An interview with Yoke van der Meer


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

Yoke van der Meer is a freelance horticulturalist and professional gardener – and probably the first gardener I’ve spoken to who isn’t tied to a particular garden.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job?

It’s very good because I can do what I like! When the weather is good, I can be out working in gardens but when it’s not too good, I can be inside working on my blog.

How long have you been freelance?

It coming up to 10 years ago when I started my own business, Yoke’s Magic Garden.  Before that, I worked for about 30 years in the horticultural industry. I work in private gardens but have also become more involved with community projects which I really enjoy. I have my own allotment and am involved with the allotment committee. However, it is the private gardens that are my bread and butter. My background is in botanic gardens and my real passion is for my blog, Wonderful Weed Weekly, which is a virtual ethnobotanical garden. This is all about native plants and how they have been used in the past.

I first became interested in ethnobotany when I was head gardener at Rodbaston College in Staffordshire. The college had the National Collection of New World Salvias and I had the opportunity to visit Mexico to see Salvias and other plants growing in their native habitats. During one of these visits, in 2006, I toured the ethnobotanical garden in Wahaca, which is one of the most biodiverse areas in Mexico. Ethnobotanical gardens were a new concept for me – I’d only ever heard of botanical and physic gardens. I really liked the idea of showcasing native plants that had a direct use for local people. I returned to work in the garden for a few months in 2008. There were no plant labels in the garden – information was provided in garden tours. This got me thinking and eventually I started a blog focusing on our native plants, particularly the ethnobotany of these plants, as it would be too big an ask to start an ethnobotanical garden from scratch. Nevertheless, the blog has allowed me to start a virtual garden and I can focus of different plant families and highlight how they can be used as food, medicine, building materials, dyes etc. to demonstrate how even our common weeds can be useful.  My aim is to make even the most humble weeds popular!

I haven’t always worked in horticulture – I started as florist in the Netherlands. My family didn’t work in horticulture either but I’d always loved the countryside and wildflowers. When I came to Britain, I only had my florist certificates so I started working in nurseries and garden centres to gain experience. Eventually, after a few attempts, I was accepted on to the Kew Diploma. After Kew, I had several jobs before becoming head gardener at Rodbaston College. The gardens there had a walled garden, a range of glasshouses as well as the New World Salvia National Collection so was a varied garden.

You can tell you are passionate about your blog and virtual ethnobotanical garden. Would you like to turn the virtual garden into a real garden?

Wightwick Manor Gardens near Wolverhampton. © Yoke van der Meer

One ethnobotanical garden wouldn’t really work as different plants need different habitats and growing conditions so perhaps a dispersed garden within different botanic gardens focusing on different plant communities would be better. It would be good to work with gardens to bring this about! In the Netherlands, there are wildlife-type gardens called Heemtuin which focus on native plants that grow in particular regions and habitats. As much of the country is below sea level, there are many wetland habitats so willow features quite a lot and demonstrates how it can be used in medicine, as forage for goats, building and for flood protection. I think this concept would work very well in the UK (as seen in image opposite with pollarded willows in Wolverhampton).

What does the future hold for?

I’m beginning to slow down so have fewer private gardens to look after but I’m trying to do more things that I really enjoy. This includes the blog and also setting up gardening clubs for people to join and learn about gardening.

My final question – do you have a favourite plant, favourite garden tool and garden book?

It’s very difficult for plants! I do love Salvias and have worked with them for so long. Many Salvias have fragrant leaves and I do like plants with fragrant foliage: Rodbaston College had a large collection of Pelargonium plants too.

For tool, my Felco secateurs are in constant use. Then it would be my border fork as it is so versatile.

For books, there are so many. I started out with the Hilliers manual. I do like picture books – especially floras like Stace and the series of Roger Phillips books. I also like permaculture-type books. The Hessayon Expert books have also proved to be useful. I don’t have time for very wordy books!

© Yoke van der Meer