their work, and an intelligence, diligence and eye for detail that is humbling to a slipshod amateur gardener like me. And there all resemblance ends, for their understanding of who they are and what they are for could scarcely be more different: today’s head gardener may be variously a project manager, conservationist, artist, historian, plantsman, educator, scientific investigator, social worker, public relations supremo, events planner and businessman. Or any combination of the above. And somehow they find time to grow things, too . . .
So how is it that the role of head gardener is not more widely celebrated? These days it is the garden designers who rule the horticultural roost – no mere gardener can command anything like the attention or remuneration. Indeed, the practice of gardening is widely dismissed as a career for the intellectually challenged, or at best a safe haven for the dyslexic, dyspraxic, emotionally fragile or lacking in aspiration. This is curious, because every successful garden requires at least three distinct and highly developed skills. First comes the organization of the space – the cardinal skill of the garden designer. Yet if we look back into history, the greatest masters of this art, in very different idioms, were first head gardeners. In seventeenth-century France, André Le Nôtre, head gardener to Louis XIV, raised the manipulation of geometry and optics in the formal garden into the supreme expression of wealth and political power. On this side of the Channel, the landscape parks of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who developed his craft as head gardener at Stowe, came to define some essential quality of Englishness, and to shape what we now think of as natural beauty. No small achievements for ‘mere’ gardeners.
Next comes plantsmanship – furnishing and enriching the designed space with appropriate planting, a skill that requires both visual artistry and technical knowledge. And this morphs into the craft of gardening, without which no garden can survive. The first two skills perish without the third – it is the skilled technician who brings the designer’s vision to fruition, who makes it sing, and then refines and adapts it over months and years. To do this requires forethought, judgement, responsiveness – what garden writer Stephen Switzer, as long ago as 1727, characterized as ‘labour of the brain’. 2
We live in an age that values labour of the brain more highly than labour of the hand. Yet in the case of the sculptor, the painter, the concert pianist or the master chef, we acknowledge that the two are indivisible, that artistry and manual skill go quite literally hand in hand. In what way is it different for a gardener? If we can revere an Anthony Caro or a David Hockney or a Heston
2 The Practical Kitchen Gardiner, 1727. Quoted by Martin Hoyles, Bread and Roses, Pluto Press, 1995, 115.
10 HEAD GARDENERS