Martin Gee is a rare specimen. There can be no other gardener with such a pedigree. Since 1803, his ancestors have all worked at Weston Park in Shropshire. Martin’s own role there goes back a staggering half-century: he joined the gardening team at the tender age of 15 and – now 65 – shows no signs of retiring.
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
As head gardener Martin looks after the vast 70-acre garden, which incorporates ‘Capability’ Brown pleasure grounds, mixed borders, rose gardens, formal terraces and parterres, and a large walled garden. “I was born on the estate in my grandfather’s house; he was head gamekeeper. My parents lived in the local village – that’s where I grew up.” Six generations of Gee men have worked at Weston, starting with ploughman John Gee, who is immortalised in a painting by Thomas Weaver (1774–1843) that hangs in the main house. Later generations were gamekeepers and gardeners. Like his grandfather, Martin lives with his family on the estate in one of a scattering of ancient and picturesque dwellings.
When Martin was a young lad, his father – who started as a gardener and then moved into agriculture – gave him a small plot “the size of a table”. “I grew lettuces, radishes, that kind of thing. Then in my last year at school I worked in the walled garden in the summer holidays. That’s when my passion really took hold.”
Martin briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a fireman, but quickly went off the idea. “If I’d been a fireman, I’d be retired by now,” he admits, without an ounce of regret in his voice. “The thing with gardening is that when you’ve finished a job you can see what you’ve done.” Every gardener knows how good that feels. And then there is the constant discovery and learning. “Every day is a school day, I always say. Things keeps changing.”
When he first started here, he went round each department. “The first year I worked in the formal gardens. Then I moved into the walled garden. I then did 12 months in the glasshouses.” It was a proper apprenticeship, complemented by two years at the local horticultural college. Martin took over the management of the walled garden in 1978 and became head gardener in 1991.
Whereas his father and grandfather were obsessed with dahlias, Martin confesses to having no overriding passion. He is a generalist, which has served him well in this varied garden. His calm, friendly and down-to-earth demeanour has no doubt helped too. As he says, “you have to juggle plates all the time”.
Over the past 25 years, the plates have been turning apace, as the garden has been undergoing extensive restoration. The orangery was first in line: its box parterre, delineated by different shades of gravel, is a vision of simplicity and refinement. Below the formal terraces, a long border has been replanted with a mix of shrubs and perennials for year-round interest. Facing it is an exquisite rose garden, recently brought back to life with the help of rosarian Michael Marriott.
Weston boasts two ‘Capability’ Brown pleasure grounds. Temple Wood, complete with temple, bridge, pool and cascade, was restored for the landscape gardener’s tercentenary in 2016. Martin is now turning his attention to Shrewsbury Wood, which is being cleared of many of its rhododendrons. “There are two questions I always ask when looking at a new project: is it achievable and is it manageable?” he says. “If you can’t manage it afterwards, what’s the point in doing it?” If a design is too complicated, he finds a way to simplify it.
Progress is also being made in the four-and-a-half-acre walled garden, a quarter of which is being turned back to vegetable production. The area is also home to an orchard, planted with heritage and local varieties of apples, pears and damsons. Slowly it is returning to its original purpose of providing fruit and vegetables for the house; it now also supplies Weston Park’s public café and restaurant.
Of course, there will come a day when Martin has to pass on the baton. This time, however, it won’t go to a member of his family. His only daughter Felicity has no interest in gardening and enjoys a successful career in textiles. “Live your dream is what I say,” he smiles.
For now, Martin is still very much living his dream and enjoying the fruits of his labours. When the time comes to retire, it will no doubt be a wrench. His family has lived in the same estate house for almost 40 years. Gardening is his job but also his hobby and he confesses that his own garden “doesn’t quite get the attention it should do”. Maybe he will spend his retirement creating a new garden. “I’ve no real plans. Someone said I could always come back to Weston as a volunteer.” From the look on his face, it’s unlikely to happen. Once a head gardener, always a head gardener.
Useful information Weston Park, Weston-under-Lizard, Shifnal, Shropshire TF11 8LE. Tel 01952 852100, weston-park.com Martin leads seasonal walks of the garden and wider estate, see website for details, and special tours for groups can be pre-booked by contacting email@example.com