A Gardener; to be or not to be?

Hello and welcome to my Gardening Ways blog, where this time I shine a light on being a gardener, a life in horticulture if you will. I’ve not written for a while, so without wanting to shower you with excuses, I’ll simply say that I’m here now, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of putting this post together, and that for someone, I hope it proves useful.

You might be familiar with the situation where you find a subject intriguing, so you read up to learn a little more about it, maybe through some magazines or via websites. Then, after your interest is piqued, you move to immerse yourself in the topic in order to fill up your knowledge bank. But somewhere along the way, when you’re feeling like you pretty much have it in the bag, you realise there’s an awful lot more to know. You might then feel as though regardless of how much you now try to absorb, you just can’t learn enough, there might even be bouts of imposter syndrome.

Horticulture, for me, has been like this. For anyone though, it might be an instantaneous fascination of a single plant or flower, or maybe a new responsibility of caring for a garden space. Whatever it is, if you are drawn into the world of plants, gardens and horticulture, be prepared for a subject that will both embrace you and unfold before you. Furthermore, should your interest nudge you to consider horticulture as a career, be aware that it’s as deep and broad a subject as any other, and if you stay the course it can offer a lifetime of learning, discovery and fulfilment.

I will say however, that those who do choose horticulture as a career path will not necessarily have an easy journey. Metaphorically speaking, there will be locked garden gates along the way, many doubters of your ability and worth, and sphinxes will sit besides the path posing challenging riddles for you to solve. Some of those gates will swing open and riddles will be solved, but as with all journeys there will be new distractions and opportunities as we progress. In short, I’m saying be prepared for a bumpy wheelbarrow ride!

A bright yellow Rudbeckia flower by Gary Webb ©

As with many other trades I’m sure, a working life in horticulture means that you will meet and learn from many inspiring individuals, and I think this is of prime importance for anyone’s journey. Key characters from my past, even from years ago stay fresh in my mind. I can sit here now and be transported to points where one fascinating person or another stood in a garden, waxing lyrical about the place and its qualities, or about a plant and its history, medicinal use or some other revealing aspect.

In my mind I can step back in time and stand before wise figures from the horticultural world, some indeed who have long since departed. They inspired me back then, and I was fully aware of it. Interestingly though, those people inspire me now, each person’s wisdom, calmness, excitable or focused character still today, feeding my spirit. Even those who miss named plants, or followed horticultural practices I might have considered out-of-date; still taught me lessons.

As you journey, many characters specifically sent for you will offer similar lessons. Whether it’s Monty Don delivering his Friday night tips for seed sowing, a teacher unraveling botanical science, or a guiding figure who sowed sunflower seeds with you as a child; almost every one of them will have a part to play in helping you reach your green ideals.

However we journey and whoever we encounter, our experiences will stick with us. Horticulture and gardening can embrace us, push us, carry and care for us too; plants putting food in our bellies, ointment on our skin, clothes on our backs and shelter over our heads. I won’t even get started on the wellbeing aspect of horticulture!

Personally, I approached this post having trodden, crunched, stomped, laboured and slipped my way along a good few garden, woodland and parkland paths. I feel I’ve served my time on finger-numbing brush-cutters, chipped teeth on wayward tree limbs, fallen out of shrubs, scrubbed too many spark plugs, and latterly have stared into the depths of far too many spreadsheets. However, I’ve also witnessed the most heart lifting sun rises and sets, and have held my breath when wildlife came close. I’ve worked in some of the most awe inspiring spaces, and I don’t know where to start when considering the plants (friends) I’ve met and brought into the world.

There is however much more for me yet, as when I cast my mind back to all the incredible places I’ve been and the wisdom filled people I’ve encountered, I still have a desire to experience more. I wouldn’t change most of what’s happened, but I do want to influence what is ahead; because there are so many wonderful plants, gardens, landscapes and people out there. I can only hope I have enough time left!

Naturally, it’s not all about taking risks as it might read above, but it is about considering, carefully, your route. Think about where or what you want to be doing further down the line, and if it’s hard to picture that, get yourself out to places for consideration. Sit on a garden bench and ask yourself if the place has, or could, hold enough diversity to keep your interest. Invite yourself or volunteer at a nursery to see if production horticulture could be your thing, or even try a short distance course to learn the ropes.

If you’re starting out or considering a career in horticulture, then I hope to have said a few words here that will be of use. I’d like to finish by saying the following about my own world of horticulture, give you my view of gardening if you’ll allow:

Do not in the least be put off by that breadth or depth I mention above, but be inspired by the diversity of options and the many layers. Explore as many paths as you can, as early as you can, be inquisitive and ask lots of questions. Consider specialising in particular plants or techniques yes, or being a generalist; and having complete confidence in that. But please don’t ever expect to know it all; just be prepared to learn a good deal, over a good deal of time, and keep an open, broad, mind.

Remember that it’s brilliant and inspirational to be someone who holds encyclopaedic knowledge, but it’s also ok not to know a plant name, not to know when to prune a particular shrub, or not to have visited that world famous garden.

Horticulture is so vast a subject and full of opportunity that it is enough to simply keep plodding and to hold a steady job, as it is to keep venturing; just remember that both routes can be enjoyed all the more if you retain an appetite for learning and discovery, and you stay prepared for change and adaptation.

To be, or not to be a gardener, the choice is yours!

Many thanks for reading to the end, if it’s triggered any questions, I’d be very happy to answer in the comments section, or you can message me on Twitter or Instagram.

Kind regards, Gary, Gardening Ways

Within and Beyond Compton Verney.

As I write this the final days of my employment for Compton Verney are diminishing, and anyone who knows me will understand how difficult it will be to walk away. Nevertheless, I know that time has come for change, and to move on, literally, to pastures new.

The classic Compton Verney view, by Gary Webb.
That classic Compton Verney view. ©️Gary Webb

A lengthy notice period has meant that I’ve found myself stuck in limbo, which has given much time, possibly too much time, for contemplation. My head’s been full of thoughts and concerns, partly about challenges that are ahead in my new role, but also about the place I will leave behind, a place that has literally been my baby for nearly ten years now. Mentally, it’s a very weird place to be…

Winter aconites at Compton Verney .
January winter aconites at Compton Verney. ©️Gary Webb

You see, I have spent recent years managing, tending, developing and nurturing the historic landscape garden that is Compton Verney, on behalf of a charitable trust. The area I’ve looked out for is a garden that rests in the subtlest of valleys, with a meandering pool system threaded and widened at its very heart. If you ever sensed a place with spirit, then you’ll know what I mean; Compton Verney is not left wanting when it comes to spirit of place.

Some landscape views thoughtfully created in the eighteenth century have survived the test of time. Those views, especially from the central mansion or bridge capture slices of farmland and look, to all intents and purposes perfectly natural. However, every hollow and mound, all the woodland groups and all the key views have been designed and manipulated by people. From the most recent light-touch planting and habitat creation projects, right back through the classical Georgian era, and still farther back through the Medieval period; the ground has been worked and worked again. Compton Verney simply exudes history and character, even the mansion stonework displays fossilised remains!

An 18thC mansion at Compton Verney
Lime shadows on the 18thC mansion at Compton Verney. ©️Gary Webb

There’s an enchanting woodland garden with a handful of sheltered and calm spaces, that play host to a mixed age collection of native and exotic trees – some over 400 years old, and each having their own hidden history. Layered around are shrubberies, flowing lawns and established large-scale wild flower meadows, with close-mown paths weaving within and beyond. As if this were not enough, the whole venue has also become a local wildlife site of significance.

It is, as you may have deduced, one heck of an area to look out for. Oh, did I mention Compton Verney’s present landscape is the handiwork of one Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown? I might have spoken about him once or twice over the years…

When I describe my present place I always see it from high above, whilst looking down across its key character areas. Down on the ground however, I have come to know the site so intimately, and there aren’t many square metres where I haven’t trod, studied, considered, fixed up, planted, photographed or, on occasion, had strong words with. One area even hides my wedding ring that was lost during a restoration project – a discovery for future archaeologists I think!

Buxus clipping at Compton Verney. ©️Gary Webb

If you haven’t collected the thread by now, it is that Compton Verney, an incredibly atmospheric and beautiful place has gripped me, and I wanted to register this fact for posterity. I would say that I’m very aware it is not a Waddesdon, Kew Gardens, Chatsworth or otherwise, and it doesn’t pretend to be Wisley or Hampton Court; it is Compton Verney, a place that is individual, singular and uniquely brilliant.

I’m endeavouring, I guess, to record the Compton Verney that I know and respect. Regardless of whatever job title I’ve had pinned to my shirt, I’ve fundamentally acted as a custodian, an overseer or curator, and as anyone who cares for an historic venue is likely to tell you – it is this that matters most, and can sometimes weigh the heaviest. For me, it has always been about protecting and caring for the fabric of the landscape, and about pulling it back to something of its former splendour.

Morning sun through the grove at Compton Verney. ©️Gary Webb

From the very first moment I stepped foot onto Compton Verney ground, I knew I could make a positive horticultural difference. What I didn’t bargain for was the journey it would take me on, the challenges or pain it would throw my way, or to what degree the place would embrace and hold my imagination. Like many historic landscape gardens, whilst its original design has suffered the inevitable passage of time, its atmosphere and presence remains ever-present, and has continued to grow and improve with every year of input.

Remembering that passage of time, and the changing use of the place itself, it may be interesting to note that even with the present trust ownership model; the ‘fabric’ of the landscape that I have looked out for has remained much the same as it has for centuries. In this context, and with full respect for the role I’ve been employed to carry out for almost a decade; you can hopefully see why, as one of a very long line of gardeners, I have always felt a strong commitment to do what felt right for the landscape itself.

March of the imagination at Compton Verney
March of the Imagination 2018 at Compton Verney. ©️Gary Webb

During my contribution there have been many misty morning starts, with intimate views across that we’ll known mirror-pool lake view. There have also been dead of night walks beneath star speckled skies, whilst discovering bats and ‘butterflies of the night’. Countless projects have brought me to my knees on parched or damp earth, with many a planting pocket forced into the ground with an iron bar and back aching digging session. Other, rarer projects have given opportunities like walking beside the historic roof tiles of Brown’s chapel, to look down, bird-like over that flowing, beautiful, naturalistic landscape.

Some days have filled me with anger at the loss of a branch off a special tree, and some have set my mind wandering about the futures each freshly planted tree would witness. Frozen fingers have been warmed by the exhaust pipe of the ever suffering tractor, after hours of snow clearing yet conversely, gushing cold water has often flowed from hosepipes to cool a sun-baked head. I could fondly continue…

Naturally I can always re-visit, and I will, but before long all I shall have are images and memories to remind me of my seemingly long but all-too-short time at Compton Verney. Though I write of my personal experiences, I must importantly take time to thank a wonderful team, some of whom journeyed beside me and contributed to those landscape triumphs over the last few years.

Through our combined efforts, newly established wild flowers have fed, & will continue to nourish bees and butterflies. Beetles and rare fungi have flourished on the tons of dead wood we’ve hidden away and the stump-wood we have retained. Bats have continued to thrive in tree hollows we’ve ‘not’ pruned away, and new trees will cast valuable shade for decades, even centuries to come.

Sunset at Compton Verney
CV sunset. ©️Gary Webb

Revitalised open spaces will capture and restore peoples’ senses, a variety of planting will blossom to lift spirits, and new eye-catchers will challenge ideas of art and landscape. To all of you; you did a great job, and I couldn’t have done it without you.

I may not have been the best organiser or record-keeper, I never did promise to keep a tidy desk, and that dreaded flu might have taken me down a few times, but I feel that I’ve done my bit for the landscape and I’m proud of how it looks and of how we’ve executed our tasks along the way with humour.

So here we are, nearly at the end. ‘My baby’, as I mentioned at the top of this article will soon be my baby no longer. I’m happy though to see that it has grown some and will continue to mature. I look forward to seeing its progress in years to come, and to supporting if I can, and I will rest assured that whilst soon I will not be there in person every day, I’ll be there in spirit. My inputs were thoughtful, considered, and at all times with the best of intention.

Compton Verney historic landscape and garden: Veni, vidi, vici

(Or more appropriately: I came, I saw, I gardened!)

Gary Webb. Oct 2019.