An interview with Nick Fraser


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

Nick Fraser is National Trust senior gardener responsible for a portfolio of gardens including Nunnington Hall, Ormesby Hall and Rievaulx Terrace.

Can you tell us about your role?

It’s my dream job as I get to work in three wonderful very different properties. Nunnington is a Yorkshire country house with a river, organic garden, wildflower meadows and orchard while Rievaulx Terrace is an 18th century landscape. Ormesby Hall on the edge of Middlesborough and is a large estate where we have recently added a meadow, pond and orchard, and have a tenant farm.  

I need to have a range of skills, as I’m managing people across different gardens. As well as the garden teams, we have 40 volunteers. Every day is different! There is a lot of office work with meetings, emails, finances and budget etc. I also get to work with my team to plan the garden and develop new ideas. We can’t stay static and keep evolving the garden, I really enjoy the innovation and working with different people with different skill sets and bringing the best out in people..

How did you get to this role?

I grew up in a small village in the edge of York and was always very interested in the outdoors. At 16 years of age, I decided that I wanted to work outdoors so was considering forestry but eventually decided on an horticultural apprenticeship with British Rail. I was based in a nursery outside the village of Poppleton which had 12 glasshouses, all boiler-fed which were operated throughout the year. We grew and propagated bedding plants each year, created hanging baskets and did a lot of landscaping at stations across the North of England, including interior planting in ticket offices. It was great opportunity to learn a broad spectrum of skills from plant propagation to landscaping, planting and machinery care. As a 16 year old it was a it was a really great introduction to the world of horticulture. The nursery still exists but is privately owned – it is probably more well known now!

When I got to my early 20s, someone said I had a job for life which scared me so I bought a camper van and went to Europe. I travelled for a few years, then I came back and worked for landscaping companies for a few years, then did my own landscaping and had my own gardening round. I then settled at Middlethorpe Hall in York which was part of the Historic House Hotel chain and is now part of the National Trust. Then, about 20 years ago, I came to Nunnington to work as an under-gardener. I’ve been here ever since and have worked my way through a number of different roles to be responsible for the portfolio.

Nunnington is well known for sustainable and wildlife gardening. Can you tell us a little more?

I became interested in organic and sustainable gardening very early on and studied permaculture after I’d been travelling – one of the earliest permaculture students in the country! When the post came up at Nunnington, it really appealed to me as it had just turned organic and it seemed the dream job for me. Twenty years later, we are still following this sustainable format – we try to encourage as much wildlife as possible, we reuse as much as possible, make our own composts and compost teas. We use the permaculture concept as being as efficient with our systems as possible.

What does the future hold for you?

At the moment, I’m very settled. Ormesby Hall has only recently joined the portfolio and there is so much development taking place, there is so much to keep me interested. We have a huge plan to implement over the next ten to twenty years and lots to develop. There ara also lots of projects at Nunnington and Rievaulx to keep the sites relevant. There are so many exciting projects to keep me going!

You’ve had an interesting career but would you have done anything differently and/or have any advice for someone starting out in horticulture?

I don’t think I’d do anything differently. I have no regrets and am still enjoying my career. I might have tried to learn more plants at an earlier age and other little things but not the big choices.

The advice I would give is to grow from as early an age as possible. Doesn’t matter what, just get stuck in and grow seeds!

Can you tell us a little more about the three gardens you care for?

Nunnington has been 100% organic for over 20 years. It was unusual at the time but now it is much more mainstream so it is great to see what an established organic garden looks like. You can still have the excellent presentation in a formal organic garden with gravel paths, neat edges and lawn stripes. Our compost heaps are pride of place in the centre of the gardens.

Rievaulx Terrace is an 18th century landscape on an escarpment looking down on the ruined Rievaulx Abbey and surrounded by woodland so has amazing views and is a great place to picnic and soak up the atmosphere.

Ormesby Hall is a developing site and is re-emerging from a slightly neglected state. It is in a urban setting so an ideal location to engage the local audience.

Have you engaged a new audience since the lockdowns and how difficult was it to maintain the gardens during the pandemic?

I’m not sure I should say this but I really enjoyed the lockdowns. I wasn’t furloughed so could garden almost full-time on the garden as I didn’t really need to be in the office. Another gardener at Ormesby kept that site going. We managed to keep them looking good. It was great to see the reactions of people as they returned to the gardens and to see families meeting up after being apart for so long. We have seen more local people visiting so I think it has helped us re-engage with the local communities so has been very positive.

Can you tell us about your favourite plant, garden tool and book?

I like all plants but my real passion is for native plants. I’m a committee member of the local natural history society. I really enjoy finding rare wild plants at sites, particularly orchids in our gardens. During lockdown, I found the bee orchid, Ophrys apifera, in the meadows at Nunnington and I was dancing on the spot. It has taken us 20 years to get the soil right for many of our rarer plants. The first time we had twayblades at Rievaulx was exciting – although not rare, it is still great to see them. I found a bird’s nest orchid, Neottia nidus-avis, in the woods at Rievaulx was just as exciting.

For a garden tool, I always carry a knife on my belt. It is a wood-handled Opinel and I have carried a small garden knife since I was an apprentice. It is so useful and I keep it sharpened ready for use.

There are so many excellent gardening books – we feel the need to buy gardening books wherever we see them, don’t we?! Plant Names Simplified has proved to be very useful – it was great when I was learning plant names and I’ve bought it for many of my garden staff over the years as it is so useful. The other books I can’t be without tend to be identification books such as Nan Sykes’ Picture Guide to the Wildflowers of North East Yorkshire which is sadly out or print but a great book: Nan and I were members of the same natural history society and her book is just a great resource. I also like insect guides as gardens aren’t just about plants. The Collins guides have always been useful but a new book called Britain’s Insects by Paul Brock is really good for helping to identify all the bees that we find in the garden. Insects aren’t pests so I’m very pleased that the RHS won’t be compiling insect pest lists any more!

Catch Nick at the Green Waste Management Day, a PlantNetwork information day, in Spring 2023! More information coming soon.