Land & Nature / London’s Head Gardeners

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There’s an understandable level of miscomprehension surrounding the occupation of a head gardener in the context of London. For a start there aren’t many people doing it. Gardens of a scale requiring the exclusive services of one or more gardeners are few and far between and the majority of London’s ornamental parks are either council run or farmed out to large scale maintenance contractors. As a result, a head gardener’s role is somewhat unique; few professions in the city develop such an exclusive bond with a ‘known’ landscape. Through my close links with the Garden Museum in Lambeth, I’ve been fortunate in getting to know many of London’s head gardeners. They’re an impressive bunch, some holding positions for over twenty years now. Whilst there has been an undeniable resurgence in the attraction of ‘earthy’, hands-on occupations, I’ve often wondered how much is really understood of this traditional field of employment, especially in its modern day incarnation.

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Three years ago, photographer Roo Lewis and I began documenting some of London’s accomplished and long-standing head gardeners. We visited a select group during their quieter weeks of autumn, seizing moments of recovery following typically hectic summers. As Roo captured portraits in selected spots around the gardens, I documented the conversations, extending them later in the comparative comfort of garden bothies, offices and onsite lodgings. Head Gardener: notes from a London Landscape is a photography journal featuring 7 of London’s head gardeners. Alistair Cook, in the following extract, was interviewed for the journal during his time as head gardener at Lambeth Palace.

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Alistair Cook

Lambeth Palace Garden SE1

When I arrived there were hardly any facilities. The old resident gardener had a few tools somewhere, some ancient machinery but no equipment. I fought my way into the greenhouse, got rid of the nettles and put one chair in the middle. I looked at the garden and thought, ‘hey, this is an amazing space’ – I could see the great potential. I was only 24. It was a project, almost like a hobby, and after discussions with the archbishop I realised I had free rein. It was like being given a carte blanche to do what I wanted with the garden. It really needed tying together and they needed someone to look at the whole picture, someone who wasn’t going to be daunted by it all.

Gradually I got to know the other head gardeners in London. I wanted to know who else was out there doing this kind of thing and what their approach was. It seemed that they didn’t particularly know each other, so I began with the Chelsea Physic Garden where one of my old Kew colleagues was. I asked if I could come and look at his patch, see what his problems were and see if there were similarities in the task we’d been given. I then went to Steve at Winfield House and to Buckingham Palace. We’ve all got different goals, remits and budgets. While there is a commonality between us in the work we do, we’re all in diverse settings under vastly different circumstances; gardens by their nature vary dramatically. We’ve all got to fight for what we need and get people to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’m enormously fortunate to manage such a huge space in the centre of London. It’s a little oasis. Although the grounds are private, I think the archbishops do often question its role and accessibility. We used to have Lady Thatcher walk in the garden every week because it was a quiet space; she used to get mobbed in the public parks. Nick Clegg came to clear his head, even film stars; you get some weird calls regarding who wants to use the space. But that’s what a garden is for: it offers privacy and escape, it forms a neutral space. Some of these people are such public figures, they need that, the space.

If you read anything about the Palace it mentions Cardinal Pole’s enormous fig tree, which was originally brought to the site in 1556 by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop. It’s an extraordinary plant to inherit. We get great crops, the figs are thin-skinned and taste like pure honey. I prune the plant every five years so you can see the great hall behind it, which is an amazing building. The first year we pruned the fig it was right out onto the tarmac and about thirty feet high. I went gingerly in and took out about 25 percent and checked with the Archbishop. I kept chatting to various colleagues, asking ‘how much dare I prune this thing?’, but you’ve got to be brave to make a statement. We could see the vigour of the plant, so I pruned it back even harder. I probably left about 50 percent of growth and then they all gasped! But that was me getting my confidence, thinking, ‘OK, it’s not going to die’. And we saw it respond amazingly. I’ve learned to propagate the fig as well, which is a fairly tricky operation. We’ve sent them all around the world; the Pope was given one at the Vatican. He was presented with one of my cuttings.

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The first gardener here was recorded in 1321, a guy called Roger. We’ve got his seed and vegetable lists so there’s a lot of history—this garden has been cultivated for a long time. The scale of what I’ve done in my 22 years here is a comparatively minuscule dot on the timeline. Gardens are ongoing; you’ve got to live with them, see things change. I’m taking plants out that I planted ten years ago thinking ‘why did I plant that?’. If you look at the head gardeners in London a lot of them have been in place as long as me here, seeing their gardens mature. And that’s the fun bit: seeing huge trees that you remember planting when they were two feet high.

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Images and text are extracted from Head Gardener: notes from a London Landscape. For more information about the journal visit www.roolewis.com/Head-Gardener

Photography by Roo Lewis (www.roolewis.com)

Words by Matt Collins.

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13 Comments

  • He describes the fear of pruning so well and what a space in the centre of London

  • Really enjoyed reading this , very , informative article. I have been to the Garden Museum a couple of years ago,for a talk by Sarah Raven, but gather its all been refurbished, so worth another visit.

  • Have just been led on a City of London Gardens Walk with Louise Allen who worked for the Corporation for 5 years and it is just wonderful to see how municipal planting has changed and how lucky we are in London to be witness to these great new or re-thought pocket treasures such as Potters Field Park, St Dunstan in the east and the Barbican estate. Long may we enjoy yours and the many others fine works.

  • Very interesting. Such a great job!
    We all need time in nature, and green lungs in cities are vital.

  • Can’t wait to read more.

  • Enchanting to be given a brief glimpse into this hidden garden . Thank you. you. Plan to visit the Garden museum next week..Aideen

  • What a stimulating and inspirational article! I’ve been wanting to work as an assistant Gardener for some time, but I’ve never been brace enough to try. Now I’m fifty and working for working full time, my 3 acre plot near York is my haven. I’m going to try and create a flower farm and your article has made me re think my job and life in general. Being in touch with nature, being creative and having confidence… I will take these messages forward.

  • Such a great article …as a gardener myself I love learning ans seeing other folks ideas and projects ….more please !

  • Loved the article about the Lambeth Palace Garden. Gardens must be preserved for beauty and open spaces particularly preserving trees and shrubs to absorb carbon dioxide. RHS Wisley are going to have a battle with keeping some of their gardens and trees because of proposed A3 widening.
    Well done Toast for publishing this article. We need Lovely gardens to keep our minds sane!

  • Saska Fitzgerald

    How interesting..to learn about secret places..gardens so loved and cared for.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • What a lovely article, most unexpected. Very enjoyable.

  • Sue Butterworth

    I loved this article on headgardeners in particular but I always enjoy reading about unusual aspects that you flag up or books you recommend.

  • Carolyn Thomson

    What a wonderful, inspiring piece – how important to document and photograph such special people.
    I am in awe.