An interview with Simon Toomer

Simon Toomer is Chair of the PlantNetwork Trustees and so a shoo-in for a podcast interview! The aim of the podcasts is to find out more about the many different roles that exist in horticulture – one of the most diverse and multi-skilled career choices around – and the different career paths that horticulturists take. Of course, we also find out more about the individuals who grow, create and manage our world-class gardens.


What is your current role?

I’m the National Specialist for Plant Conservation for the National Trust, a post I’ve had for nearly five years. This role is concerned with cultivated plants and I act as an internal consultant across the National Trust looking at curation of plant collections, advising on propagation of particular heritage plants, and providing guidance on plant health and the wider environmental implications of gardening. I also liaise with other organisations and have the opportunity to visit lots of different gardens. My role is slightly different at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a more operational focus.

What do you enjoy about your current role?

It is the contact with different horticulturists across so many different garden types – and getting to visit these places. I’m in awe of the work that they do and I’m constantly learning from them.

How did you come to be with the National Trust?

I don’t have a traditional horticultural background. My initial interest was is the environment and countryside, and my first job was in forestry. Then I did a biology degree, providing a grounding in ecology, before moving onto forestry and arboriculture. I then worked at Westonbirt, learning about different trees and shrubs which opened a window into horticulture and eventually into gardens. I am a supporter of career changers moving into horticulture!

Is there anything you are working on at the moment that is particularly interesting or exciting?

One of the projects I’m working on is develop a vision for National Trust gardens. This started before the coronavirus set in but has made it much more important now. A focus of this work is making heritage gardens relevant to the current times.

Simon’s garden

Do you have a favourite National Trust garden – or perhaps your favourite garden is somewhere else?

My own garden is the first garden I’ve worked on by myself – especially recently – and although small, it has many different garden environments and I’m enjoying gardening at detail. My favourite in the Trust is Biddulph Grange as it is a garden that invites exploration – a Victorian theme park! It is a very playful garden and really engages families and children as well as heritage plants.

What inspired your career choice?

I read a lot as a teenager, particularly fiction featuring the countryside and natural history like Gavin Maxwell and Victor Canning, which really fuelled my interest.

What three plants would you take with you to a deserted island?

Probably something reminiscent and useful. As I like cooking and Mediterranean flavours, I will take an olive tree, marjoram and rosemary.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I play a lot of music and have a selection of different recorders which I play in period pieces as well as modern works. I was supposed to be playing in a Nell Gwyn production but am now playing with groups via Zoom!

Is there anything you would like to do in the future?

There are places I would like to visit and had planned to this year! I would like to see the Chilean forests. Work wise, I’m interested in the interaction of people, plants and trees – and I would like to spend more time on this area. Perhaps interpretation on this topic, seeing the links between plants and other things and processes such as technology, textiles and other aspects of heritage properties. I would like to write a book on the history of the world in 100 trees!

National Trust gardens

Visit the website to see the gardens in the National Trust portfolio, including Biddulph Grange. PlantNetwork has held events at a wide number of National Trust gardens over the years, the most recent being the Conservation, Preservation and Demonstration: the What, Why and How of National Plant Collections day at Upton House in 2019.

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