such as Ernest Wilson or George Forrest. Historically, it is an important collection, but has been a little lost in the garden so I am really keen to define and expand the collection in the coming years. The Wood Garden is also located on the side of a hill and while we have a nice viewpoint at the top of the hill, it would be great to open up views in the Wood Garden too to exploit the amazing views across the Weald of Kent.
Would you go back and tell your younger self to do things differently or are you quite happy with how everything’s turned out?
I am very happy that I started my career in horticulture and have progressed that career but if I could go back in time, I’d love to have started earlier. It is a physical job so as you get older, it can become more difficult. I’d like to have done more tree work which is very physical! Another thing is, I would like to have known more about the flora of Japan. As I “found” gardening in Britain, I didn’t really have the opportunity to study plants in detail in Japan and it is an amazingly rich flora. When I go back for my two weeks’ holiday and am driving around or looking out of a train window, there are so many plants I don’t know.
Do you have a favourite plant? Do you have a garden tool that you can’t garden without? And is there a book that is/has been constantly in use and you’d recommend it to anybody in horticulture?
I have too many favourite plants, mainly trees! In the previous garden I worked in, which was a woodland garden, there were some amazing English oak trees with three, in particular, being my favourites. Here, while it isn’t my favourite tree, there is a tree with a great story which really engages visitors when they hear about it. It is a Metasequoia which, as many people know, was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in China in 1941. The Arnold Arboretum grew some saplings from some of the first seeds collected and brought these saplings to the London Olympia Garden Show in the 1950s to exhibit. The Riverhill owners at the time, Evelyn and her husband, went to the show, saw the trees and asked to buy one. They were informed they weren’t for sale but at the end of the show, when the exhibit was being packed up, one tree wouldn’t fit back into the packaging. Evelyn was then gifted the tree, which escorted her to the theatre later that evening. So this was one of the first Metasequoia to be redistributed around the world and one of very few trees to visit the theatre! It is now a lovely, healthy specimen.
The garden tool I cannot be without are my Felco number eight secateurs. I’ve been gardening for 15 years now, and I’ve had this pair for about 14 years. They fit my hand but this was by chance! I always have them when I’m working and they can be really useful for things like opening boxes. Felco are great as you can easily get spare parts and can even send them away to be serviced or for new grips to be added.
I have a lot of reference books at home, but I don’t have many general reading books on the subject of horticulture. I did really enjoy The Wild Trees by Richard Preston which I think is quite a famous book among arborists. I won’t spoil too much but this is a book that will make you want to climb trees!
You are very much a British gardener but when you visit Japan as a professional horticulturist now, do you see any changes or see any similarities or difference between gardening in the UK compared to Japan?
I’m not really in Japan enough to say definitively but I have seen quite a few female gardeners when I’ve been back to Japan recently. The big difference, I think, is that many gardeners in Japan don’t use the scientific name of the plant. They tend to use Japanese common names a lot. This is partly because the scientific names use the Roman alphabet which isn’t used in Japan so learning scientific plant names can be really quite difficult. It tends to be the botanists or the scientific person in the garden, if they have one, who will know the scientific name.
I think that formal training is still not there either, unlike in the UK with the RHS qualifications at Level 2 and Level 3 which teach many different aspects of horticulture, from soil science to climate or the essential biology of plant. Britain is really lucky to have these courses and other vocational qualifications that allow you to study the subject and show employers your level of knowledge. I’m not saying that qualifications are everything but it really helps to show your basic understanding. I think it is quite common in Asia for there to be a separation between the management who know the theory of horticulture and who then direct people on the ground. In Britain, the interest in gardening, even from non-professionals, is phenomenal as is the standard of professional horticultural knowledge. In my opinion it’s really one of the best and I feel lucky and happy to be working in this country as a horticulturist because this is the best place to do it!
Also in Japan, their summers are really hot and winters can be really cold depending on where you are. So, I’m really happy to be working outside all year round in Britain: we might have the odd hot or cold days and certainly wet days but generally the weather isn’t too bad. I have been a panellist at a PGG Traineeship seminar, answering questions put to us by the trainees, and it has been inspiring to see the level of interest and understanding around the topic of climate change and gardening in the next generation of horticulturists. Generally, people who work in horticulture are passionate about plants and gardens, generous with their knowledge and so lovely. I really love my life in horticulture!