Strange bedfellows

Who really shapes a garden, the owner or a professional brought in to help? Michael Leapman meets three women and their hired hands hands
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THE FIRST clash between the mistress of a household and her gardener may have been the one described by Shakespeare in Richard II; but it was not on a horticultural issue. When Queen Isabella heard from her gardener that her husband the King had been captured by his enemy Bolingbroke, she exclaimed:

"Gardener, for telling me this news of woe,/I would the plants thou graft'st may never grow."

The gardener responded to this heartless taunt in the best traditions of his profession, with understanding and a self-denying absence of rancour. If it would help assuage her grief, he said, "I would my skill were subject to thy curse". He promised to sow a bank of rue, "sour herb of grace", to commemorate her sorrow.

Of all a woman's potential relationships, that with a gardener is among the most complex and delicate. Each regards the other warily and with varying degrees of respect. The best gardeners must, like accountants or therapists, convince employers that they hold the key to natural mysteries the uninitiated can never hope to penetrate. This puts them on a more rarefied plane than other home-helpers, such as cleaners.

A century ago, the typical gardener was on the staff of a big house, the post often handed down from father to son. Today, not many people can afford full-time help. Most gardeners now serve many mistresses, flitting between a portfolio of plots once a week or a fortnight, like bees gathering nectar. I spoke to three of them and their clients, to see how the subtleties of this age-old relationship work out in these modern times.


Nikki Greaves trained as a carpenter and joiner but became interested in gardening when she began working on voluntary projects on organic farms. Three years ago she met a professional gardener and they formed a partnership. I spoke to her in the bijou 50ft by 30ft garden of a semi-detached house in Tooting, south London, that belongs to Sarah Gornall, an interior designer.

Sarah explains how they found each other. "I was having lunch with a girlfriend who lived nearby and Nikki's partner was working in the garden. It turned out they were doing nearly everybody's garden in that street. I suddenly realised that all my friends who said they did their own gardens jolly well didn't."

Sarah had herself taken a year's course at a gardening school and had put a lot of time and effort into redesigning her garden. A barren space when she and her family moved into the house nine years ago, it now has deep borders filled with shrubs and climbing plants, especially roses, in carefully co-ordinated pale colours.

From the beginning, Sarah insisted that her views on horticulture and design should prevail. "I like to feel I know what I'm doing in order to delegate. If I'm not going to be here when Nikki comes, I leave copious notes."

Nikki, who with her dog Jessie visits the garden once a fortnight, has learned to reconcile this interventionism with her professional pride:

"Most clients are less specific than Sarah, but I don't mind the notes because I know what to do anyway. A nightmare owner is someone who knows a little but not much. Maybe they read something in a gardening book, brood on it and convince you to do something awful. Then they blame you when a friend comes and says it doesn't look right. There's no trust. Sarah knows enough to say what she wants and then leave me alone."

Only one kind of client upsets Nikki more than ignorant and mistrusting ones those who are patronising. "Some people are very snotty. I did a woman in Dulwich" (she almost spits out the name of the south London suburb) "and I only went once because she was so appalling. I don't regard myself as a servant, but she obviously did and she made me go round the back door. I don't see myself like that. I'm a multi-skilled person and it's bad for your confidence to be treated that way."

Sarah explains why they get on: "I have the same relationship with my own clients as Nikki does with me; I treat her the way I expect to be treated. It's about being a professional."


Andrew Killick's van, bearing his punning trade name "Growing Concern", is usually seen in the lush country lanes between Oxford and High Wycombe. When I met him he was a bit out of his territory. An old client left Oxfordshire, for a house in Windsor with a dramatic 400ft garden running down to the Thames, and asked him to maintain it. Last year Alice Smith, an American lawyer, bought the Windsor house and persuaded Andrew to continue his visits.

"I regard it as his garden as well as mine," says Alice, who works for a computer software company and travels incessantly. "He's planted it and organised it and he's agreed to stay on even though he's a 40-minute drive away. I've been here six months and this is only the second time we've met, but we talk on the phone. It's an investment, because the garden gives the house most of its value."

Andrew has been a full-time gardener, in partnership with his wife Jill, for 12 years, after a 12-year spell in industry and two years owning a pub and restaurant. He had no formal horticultural training but his grandfather was a market gardener.

"My ideal customers are either knowledgeable gardeners or those who aren't knowledgeable and let me get on with it," he says. "If they're good, when we turn up there's evidence they've been working on the garden; it gives you respect for them.

"I don't mind that sort of client telling me what they want done. What I can't live with is the know-nothing type who comes strutting out and says: 'What about doing this? Why haven't you done that?' I say 'It's the wrong time of year, madam.' It sounds cocky, but we don't need that sort of trade. Alice is a good client but doesn't do a lot."

Alice says: "Originally, when I bought the house, I thought I'd do more than I have. I came from a house in Islington, in north London, with a small garden and I did it all myself. But now I'm sometimes away for five or even 10 days at a time."

All the same, she has strong views about the kind of garden she wants, and these do not always accord entirely with Andrew's. She is especially attracted by growing her own vegetables, but these need day-to-day attention and so far she has had limited success. The potatoes seem fine but a row of sprouts has been demolished by pigeons and some yellow squashes have not come up at all.

Andrew is not convinced of the value of vegetables in a dramatic show garden such as this. He wants to grass over the vegetable plot that juts into the lawn, restricting Alice's smallholding to a strip near the fence. He is also keen to take out some plants the previous owner inserted into a circle of paving beneath a mountain ash tree. He prefers the bare stones, but Alice is unconvinced.

"How about some little Alpines?" she ventures. "That was tried before but it didn't work," Andrew responds sternly. "It gets infested with grass. A plain stone circle would be lovely."

He seems likely to get his way, but explains: "You have to respect the fact that it's their garden really. You try to convince them of the wrongness and rightness of various things, but you can't be a prima donna and just refuse to do something.

"I suppose Jill and I do feel in a way that we own all 35 of the gardens we do. If we stopped feeling it was our garden, we'd stop doing it. We take all our gardens very personally and, if anything, we have a relationship with the gardens rather than with the client. I think as Alice is here longer, we'll work together more."


David Paterson reminds me of Captain Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House, on a quest for the seventh degree of concentration. But where Shotover sought to attain it through rum, David's route is via the making and tending of gardens. He is devoted to the concept of "garden rooms", pioneered by Lawrence Johnston and Vita Sackville-West. "By dividing it up," he explains, "you create little havens for the gardener to rest and study Milton and Keats."

Rosemary Cope's 150ft garden, in a select suburb of Birmingham, provides a fine setting for putting his philosophy into practice. Amid his "rooms" are quiet bowers, ponds, rustic gates and bridges. Rosemary, a psychiatrist, discovered David when he was working for a friend nearby.

"We'd been here two years. The garden had been neglected and was in a terrible state. When I met David, I persuaded him to come and look, and I think he saw it as a challenge."

Since then, David has visited every week, covering the two miles from his home on a 1958 Raleigh bicycle. Before he became a full-time gardener 12 years ago he had worked for Birmingham Parks Department and for a while sold encyclopaedias.

"This is one of the most enjoyable gardens I work with," he says, "and it has a lot to do with the people I work for. From day one I felt trusted. If things ever go wrong, Rosemary is always philosophical about it. She knows I have to be on my own when I'm striving to create something."

You need to have confidence in your relationship if you are going to play as bold a stroke as to build a rockery while your client is on holiday. That is what David did for Rosemary and her family not long after he began work on the garden. They were delighted with the result.

"The main thing is to create mutual trust," he says. "One way is to shuffle trees around by the light of the moon and give credit to Titania and the fairies" a reference to his fondess for working in the twilight hours.

"One of the reasons why I like working for Rosemary is that she doesn't pretend to be a horticulturist, but when something is right she knows it's right. Not everyone has an intrinsic sense of good taste. I've lost count of the number of aggressive middle-class ladies who have had a bad experience with previous gardeners. With such people, a little rustic flattery isn't enough.

"We're all vain enough to want to be appreciated. I don't look for pats on the back but quiet, sustained co-operation, which one doesn't always get. The patience required of a gardener with plants is well known, but the patience a gardener exercises with clients is equally important.

"God knows, I've had to be patient sometimes. When I'm called to tend a small corner of that great garden in the sky, don't put a headstone on my grave: I want a monument." '!