An interview with Philip Turvil


An abridged version of the podcast.

Could you tell us about your role as Eco Business Director for the Field Studies Council (FSC)?

Philip Turvil

The Field Studies Council is a national environmental education charity which engages over 150,000 people every year through a network of field centres, a series of resource publications and adult training courses across the country. I started at the FSC just over a year ago and sort of made up the job title! I was asked to create a directorate aimed at creating a future direction for the charity.  While the role is still evolving, it really involves promoting fundraising across the organisation, looking at why we do what we do and who might support us, from our wildlife identification publications to our adult learning courses. I also contribute to existing projects across the organisation, from schools to the capital side. It is a diverse role and is ever changing.

What do you enjoy most about the role?

I did start on the day of lockdown, which wasn’t ideal because essentially everything closed – from schools to retailers. I’m only just beginning to meet my colleagues now having only ever seen them on a screen – I had no idea how tall any of my colleagues were! What I enjoy about the role is the challenges that the organisation faces:  one of the major challenges is profile, presenting what the FSC does, which is something I’ve been involved in throughout my career, from garden centres to being an horticulturist: it has always been about public engagement with plants and fungi. It’s about co-creating with the audience and encouraging engagement with the environment. It is the greatest challenge but the most enjoyable aspect of my role with the Field Studies Council.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are now?

Imagine a five year old version of me…  I absolutely loved plants, which was triggered by the most fabulous oak tree across the road from my parents’ house. That led me into studying and working with plants and then into my first job at a garden centre, where I worked for six years. I loved working with and learning about plants but found I really liked talking about them too. I went to Reading University for a degree in horticulture and began to specialise in botanic and heritage gardens. While at university, I developed my interest in communication through involvement in the student radio station and newspaper. I then sought roles that would allow me to develop my interest in communication and interpretation. I spent the most magnificent year at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens  – learning about trees but also experiencing public engagement and starting an interest in the management side, particularly how to make things happen and how to inspire people. I was partly inspired by conversations I had with people in PlantNetwork! I took it upon myself to do a degree in management and was the only horticulturists in a cohort of 150 students.

Since then, I have blended my interest in plants, communication and management across a variety of placements, including at Bristol Botanic Gardens, before going to Garden Organic. Garden Organic let me expand my interests, getting more involved in the management of projects and programmes over the years as well as managing, coaching and recruiting people. It was also where I wrote my first funding bid: I love a good funding bid! Then I also started writing professionally for magazines and presenting radio phone-in gardening shows – answering lots of questions about cabbages and wisteria.

I moved to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew as a Lead Partnership Manager, taking responsibility for a national education programme with a million pound budget but very experimental and with lots of pilot activities. It really allowed me to grow, particularly in a supportive culture with fabulous people like Julia Willison. I began to work with more partners with bigger teams and bigger budgets, won awards etc., but always united by those three core passions of plants, communication and management. I got to the point where I’d hired my successor and I’d got onward funding, what do I do next? I trained myself in leadership and joined a number of professional organisations and this, combined with my three passions for plants, communication and management, led me to the Field Studies Council. Here there is an opportunity to engage new audiences in environmental education in a climate change emergency, in the biodiversity crisis, and contribute to an organisation that’s brilliant.

You started in horticulture but then broadened your interests, rather than specialised – would you say that was accurate?

I think I specialised in different aspects over different times but overall, yes, I’ve kept it fairly broad. I can go to specialists in different areas for help and advice but a range of skills is needed by the modern professional horticulturist, from managing volunteers to writing funding proposals.

Would you have done anything differently with hindsight?

I think I would do more networking, particularly with different people to challenge myself with different perspectives. In the future, I want to shake my perspectives up and try not to get too comfortable in my ways of working.

What would you advise someone coming into horticulture to do?

Definitely network, I think it’s utterly fascinating. Listen and make endless notes. That’s why I’m a big fan of PlantNetwork and professional institutions. Getting out and about is really important as is learning how to communicate what you’ve done in your career so far – look for the impact of what you have done and present the impact of your work. This also applies to organisations; it is important to present the impact of the work you’ve done individually and as an organisation.

Can you tell us why horticulturalists would be interested in, or should be interested in the Field Studies Council?

We have an awful lot to offer horticulturalists! The first thing I would say is our wildlife identification guides are fold-out splashproof guides you can take anywhere, giving you a shortcut to all sorts of trees, other plants, different vertebrates and various fungi – from introductory to more advanced habitat surveys.  If you need to identify biodiversity, the Field Studies Council can provide the guides and the training programmes too!  We have adult training programmes online and at venues across the UK, with hopefully lots coming to botanic and heritage gardens over the coming years. We also work with school and university groups so there is an opportunity for horticulturists to plug into this work, from resources to shadowing the work.

Do Field Study Centres have gardens around them or landscaped grounds, or can you suggest a garden that you think everyone needs to visit?

The Field Studies Council has about 15 centres, with varying amounts of grounds around each centre and often adjacent to a nature reserve or similar important environment. As the centres are managed as education environments with space for practical fieldwork, they aren’t really landscaped but they are lovely spaces. Sometimes open to the public and available if you book on a course! Part of my role will look at how we can use these spaces. As for a garden I would recommend, I am very biased towards the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew – fabulous gardens and ever-changing so always worth a re-visit.And I’ve just started my new garden so maybe people would like to come and have a look!

Do you have a favourite plant?

The English oak kickstarted my career and I had one in a pot for years but it was finally planted out a few years ago. That specific oak is certainly a favourite. As for herbaceous perennials, it would have to be Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’  with big yellow, daisy-like flowers, flowers for ages, reliable and tough: cut it down and mulch, and it will perform beautifully.  I find them so cheerful and I like plants that bring a smile to my face.

Is there a garden tool that you can’t garden without?

I love my secateurs, and my holster. I think the essential tools are fork, spade, hand fork, pair of shears and a rake. A battery powered lawnmower is my new discovery too. I have also implemented a new irrigation system to target new plantings – always wanted a watering system!  

Is there a book that’s been important to you throughout your horticultural career?

The Garden Expert books got me started then the Hillier guides when I went professional, together with tree and shrub pruning guides. On a management career side, books on emotions at work have been very influential – understanding organisational behaviour and why people behave the way they do at work.

More information….

Join the webinar on 09 September 2021 – or watch it again – to find out more about Philip’s work at the Field Studies Council.

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