Head Gardeners

Book review

Published last September, it seems criminal that it’s taken me so long to get around to read this exploration of fourteen head gardeners, written by Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. But the moment I heard about it, I was hooked, and wanted to savour the reading of it in the quiet days between Christmas and New Year. Well, it took me a little longer, but read on to find out what I thought of the book.

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As the summer of 2017 transitioned seemlessly into autumn, photographs began to appear in my social media feed depicting some of the finest gardens in the country. As well composed and technically proficient as anything you’ll see in the gardening glossies, these images were notable for portraying the working life of the gardens, and the people whose behind-the-scenes labour produces such pleasure and store of lasting memories for the garden visitor. Charlie Hopkinson was using his Instagram account to trail the launch of Head Gardeners by Ambra Edwards, and a more exciting partnership of photographer, writer and subject was hard for this jobbing gardener to imagine. I could hardly wait to get hold of a copy.

Eagerly tearing into the package which the publishers had been kind enough to send me, I soon held in my hands a handsome hardback volume, around 2.5cm (one inch) larger in both width and height than an A5 sheet, and about 2cm thick. The book is printed on a semi-glossy paper stock, and bound between thick boards with no annoying dust jacket to wonder what to do with. The front cover bears a portrait of Sissinghurst’s Troy Scott Smith engrossed in historic records of the garden while sitting in Harold Nicolson’s favourite seat by the door of South Cottage, the back features a monochrome view through a door in a wall of the rose garden into the long yew avenue at the same property. 

It’s a beautiful book to hold, and to look at, and the printing and paper combination provides the perfect blend of clarity and colour saturation to facilitate the photography being seen to its best effect. My only gripe with the book – and it’s one I had to contend with throughout the several pleasant hours I’ve spent in its company – is that the point size for the text is too small. The pages are elegantly laid out with one continuous measure of justified text and a generous inner margin, but I found it an uncomfortable read and had to continually peer. I wondered if I was just being a blind old git, but there’s one glorious paragraph (bottom of page 19 in the introduction) where for some reason the text is a point or two larger than everywhere else, at which point it’s wonderfully legible. This is bad enough for the main copy, but the image captions, set in a small, light italic typeface, are particularly tricky to decipher, and since the captions are less legible throughout than the text on the imprint page (in a similarly diminutive, but more sensible roman weight), this really should have been picked up at an early stage of production. As ever, these things are a compromise between physical extent of the volume, word count, and designer’s whim, and I’m not sure which I’d like to see curtailed as in every other respect the book is wonderful. But it deserves a mention.

Notwithstanding the above, I’d read this book if it was scribbled in blotchy pen on the back of so many napkins, and enjoy the experience to boot. For while the writing flows in a conversational style that manages to be at once informal and authoritative, the message is a clarion call for all those who earn their living through the performance of those tasks and the application of those skills, which we refer to collectively as gardening. And it does so without setting up the tired false dichotomy between garden designers and garden practitioners (for want of a better word), instead highlighting a triumvirate of skills necessary to the operation of any garden, namely spacial organisation (the design phase), plantsmanship and the ‘craft of  gardening’, going on to state “the first two skills perish without the third – it is the skilled technician who brings the designer’s vision to fruition, who requires forethought, judgement, responsiveness – what garden writer Stephen Switzer, as long ago as 1727, characterized as ‘labour of the brain’”.

At this point, I cheered. But there’s plenty more in the introduction alone to give succour to the humble gardener. “it’s difficult to imagine a class of people,” says the National Trust’s Head of Gardens, Mike Calnan, “who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society, and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” (And he should know,  the Trust being one of the main culprits, having systematically removed their gardeners’ entitlement to accommodation from their remuneration over the past decade, whilst failing to compensate for this loss with an appropriate increase in their salaries. I saw this happen within the garden team at Scotney Castle when I volunteered there as part of my studies in the mid noughties, and it turns out this wasn’t an isolated incident.) “It’s hard to think of another job, except possibly being a vicar, which requires so wide-ranging and diverse a set of skills” – continues the text, and this assertion introduces a theme which recurs without fail in the account of each head gardener featured, although that particular job title is not one for which Jim Buckland of West Dean Gardens, which he looks after with wife and Gardens Supervisor Sarah Wain, feels particular affection. 

“It’s a crap description of what you do. You’re managing a staff of ten, plus around forty volunteers, and you’re responsible for everything. We set the business centre up. We built the car park. We made the new entrances. We manage the plant sales...”

So much for the skill set, but does this book help us to identify any common qualities of a successful head gardener? Part of it undoubtedly is sheer breadth of experience, as with Ned Price at The Weir. There’s the courage to take up and pull upon the reigns at one of the world’s foremost gardens, and to question accepted wisdoms, as Troy Scott Smith is doing at Sissinghurst. Then there’s the generosity of spirit, and a willingness to pass on gardening knowledge, married with a certain steely determination, which characterises the work of Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter. Confidence, and competence play a role, as demonstrated by Michael Walker at Trentham. But there's also a quality which has something to do with a willingness to get stuck in and give things a go, no matter the odds, that marks out the work of both Paul Pulford at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Martin Ogle at Lowther Castle. 

There are chapters that I found moving, such as the one that dealt with the relationship between head gardener Alistair Clark and garden owner (also founder of the cancer charity Maggie's and wife of Charles Jencks) Maggie Keswick at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation at Portrack House, Dumfries. And others that were inspiring, in particular the work with the rehabilitation of injured servicemen undertaken by Carol Sales at Headley Court. 

In all, there are fourteen head gardeners featured in this book, each one a person with formidable internal resources, whose outward expression can be seen in the gardens they manage, and the work of the teams they oversee. It might also incidentally be the story of a sector that has historically taken advantage of the vast breadth and depth of talent possessed by those who choose to work within it, and continues to fall short when it comes to compensating those professionals whose hard work contributes so much to the local and national economy. But most of all, it’s the narrative of fourteen outstanding and inspirational individuals and the meaning they find in their work. It’s a wonderfully photographed, written, and produced book, and one I can thoroughly recommend.

Head gardeners featured in this book: Ned Price, The Weir; Fergus Garrett, Great Dixter; Paul Pulford, Queen Elizabeth Hall; Mick Evans, Packwood House; Beatrice Krehl, Waltham Place; Troy Scott Smith, Sissinghurst; Lucille Savin, Merton College Oxford; Alistair Clark, Garden of Cosmic Speculation; Carol Sales, Headley Court; Andrew Woodall, Broughton Grange; Michael Walker, Trentham Gardens; Martin Ogle, Lowther Castle; Jim Buckland & Sarah Wain, West Dean Gardens.

Head Gardeners by Ambra Edwards, with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson, is published by Pimpernel Press, and is available from your local independent bookseller, or for those who can’t wait, here (but if you do buy from this Amazon link, please remember to support your local indy by buying a book of equal or greater value).