An interview with Shelley O’Berg


Tell us about your current roles at Cambo Gardens.

Shelley O’Berg with flowers grown at Cambo Gardens

My role is First Gardener (equivalent of Senior Gardener) and I have responsibility for managing staff, volunteers and tasks when the Head Gardener is away. My other role is Horticultural Training Officer which means I have responsibility for the garden apprentices who do the Level 2 Lantra qualifications and aimed at encouraging young people into conservation and horticulture careers. I have completed my assessors training here. I also take up other roles as required such as Duty Manager and clearing tables at the café – whatever is required! It is a very varied role and one of the reasons I like the job. A key part of the role is working with volunteers including supported volunteers which might be one-to-one or in small groups of mixed abilities. It is a Heritage Trust so the aim is to build up and provide training for rural skills such as dry stone walling and apple pressing as well as horticulture.

It is a coastal garden with two large walled gardens, the largest is 6.5 acres and is the main ornamental garden. The smaller walled garden is used for edible produce.  The gardens have gown as a result of diversification of the property.

What do you enjoy most?

I like working with the volunteers and particularly the supported volunteers as you find out what really interests them. I like the variety – each day is different and can change quickly. It keeps you on your toes – and I work best in this sort of environment.

How did you get to Cambo?

St Helena Island (Credit: S O’Berg)

I worked in a variety of roles before horticulture. I worked in a dance performance company in Cornwall  – a group of mixed ability adults – and then moved into schools, doing a teaching assistant qualification and then got my postgraduate qualification in primary education. I was working at a secondary school in Crediton, Devon and my manager wanted to develop a garden project. I had some experience of gardening and owning an allotment so I was given some space to work with the students, mostly growing veg. I wanted to develop my theory to pass on to the students so the school supported me to get the RHS Level 2 qualification at Bicton College. I started thinking about changing careers and the options for getting into horticulture. I wrote to Sarah Chesters from RHS Garden Rosemoor who has a Sunday morning gardening programme on local radio for advice and she suggested getting involved in Britain in Bloom and other community projects. My friends and I obtained some funding for some containers for the community to plant and harvest food in Town Square in Crediton. This fostered a need to learn more so I took the leap to change careers. I did lots of volunteering and then got a job at RHS Garden Rosemoor’s Plant Centre for nine months. I decided to apply for the diploma course at Rosemoor but didn’t want it to appear that that was the reason I was working at the Plant Centre so I moved to a new job at an organic veg box scheme for 6 months. I was successful in getting a place on the Level 3 diploma course! I then applied to do the Level 4 diploma at Wisley. While at Wisley, I realised that lots of young gardeners travel and work in different gardens so I planned a year of travelling and internship with a RHS Bursary, starting at Ascension and St Helena Islands (my dissertation at Wisley looked at the role horticulture can play in conservation), then a few months at Bonn Botanic Gardens and an arboretum in Germany before moving to Inverewe and finally Cambo. On my last day at Cambo as an intern, they offered me a job! I had no idea what I was going to do next so this worked out well.

I would like to bring more of my conservation interest into the garden – we are thinking about converting one of rockeries into a fernery with some native Scottish ferns.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of horticulture as a career?

Get as much experience as possible, including commercial settings. I volunteered with a nursery called Cottage Gardens in Devon which grew and sold herbaceous plants: seeing the other side of what goes on really helps.

What has been your inspiration?

My parents encouraged me and my brother to be outside and my grandad grew lots of vegetables. Coming into contact with other horticulturists, particularly at Rosemoor, was really helpful and supportive. Penny at Rosemoor went that extra mile to answer any questions I had and of course, Sarah Chesters was always helpful when I bumped into her in the Rosemoor Plant Centre.  Someone might kick me for not mentioning their name! I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by great and enthusiastic horti people.

What is your favourite part of Cambo Gardens?

If I may say so, it is a beautiful garden! It’s unusual as it is a walled garden with naturalistic planting developed by the previous Head Gardener, Elliott Forsyth. The burn runs through the middle of the walled gardens, splitting it into east and west sides. There are Mediterranean and South African plants in the south-facing part, transitioning through grassland plantings to woodland on the north side. My favourite part at the moment, as I had a hand in planting it this year, is the potager in the middle of the garden which is usually maintained by the apprentices and is the only part that is replanted every year. With lockdown, there were just two of us in the garden so we decided to plant it up as a rainbow garden. It worked really well, we involved the local schools and now engage the visitors. There is even a pot of gold hidden away for children to find!

Cambo Gardens

What three plants or horticulturally-related products would you take to a deserted island (your “Desert Island Plants”)?

I’ve gone functional! And plants that also remind me of my childhood. Rosa rugosa because the house I grew up in had a hedge of Rosa rugosa and I’ve planted it in my allotments and worked with herbalists to make rosehip tea. I would also like Kale ‘Cavolo Nero’ for its colour and texture as well as being rich in iron. If the island is hot, I’d like Aloe vera which is good for burns and very soothing.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I was involved in dance theatre and really like dance and movement. I once did a flying trapeze workshop with a circus school in Bristol. Flying through the air towards a stained glass window was beautiful!

What are your plans for the future?

I am happy here for a while. Because it is so varied, I am still finding my feet coming into my third winter. I have an interest in the conservation side and I would like to experience a botanic garden.

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