Friday, 19 March 2010

Why Do We Do It? My Story.......

What makes any of us become gardeners? Is it the vast amounts of money......certainly not! The sociable working hours?......hmmm!! It certainly can't be about the continued success stories to do with everything we attempt to grow or nurture. I suppose we as gardeners each have our own 'thing' that got us here and what we take from it. Maybe by the end of this I may be closer to the reason.

I was never going to be a gardener. My academic life, such as it was, had me following subjects such as Maths, Chemistry and Physics. My exam results in these areas were predicted to be good enough for me to follow some sort of laboratory work as a career, and to this end I had contacted BDH, a large chemical firm that had a base in Poole, and secured a job with further education and training attached.

The exam results proved to be as predicted and so everything was lined up for September of that year....hmm, but thats a few months away and I need some summer money to spend and so 'what to do?' My sister worked in the Bournemouth Town Hall as PA to the head of the Parks Department, and so was able to secure some summer work for me. This started at first to be simply sweeping paths etc, but moved on to large scale roadside shrub trimming and then finally to weedkilling, which involved driving around in a very strange looking vehicle with a large tank on it's back. Weedkiller aside....I was being paid to work outside, fresh air, sunshine, good conversation whilst you work.....I guess that I was hooked in some way as come September when this work ended, instead of going to BDH, I headed to the local jobcentre to secure further gardening work of some kind.

The next job came in the form of a small family run business that does exactly the same sort of work that I do now, maintaining the grounds of large properties and blocks of flats. I spent the next six and a half years here and found the life simply the best that someone could wish for. Most places were, as now, along the coast and so on long and hot summers days, lunchtime would be spent with us all jumping off the ride on mowers and heading straight into the sea for a swim, until it was time to once again get back on the mowers, still in our wet shorts....superb! It was during some of these swims that I taught my boss 'S' to swim.Winter lunchtimes would see us all playing frisbee golf along the coast or in various parks.

This family taught me a lot about the basics of gardening and the work involved, but I needed to know more and have some sort of challenge involved, and so it was, that during one lunchtime whilst we were parked up near to Compton Acres Gardens, I took the decision to just pop in quickly and see what this place was all about.

I walked into a private area where there were a couple of gardener's lodges and some beautiful greenhouses, and it was in one of these greenhouses that I found a group of gardeners having their lunch break, sat on old car seats propped against the heating pipes for warmth. They were all younger than me by a few years and first impressions were that they were somewhat 'hippie' like. Heavy perfume of numerous plants and flowers, the sweet smell of dampness where the greenhouses had been waterered, and birdsong all around. The atmosphere was intoxicating. 'Excuse me. Can you tell me where the head gardener is please?' I said, and a couple of them pointed to one of the lodges. Upon knocking on the door I was met by a rather slight but very stern man who invited me in for a chat and a half hour later I walked out with the joy of a job there in two all I had to do was hand in my notice to the other company, not something I relished doing as I had grown very fond of them as a family.

It was during March that I started my first day at The Gardens, and I was full of trepidation having never entered such a place before on the work floor so to speak. My first job was freshening up the rose beds in The Italian Garden along with three other gardeners and it was while doing this that I made my first friends there. Altogether, there was a team of eight, some with the task of managing their own gardens, some of the others as support to them, and a couple in the greenhouses. I was very lucky indeed to spend most of my time here before any of the existing development started. There was the big house where the owners lived, fronted by The English Garden, and overlooking the viewpoint over Poole Harbour. In the summer, the two immaculate croquet lawns of this garden were edged by a large border of Rosa Prima Ballerina and Echeveria, whilst the whole of the house walls were covered in Boston Ivy.

There were five gardener's lodges in all, four of them were occupied, but the fifth one, North Lodge on the main entrance, remained unused and was occupied by thousands of wooden seed trays and other assorted gardening paraphernalia. It was this lodge that four months later I was to be offered as my own.

Compton Acres Gardens was an incredibly steep learning curve for me. I learned very quickly indeed numerous pruning techniques, types and methods of fertiliser use, pond and waterway care and construction, the care of koi carp and other fish, plant pests, diseases and so many other things too numerous to mention.

About six months in and I was given sole responsibility and care of The Italian Garden, Roman Garden, Herbaceous Borders, Palm Court, and the cafe area, a frightening prospect indeed, but the challenge that I had been looking for. There were 1600 roses in the Italian Garden alone, and it was now my task to prune them all twice a year, spray for pests and disease, and feed. If you didn't perform, you were fired.

The grass was a constant source of frustration, needing such special care to maintain it to billiard table effect, not so easily achieved on smaller lawns cut into curves and with flower beds dotted along, but achieved nonetheless and apart from the countless ignorant people who kept insisting on stepping directly on the edges and breaking them down, most people would have to touch the grass simply not believing that it was actually real grass!

Although everyone took their work incredibly seriously, there were many fun, and sometimes unusual times. The first that springs to mind were when there would be hard winters with heavy snowfall. The Italian Garden pond would freeze over so hard that for a couple of months the gardeners could take a short cut across it with their heavy wheelbarrows. On occasions when we weren't sledging on the golf course next door, we would split into two teams, one in the hedge tops of The Italian Garden and the other below, and have massive snowball fights.

On the last days 'work' before breaking up for Christmas, the head gardener would have us gather in the Ice Cream Parlour where he would turn up a few minutes later with a bottle of his own whiskey for us all to have a tot. Unfortunately, on one occasion he was unaware of the fact that one gardener had turned up already having started his own celebrations some time earlier and was so much the worse for wear that we carried him quickly to the Heather Dell and dumped him in some bushes to sleep it off in case he was discovered, or we would all have been disciplined. The story told to the head gardener was that he had suddenly felt extremely poorly and he had left for home but he couldn't find anyone in authority to tell.....Phew!!

Although 95% of my time was spent maintaining my own gardens, a lot of time was also spent working in all the others, mostly when staff were on holiday or during winter when everyone would work together on various projects. Nowadays, because of environmental worries, bonfires are not allowed in the area, but back then Compton Acres became well known for fierce fires that would be kept going for a couple of months as there was so much that had to be cut back and felled annually. The fires would have to be manned at all times for obvious reasons and so we took it in turns to keep watch and handle the rubbish as it came down into the dell for burning. One form of entertainment that whiled away the time was to fix an old cast iron drainpipe upright and into the centre of the fire, wait until it was red hot, and then drop a spent hairspray canister down it. Stand well back, preferably behind a tree, and wait for the cannon to go off. There would be an almighty boom that echoed around the neighbourhood, followed by an atomic mushroom of flame and smoke that rose out of the tops of the Scots Pines,

How Health & Safety would love this nowadays eh?......still, we were all quite young and the head gardener spent most of his winter in the greenhouse perusing plant catalogues and planning. He seemed to turn a blind eye to most of this provided the work was still done.......and boy was it!

It's funny how what was going to be a quick entry has expanded so much. I think that if there is a thirst for me to continue the tale then I shall carry on in a day or two.........until then...........TTFN


  1. Dear Gary, What a fascinating insight into your professional career. Contrary to what you may think, I am a great believer that one learns best of all, and especially about gardening, by hands on experience. It is only through working with plants and the soil and weather conditions that one really masters the subject. You very clearly have. What I like too about this account of your early life is the slight deprecating tone, the humour and, of course, the danger. Oh to have taken part in the drainpipe/bonfire explosions.

    I shall very much look forward to hearing the next instalment in due course - the only downside of all of this is that I do not get to see what you are having for supper!

  2. Hi Edith,
    It has been great fun to tell just a small part of the story. It's quite surprising how much springs to mind when one starts to reminisce about events gone by. So much more to tell.....and Sunday lunch is on the way...on Sunday :-)

  3. Good Lord! The hairspray cannons must have been impressively terrifying.

  4. Hi Lisa and Robb,
    It was great fun! We were serious gardeners!

  5. I enjoyed your story Gary. You're so lucky that you understood what kind of career you wanted early on. I wish I had done the same! (At least I get to play outside now.) I look forward to the rest of your story.

  6. Hi Jean,
    Thanks for your comment. Having been a gardener and had the privilege of being able to work outdoors for most of my far...I think that it is vital that everybody should try to undertake some sort or level of gardening activity at whatever stage in their lives that they can. This was the case in Amandas life, as you may read when I put in my next instalment. I would have been far wealthier going down the 'lab' route, but I think ones true vocation is more important for the soul.