Opportunity in the public garden

Once again, I’m supremely pleased to introduce a guest post to the blog, this time from Lou Nicholls, a professional gardener for whose horticultiral knowledge I have a great respect (she’s also a tireless administrator on several gardening related online forums, a passionate advocate for horlticulture, and a source of encouragement and support for her peers, including yours truly). Here she writes of her experience of working in gardens open to the public – and it’s an eye-opening read!

There are a lot of things which, in a private garden, you rarely need to worry about. Having to drag visitors’ cars out of the mud with your tractor, or herding up to 40 enthusiastic and well-meaning volunteers around a site, without them digging up a priceless plant or trampling another in their excitement at being let out of the office for a day. I can honestly say, I’d never before played ‘fishing for tadpoles’, or made scarecrows with a school group in a private client’s garden, or watched a work colleague playing the part of an escaped French prisoner being chased through a ditch in a small suburban garden, but all of these things are part of a normal(ish) working day when you work in a public garden.

Tractors, usefull for dragging cars out of the mud!

Tractors, usefull for dragging cars out of the mud!

One of the major differences, in my mind, between the two environments can be summed up in one word...opportunity.

You have your basic job as a gardener – you weed, you water, you plant, you prune, you mow. Sometimes you are given the chance to be a bit creative in those things and if you’re lucky enough to work on a large estate this chance may come more regularly.

Add the public to this mix and suddenly you become an entertainer, a teacher, a guide and sometimes a first responder!

You start having to think differently, act differently, it’s your job not just to care for and present a garden but to also care for your guests –you’re a host. Now for some people this isn’t a natural role. A lot of people come to gardening because they like the solitude it presents. They don’t find interaction on a large scale a comfortable or even a pleasant experience. Personally I do, I came to gardening for a variety of reasons. Having grown up in a family of hobby gardeners I hadn’t realised how much information I’d absorbed osmotically. I was given a love of open gardens by my parents. We would visit them all over the UK and its a tradition we continue to this day although sadly my mum is with us in spirit now but I’m sure she is there.

I’m quite a gregarious person by nature though, I enjoy people’s company and I enjoy being in a team, it doesn’t need to be a big team but knowing you have someone beside you working towards a common goal can make a huge difference to your day. I love the jokes and camaraderie and I also love chatting to people about plants, sparking that enthusiasm in them. One of the most rewarding parts of working in a public garden is getting kids into it, showing them the connections in nature, their reactions are so honest and unguarded, their joy in a butterfly or disgust at a spider so overpowering.

You can of course find positions within certain gardens where your interaction with the public is limited, if that’s your thing, but in most organisations it is considered a “Front of House” job and the higher up you rise within that organisation the more you are expected to take that on board. Becoming both a figurehead for that garden and an ambassador to a large extent for the organisation on a whole. It can get to the point where your time spent working in the garden becomes negligible. Those are the days when mowing the grass for a few hours or weeding a border becoming your weeks goal, your reward or to use a phrase I picked up “your glittery fish”. This is the thing you chase after, to the detriment sometimes of your actual job. I’ve done it myself and I’ve seen team mates do it, we ALL do it!

Choosing which level you wish to reach is the key. In this process I’ve never begrudged a sidestep, it’s all a learning process and sometimes I’ve found myself veering off the track I’ve set myself but I wouldn’t complain. I’ve been given opportunities especially in my career working in public gardens that I would never have dreamt possible when I started out.

One of the many opportunities for which im grateful for, representing Sissinghurst Castle at the Wealden Times fair

One of the many opportunities for which im grateful for, representing Sissinghurst Castle at the Wealden Times fair

There have been many fun times working for both private clients and for gardens with the public. Although Id say the public gardens have afforded me the most bizarre!

Once, I found myself pruning wisterias in the dead of winter while, unknown to me, a training course was being held for prospective bodyguards within the grounds. I’d been told this happened but hadn’t realised that we as gardeners would be given no warning. While we did get the occasional visitor who would be unaware of the garden being officially closed for winter, we would turn a blind eye, as often they had travelled for miles. This group of visitors, though, were slightly different – three men carrying bags, dressed in dark clothes and acting…well…furtively! They headed in different directions, seemingly looking for hiding places. We had a vantage point on their actions viewing them from the top of the pergola, and while I was a bit perturbed by all this, my head gardener – who had seen it before – was finding it amusing.

One man stepped out from behind a tall yew hedge wielding a pair of swords. He shall henceforth be known as Ninja Warrior. Nonchalantly he spun the swords in his hands and, whilst another chap had ensconced himself firmly in a hedge slightly further down, the third had disappeared entirely.

A second car pulled up, and out stepped a lady and two further gents, and all three began meandering towards our vantage point.


A smoke canister exploded on the lawn! The three dodgy chaps launched themselves from the bushes, while the lady let out high-pitched shrieks which I’m sure could be heard in the village two miles away.

A tussle ensued in which the lady shrieking like a boiling kettle was gently led away by Ninja Warrior. The second and third hedge-dwellers were having wrestling matches with the “Bodyguards” and it looked like her guards were losing! This continued for two or three minutes, finally culminating in the guards being pinned to the floor while the lady and Ninja Warrior had a bit of a chat by the hedge. The group picked themselves up and came together. Apparently the dodgy guys had won this round as there were high fives for Team Dodgy, and two slightly dejected looking guards.

This is not something you would ever see working in a suburban end-of-terrace garden.

These opportunities for experience don’t just start and end there, though. In the right place, the chances to experiment horticulturally are infinite. Look no further than Great Dixter, a truly amazing working relationship between like minded individuals that has created a world class garden! Christopher Lloyd's legacy lives on with Fergus Garrett, and Dixter is now a centre of learning and opportunity for years to come.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to experience a wide range of such opportunities. I was lucky enough to get the chance of a 'job swop' whilst working at Ryton with someone from the Eden Project. For two weeks I lived and worked onsite at one of the UK’s biggest experiments in Horticulture, it was amazing! I saw the Eden project as few do – empty of visitors. I went up into the canopy of the tropical dome on a cherry picker, saw the Amorphophallus titum hours before it opened completely on my own. From a horticulturist's point of view, this was heaven. To share this joy with others is complete bliss.

A deserted Eden project, devoid of visitors, a sight few people will ever see!

A deserted Eden project, devoid of visitors, a sight few people will ever see!

The  Amorphophallus titan  seen without the crowds

The Amorphophallus titan seen without the crowds

One of the bizzare things you get to see when working in a garden open to the public, plastic cows being tranported on the back of a flatbed lorry

One of the bizzare things you get to see when working in a garden open to the public, plastic cows being tranported on the back of a flatbed lorry

Working in maintenance gardening has its own joys and rewards. All of us who have worked for a few hours every week with a client on trying to achieve their own personal dream will chafe at the restrictions of time whilst sharing in the clients joy at seeing a neglected shrub coming slowly back to life after careful patient pruning or the pleasure at seeing their wisteria flowering its socks off.


Oddly, as is the way of life, when I started writing this I had no idea what was in store for me. The future is never set in stone and an opportunity came into view on my horizon. For days I mused over what could be an amazing chance. I have always had an end goal in mind throughout my career. To grow old working in a garden I love, to grow plants that inspire and excite me and to share that love with others. It’s a loose end goal but I’ve found over the years if you keep your ideas loose you’re flexible and adaptable to change and you can seize that opportunity when it comes along… so I did!

I’m incredibly excited (and also a little scared, in a good way) to be embarking on my latest adventure in Horticulture.

So if you get the opportunity please do come and visit me at Ulting Wick next open day. Home of the wonderful, enthusiastic and experimental Phillipa Burroughs & her family, I shall look forward to seeing you all!

You can find Lou on Twitter @loujnicholls, and read her blog here loujnicholls.wordpress.com