Twenty Five Years By Nick Hoskins

It is very hard to believe that I have worked as a gardener for the NTS for 25 years. As the popular saying has it, where does the time go? Travelling down to Threave for my interview for the post of Instructor Gardener with Bill Hean, Principal and founder of Threave School of Gardening, I reflected on how little I knew of Threave and South West Scotland, having only just moved to Scotland from South East England. The interview with Bill was, shall we say, unconventional as it consisted of a walk round the walled garden, having a chat about my ideas of gardening and thoughts on how I might fit in and, presumably, Bill was sizing me up.

In 1989 the student course at Threave was structured differently. It lasted two years with eight students per year, all living in dormitories in a very chilly Threave House. With sixteen young, fit and generally enthusiastic men and women working twenty hours per week in the garden they could get through a huge amount of practical work (which on wet days was not always easy to accommodate). But because of this labour force Threave was a well presented and intricate garden. At the end of three years enjoyable and often entertaining work I left to take up the post of Head Gardener at Culross.

Culross was a very different, quite the opposite to Threave. It was small, I was a single handed gardener and it was in a village setting. But the post offered an interesting experience. Culross Palace and Garden had for many years been managed by Historic Scotland, but was being taken back into NTS management in c.1993. The NTS wanted to convert the garden from the lawn, shrubs and borders style of Historic Scotland to an early 17th c. feel -contemporary with the palace built between 1597 and 1611. No evidence of what had been there was available. So Robert Grant and I with help from books and expert advice, set about coming up with a suitable 17th c. design planted up with plants known to be grown in Scotland during this period. These mostly consisted of utilitarian plants, vegetables, herbs, dye plants and fruit. The task of choosing and sourcing the plants was good fun especially finding the old fruit and vegetable varieties. We also decided that the garden would have had livestock of some kind so some Scots Dumpy hens were found with Willy Duncan’s help which have thrived and are still there today. I did think of a pig but when I saw the size of a Tamworth sow, I rapidly changed my mind.

In 1994 the Head Gardeners Meeting was held in Dumfries which neatly coincided with Broughton House and Garden being taken into NTS management from the cash strapped Hornel Trust. Our garden visit programme included a stop at Broughton House. As I walked around the garden after the official tour I became aware of a very special atmosphere which is hard to put into words; perhaps peace and beauty will do. This reaction to the garden prompted me to think of trying to work here as I knew the Head Gardener Davy Russell was due to retire in 1999.

As things turned out I was successful in getting the post and moved down to Kirkcudbright in early 2000. Because the garden had very little money spent on it for many years, it was in need of some renovation, but a garden as intricate and special as this needs some thought as to how to develop and plant it. So Melissa Simpson, Gardens Advisor and I spent some time thinking about how to bring the garden back to something with a feel for how it might have been when Edward Hornel and his sister Elizabeth ‘Tizzy’ were living here. We were fortunate in to receive a substantial grant from Historic Scotland to restore the very dilapidated stepping stone pool and the Japanese style garden, this set us well on the way to restoring the gardens fortunes, with new plantings, rebuilt greenhouse, renovated summer house and ornamental arches.

Working with students at Threave, building a 17th c. garden at Culross and finally restoring Broughton House Garden has been a very satisfying and interesting 25 years.

The Head Gardener's Story
Meet Tim Keyworth, head gardener at Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire, at 26 he’s one of the youngest gardeners to take charge of a heritage garden in Scotland, if not the UK. 

So how did he rise through the ranks so quickly? It turns out, as is often the case in gardening, it was all about finding the right conditions in which to thrive. 

Tim from Leicester took up his place at the National Trust for Scotland’s School of Heritage Gardening in 2008. The school offers one and two-year full-time courses at our main training centre - Threave Gardens in Dumfries and Galloway, and at many of our heritage gardens around Scotland. 

Tim explains why this was the right choice for him:

"The school provided the opportunity for me to experience real hands on practical horticulture. I was basically learning on the job and working as a gardener at the same time. A special emphasis was placed on learning and building plant knowledge through weekly plant identification which was a big draw for me as I have always fancied myself as a ‘plantsman’." 

I had already been to college for two years and earned the National Diploma in Horticulture qualification but most of the teaching was done in classrooms. Threave offered me the chance to put this learning in to practice while building up experience in an amenity garden open to the public.”  

And this is one of the school’s biggest assets, as well as being the ONLY place in Scotland to offer training specific to the heritage sector, its hands-on emphasis gives gardeners much needed practical experience. 

It’s this practical experience which makes gardeners coming from the school just so employable, and has helped Tim move quickly up to the role of head gardener at a heritage property – his dream job. 

Tim continues: 

"I have always had an interest in history. That, coupled with the fact that the only thing I ever really wanted to be was a head gardener, meant that I was only going to go in to heritage gardening.” 

In a heritage garden the focus can be different to working in other types of gardens, as Tim explains:

"The biggest thing really is being able to learn how jobs and projects can be undertaken in the spirit of what was originally in the garden. Every garden may be different and I think it is just being able to adapt to that. The great thing about Threave is that they are able to cater for many different styles of Horticulture whether it’s the veg garden, glass houses or rock garden.” 

Tim went straight from his qualification into employment with the Trust, which was an important factor for Tim when he was choosing where to train. 

"I was keen to progress and have a career in the Trust. I guess I have shown that it is more than possible if you work hard and hopefully I will be able to carry on working for the Trust for decades to come.”  

So has Tim’s dream job delivered? It seems so…

"Six years on from Threave and over three years as a head gardener, the thing that excites me most about being head gardener at Leith Hall is being able to undertake large bits work to put the garden back to its former glory like the rock garden restoration project we’re working on at the moment. 

I never stop learning and I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t learn something, big or small.”

School of Heritage Gardening