by Ambra Edwards
photographs by Charlie Hopkinson
I’ve always been jealous of head gardeners, while also being relieved I don’t have their job; even if they’ve clinched their position on the basis of their horticultural skill, they are likely to end up mired in a portfolio of roles from project manager, to events co-ordinator and PR guru.
In her new book, multi-award-winning writer Ambra Edwards has profiled 14 head gardeners across Britain, managing places as distinct as cloistered Oxford colleges to the heavily trampled lawns of hallowed public gardens. What unites them is their vigour and vision for the task, even though most spend more time managing staff and budgets than getting their hands dirty, a fact that many lament. Some are well known – such as Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter and Troy Scott Smith at Sissinghurst – but Edwards is so skilled at unearthing the often conflicting passions of her subjects you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation, illuminating person and place.
I enjoyed getting acquainted with less well-known figures, such as Paul Pulford (of the rooftop garden at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London), whose gardening career was undoubtedly the making of him, and Swiss-born Beatrice Krehl (formerly of Waltham Place in Berkshire), who regards British gardening as barbaric, urging us to ‘garden like a cow’ (you’ll have to read the book to find out what this means, but it’s changed my approach to weeding).
Charlie Hopkinson’s eloquent photographs capture the essence of their subjects, not in a public-facing pose, but in a detail of their working day, such as a flapping jacket or muddy boot. The book is also a covert plea for investment in gardeners at all levels, because if we’re to maintain the gardens we value, we need to value those who maintain them.
Pimpernel Press, £35