Ever since Keith Weed, former chief marketing and communications officer at the global brand Unilever, returned from Paris in 1997 to live in Surrey, he has been a regular visitor to RHS Garden at Wisley. Today he lives just seven miles away, in a 16th-century farmhouse on Ranmore Common, and his trips to Wisley have a more pressing purpose than filling the car boot with choice plants or peat-free compost, for Keith is now president of the world’s most famous gardening charity.
Keith describes himself as “an enthusiastic, rolled-up-sleeves gardener” with a passion for growing fruit and vegetables. This passion was ignited in childhood in the family garden on the Wirral. His mother, a domestic science teacher, taught him to cook and by the age of ten he was growing the veg for the table. As a student he grew herbs on windowsills and he graduated to veg plots once he acquired his first garden. In the 12-acre garden he now shares with his wife Kate, he’s most likely to be found in the walled garden, where he raises an impressive variety of crops, including grapes that usually provide them with 30 bottles of wine a year. They’ve also established a six-acre wildflower meadow, which has settled into a rewarding mix of selfheal, vetch, ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and more. It’s where his three adult children disappear for a restorative stroll as soon as they return home and it’s also where he has sited a massive stone-balancing sculpture by Adrian Gray (see right), which he bought at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in, he admits, “a moment of madness”.
Keith’s business career, one guesses, has had few moments of madness. When he joined Unilever there was, as in most big companies, a separate department that drew up the brand’s sustainability policy. He changed all that, integrating sustainability across all parts of the business, which was a huge challenge to some of the departments but led, in time, to the company substantially reducing its environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact while still achieving economic growth. This innovative and collaborative approach was the subject of Keith’s TED Institute’s talk in 2014, and is, no doubt, one of the reasons the RHS was delighted when he accepted their invitation to become president.
Was he surprised to be asked? “I must admit I was. Up until now, presidents have all come from within the RHS but I think what the RHS decided is that it was a good opportunity to bring a new perspective, and hopefully I can do that.” He is also the first president, it seems, with a Twitter following of more than 32,000. The appointment has come at a turning point in Keith’s career. In 2019, as he was approaching 60, he decided to retire from Unilever. “I wanted to do a portfolio of roles, half of which would be businesses and half charities and not-for-profits. I didn’t want to be one of those people who end up on boards talking about the good old days. I wanted to remain relevant.”
Through his research work at Unilever he is acutely aware of the immediacy of climate change, loss of biodiversity of flora and fauna, and our misuse of the earth’s resources. “The RHS can be a thought leader in how to garden more sustainably. For me that is really understanding the breadth of the impact, positive and negative, that gardening has, and working out ways to address that. I don’t for a second imagine we can wave a magic wand and the challenges will be solved tomorrow but what we can do is understand the footprint we have and then make plans, with ambitious targets and working with a cross section of people across the industry, to address that.”
Keith sees Wisley’s new science building as a vital resource. “I think gardening is both magic and logic. The magic of creativity that produces that sensory explosion from things you see and smell and touch; and the logic around the science of gardening, whether it be soil type or understanding the changing seasons. The science side is going to become more important if we’re going to garden for not just this generation but for generations to come. I think we have a huge opportunity to engage a younger generation in gardening. Generations X and Z are much more environmentally aware than the generations before them, and are more motivated to act on it.”
And here, it seems, Keith is also speaking from personal experience as his son George, having been furloughed last year from his job in sports events, spent several months gardening in his parents’ and friends’ gardens. Keith’s face lights up as he tells me that George has now decided to change career. “It’s been a really exciting journey watching him reinvent himself as a gardener.”
The RHS Hilltop, Home of Gardening Science Centre, The Wellbeing Garden, The World Food Garden and The Wildlife Garden are due to open at RHS Garden Wisley in June. rhs.org.uk/gardens/wisley