An interview with Sam Hickmott


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Piers Horry, PlantNetwork trustee and Gardens and Outdoor Manager for the National Trust.

Tell us about your role as Acting Head Gardener at the National Trust’s Prior Park.

I’m on a 12 month maternity cover contract as Head Gardener, managing and maintaining the grade one listed landscape garden here at Prior Park. It’s an interesting role, especially at the moment as we’re in the middle of a large restoration project restoring an historic dam upstream of the city of Bath, so it’s quite an important project.  It’s one of the few that’s continued during Coronavirus! So my role is not just managing the garden to a high horticultural standard but it’s also liaising with the contractors in order to make sure everything is running smoothly. There’s lots of other things going on too. We’re a landscape garden so have lots of trees including many ash so we’re in the process of finding replacements [as a result of ash dieback] that are historically accurate and aesthetically similar as well as increase the buffering capacity of the garden for whatever disease inevitably hits next. I also manage staff and volunteers. No two days are the same.

Can you tells us more about the Dams Project?

The Dams Project is starting to come to a head and should be finished in March 2022.  Now is the really exciting point for us and the garden team as we get to restore the planting around that part of the garden. Prior Park is about 30 acres in total, but about a third of the garden has been cut off because of the Dams Project. Restoring and implementing planting plans of that size is obviously quite a challenge. We’ve recently visited some of the trees procured for the project, some native and some non-native but tree species that would have been here in the mid 18th century. It’s going to be an exciting time over the next few years as these borders and these beds develop, which will take place over a phased period of time. It’s going to look more and more interesting over the next three to five years.

Can you just tell us how you’ve got to where you are now?

It was it was happy accident! I’m 23 now but when I was 17 I failed my A levels. I thought I can either do all of that again, or I can find something I’m actually interested in. At the time, like so many people, I didn’t really know what to do, so I went for something outdoors. I tried to get onto a tree surgery course but it was full up, and so I went on a horticulture course at the local college. In hindsight, I’m very glad I went into horticulture rather tree surgery. I did my level two at that college and at the same time, volunteered at a local farm, and then got a job with a local design company. That’s where my real passion for horticulture really started to develop and I thought that this was something I really wanted to continue with. I was self employed for brief periods for a year or two, and then I got a job as a gardener at Prior Park. When the current Head Gardener went on maternity leave, I thought I’d have a go and I got the job. I’m about to complete my RHS Level 3 which I’ve been studying at Bristol Botanic Gardens: a great course. It’s been an interesting journey so far and I’ve no intention of stopping anytime soon. I can’t really see myself doing anything else but only time will tell.

What inspired you to go into horticulture?

I don’t really know! I grew up in rural Somerset, and we had a Woodland Trust site five minutes walk away so I was always outdoors, which I think is really important. The best way to engage people with nature, with the countryside and gardening is to put them in and give them access to the outdoors. It also runs in the family a little bit as my grandfather was a keen amateur vegetable grower while my aunt is currently a head gardener on a private estate and my uncle is a retired head gardener. So there’s always been an influence but it’s not something I ever really considered until I had a go – and I’m really pleased I did. In my experience, most people come into horticulture as career changers and there’s a real gap of 17-19 year olds coming into the industry. I think it’s partly the push to go to university. That is something I could have done and I’d probably be doing something very different now. I think horticulture isn’t viewed as a skilled profession – which we can discuss as being misguided etc. – and it doesn’t pay very well, which is a driver for a lot of my peers.  My generation is very ambitious and career driven, as am I but just in a different context.

Do you think that this is a continuing trend – career changers driving new entrants to horticulture rather than school-leavers?  

From what I see, yes, but I think things are changing. I attended a PlantNetwork webinar on careers and Sue Moss, who is Head of Education for the RHS, said there had been a massive uptake in level two applications across the country this year as a result of being shut inside for a year and seeing the value of green spaces. I don’t know what age range these applicants were from, but I’d like to think it was maybe even, with young people also getting interested. I find it strange that a generation that is so environmentally minded and interested in outdoor space isn’t more interested in horticulture [as a career] but again it is probably down to us as horticulturists to really make the case for horticulture. I’m in quite a good position to do this because I am young and perhaps it is easier to relate to 16 year olds when you were one only a few years ago.

Do you think with that with climate change awareness growing, people are paying more attention to the environment?

Yes, I think so. My friends and I have always been anxious and vigilant about climate change, because we learned about it from the age of twelve. But again, it’s difficult now as there’s all this talk about carbon neutrality and the government set guidelines but no one does anything – it’s all lip service. I do that sometimes too – I still drive to Sainsbury’s! More and more people are becoming more aware and that does lead to a change in mindset and ultimately a change in actions and behaviour. But it is a slow process.

You’re a young horticulturist and in a good position – already a head gardener at a Grade one listed World Heritage Site. You recently made the regional final for Young Horticulturist of the Year – can you tell us a little more about this?

It was really great. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Young Horticulturalist of the Year is a competition for anyone under the age of 30 and tests your horticultural general knowledge.  It was my first time entering this year so I don’t know what it’s usually like, but I’m told this year was unusual as the first round was online with 40 timed questions across a really broad range of horticultural subjects. The competition runs locally and then regionally, with the regional winners coming together in the national final. I was in the sub region of Somerset Avon. So, the online round was really difficult and I thought I did abysmally! So I was planning on entering next year when I received an email to say I was through to the regional final: that means I got the highest score in Somerset Avon. In the South West Regional Final were the six sub-regional winners and that was with a question master and others adjudicating and keeping score. There was a lot of pressure! To give you an idea of the range of questions, one of my questions was what can you use Vinca minor for in the garden? You get two points for a fully correct answer, one point for getting it 75% right. Someone else got the question of who invented the rotary lawnmower and when did they do it. The answer was Edwin Beard Budding in 1830 – a useless piece of information I shall forever retain! But [the competition] was really great and while I came fifth in the regional final, I’ll be having another go next year. To anyone listening who is under 30,  give it a go as you will learn something and meet other people working in horticulture – albeit electronically in my case.

What’s next for you?

There’s a few coals in the fire… In the long term, I’d like to carry on with a formal academic, horticultural education to a higher level qualification, perhaps the Kew Diploma or RHS MHort to further my knowledge. I like being a head gardener, but I’ve liked every gardening role I’ve ever had – I just like being in the industry. As long as I’m working with plants, I’m pretty easy. At the moment, I’m looking for equivalent roles and I’m keen to stay in the third sector, working with charities. I’m sure it is great to work in a private estate but it does seem something of a waste to not have people see the garden. As long as it’s interesting and full of plants …

Have you a favourite tool?

An old friend of the family once gave me a trowel. It’s a fantastic piece of equipment. It’s a trowel with a handle that is maybe 40 centimetres long, and while it doesn’t sound like a great innovation, that extra leverage and movement makes planting, for example, 1000 bulbs in very heavy clay much easier to do. I don’t know where you would buy one so I’m keeping hold of this one.

What about a book?

I’ve got an ever increasing pile of horticultural books that I’m yet to read. So this answer might change in a few weeks but probably the one I read or refer to the most is Plant Names Simplified by Johnson, Smith and Stockdale which was first published in the 1930s but has been updated since. It gives a better understanding of taxonomy and why plants are named the way they are e.g Fagus sylvatica with sylvatica meaning ‘of the woods’. These little things really aid my memory. I’m also half-way through Foliage Plants by Christopher Lloyd – a fantastic book. I’m always drawn to more historical texts like Gertrude Jekyll’s books, as they are really informative and interesting. I’m also on the lookout for a good reference book on pests and diseases – all suggestions welcome…