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Cornucopia - The life of a professional gardener

The life of a professional gardener
Penny Ivill

My friend Sandra and I have been working as ‘professional’ gardeners for some 7 years now. The first seeds of the idea came after an autumn walk round the Japanese garden at Tatton Park on a cold wintery day. I’d just completed a design course at the Welsh College of Horticulture at Northop and her garden had been my college project, measuring and drawing up the whole plot, then doing a detailed planting plan for one border in particular. Have to say, it’s been great to see my suggestions come to fruition – a native hedge, now some 6 ft high and needing regular cutting to keep its shape, looks great and will hopefully be there for many years to come, providing shelter from the winds and food and habitat for loads of wildlife. The beech hedge on stilts is also filling out and looking very architectural, with snowdrops planted underneath its leafy top knot.

Before you say, oh no not another person who thinks they can design gardens after doing a college course, I have to reinforce that I have always gardened and come from a family of keen gardeners. My dad was a great veg grower, slowing down now due to age and creaky joints. My gran was into flower arranging, growing foliage plants and the like, but also with a love of growing African violets on the windowsill. Any leaf which broke off was put in a pot of compost and we waited for the little plantlets to appear around the leaf base, ready to be potted on. I had my own small plot at home from an early age. Not sure I grew very much in it, but mud pie making with my brother and cousin showed I had no fear of getting my hands dirty or playing with worms - and still don’t. I loved plants so much, I even went on to spend six years studying them at University! And I’m still learning to this day. Plants will always surprise you, thriving in places where the books say they shouldn’t and vice versa. There are always new plants coming out which we all have to try. Some work, others don’t, but that’s half the fun isn’t it?

Anyway, our gardening venture started after friends had had their garden re-landscaped. They asked if we could give them any help with planting ideas, so we bravely suggested we’d come and do it for them. They were more than happy to agree and we haven’t looked back since. We still return a couple of times a year and it’s great to see how the plants have grown and developed. The soil is hideous clay, not helped by the landscapers’ trucks and diggers which had compacted it further, but still things have grown and flourished. The cold winds have put paid to the acers however and the lawn (not laid by us) is a meadow of buttercups, with the odd grass blade thrown in for good measure. Plants that have done well include Pyrus salicifolia, good old weigelias and spiraeas, Betula jacquemontii, Cercis 'Forest Pansy' (looks fabulous on a corner under planted with dark pink Dicentra) and even the two fuchsias 'Riccartonii' and 'Hawkshead' have grown huge, despite the claggy old soil. On the other hand, neither the hydrangeas nor the rose bed the client was so keen to have, have done very well. Our most favourite combination was a low lavender hedge with Verbena bonariensis growing through and a clematis 'Comtesse de Bouchaud' overhead. It all looked beautiful (client’s words not ours), but sadly is no more, having given way to a house extension several years ago. The garden continues to evolve and develop however and we hope will do so for many years to come.

Since that first project, work has grown steadily, principally from recommendation and word of mouth. We also have a small advert in our local parish magazine. We are very fortunate in that we maintain most of our gardens on a regular monthly basis, with free days being filled with one-off projects and extra jobs here and there. Our ‘older’ ladies whose lawns we mow every other week are all lovely and several say they wouldn’t be able to stay in their houses without the outside help they receive from us and other people who come in to help. Although they sometimes give us a list of jobs that need doing, they all trust us enough to let us get on with our work, which is a great compliment. One gentleman once said “we should do exactly what we would do in our own gardens” - great trust indeed!

Some of our clients are knowledgeable about plants, others are not, but all care enough to want them to look neat and tidy and to be looked after by gardeners who know what they’re doing. I think being women gardeners has its advantages, in that people have an innate trust and confidence in us. They can see that we love what we do and have great pride in our work. We turn up when we say we’re going to, come rain or shine and most importantly we know our plants and how to maintain and care for them. We love talking plants to anyone who’ll listen! Many say that we work harder that most men do (sorry all you male readers, no offence), but I think the male workman has a bad reputation for long tea and cigarette breaks, whereas if we’re in the middle of doing something, we’ll work through until it’s finished. We often take our coffee break walking round the garden making mental notes or deciding what needs doing next. Although we don’t tackle big trees, we do take down small ones and haven’t been defeated by one yet - I think you’d call it good teamwork! I have been described as the ‘accelerator’ (I can be a bit gung ho about cutting things back) and Sandra as the ‘brake’ (she tends to be much more cautious than I am), so between us, we get it right.

We do have lunch in some odd places though. One of the most memorable must be barricading ourselves into a little outhouse to keep the farmer’s four dogs from eating our lunch for us - we did laugh that day. Other exciting locations have included a variety of roadside lay-bys, sitting on a trampoline (again to avoid the doggy gazes), sitting on a pile of hay bales in a client’s barn and so on.

In the recent snowy weather, we had some wood delivered for building raised veg beds. No problem there, ground not frozen under the snow and the lorry carefully made its way down the drive. However, the driver’s immortal words as he got out of the van “I hope I can make it back up the drive again” should have rung alarm bells in our head. Having unloaded, he got about a third of the way back up the gently sloping drive, until the wheels started to spin and he was going nowhere. We managed to push it halfway up the drive, but there we all ground to a halt. At this point, the neighbour came out and offered us donkey manure and straw to give the wheels traction, still to no avail. In the end, we called a local farmer friend, who kindly sent a tractor over to pull the lorry up the drive – took about five seconds flat, great stuff!

So, the life of a gardener is many and varied. It can be freezing cold in the winter, with fingers and toes so cold you almost want to cry at times. But then there’s the sight of snowdrops and hellebores, offering encouragement for the coming gardening year. Then the crocuses, daffs and tulips to lift the spirits, before the full onslaught of May, June and July, when the days aren’t long enough to get everything done. Then as things gradually slow down, comes the mad leafing season, keeping us warm and burning up the calories through most of the late autumn and early winter - why do oak trees seem to hang onto their leaves for such a long time, still dangling there through to January? Then the January bonfires, with jacket spuds and baked beans as a treat for lunch. We get asked the same questions and often do the same jobs each year and yet no two years are ever the same.

First published in the Cheshire & Friends Group Newsletter, Spring 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Penny Ivill

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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