Interview - Andrew Jones, head gardener, Deene Park

In many ways Andrew Jones is an old-fashioned type of head gardener. He lives in a cottage at an historic family seat in the country and is expected to make the grounds look wonderful for visitors and to grow flowers for the house.

Andrew Jones, head gardener, Deene Park - Image: HW
Andrew Jones, head gardener, Deene Park - Image: HW

Not much different to a century ago. But most of the visitors to Deene Park in Northamptonshire, the Brudenell family's country manor house, are now paying customers.

Jones's role is to guide them and make their visits worthwhile. The gardens are no longer sources of food for the house as they once were either. The kitchen garden is now set aside to raise pheasants.

Perhaps most importantly, Jones sees his role differently from the Victorian or Edwardian gardener. He actively enjoys the public's visits and works with the head of the house to develop attractions, such as snowdrop weekends and meet-the-gardener walks.

Jones has just one gardener working with him, Liz Yorke, and is aware that there are few openings in the profession at present due to the recession and new entrants taking jobs at lower rates.

The 42-year-old says the professional gardener's landscape has changed over the past 18 months: "This is the kind of job that people love doing. The downside is there are not the same financial rewards. A lot of people who have been in wealthy city jobs have decided they have had enough and want to become gardeners."

Jones does not hold such strong views on perennial bugbears such as peat, pesticides, recruitment and skills, preferring to go with the flow.

But he does want to speak out on threats to his profession: "They decide they have had enough and want to become gardeners and pay their way and can afford not to be paid particularly well because they have money from their previous employment. That can drive wages down if people are willing to accept lower wages."

Jones has been gardening since he left school in Walsall aged 16. He says: "My nan said I was fascinated with plants from as soon as I was able to stand upright. And I wouldn't still be doing it if I didn't enjoy it. I'm content with the wages here - the upside is living in a beautiful setting in a house I couldn't afford to buy."

Deene's well-known snowdrop Sundays in late February were hit by late blooming of snowdrops, attracting 700 a day, but head gardener's tours with lunch on 25 May and 24 June with supper will see the grounds at their best.

The gardens are open 35 days a year, mainly on Sundays from May to August and on other days in the season. Jones buys named snowdrops such as 'St Pancras', 'Lady Elphinstone' and 'Angelique' from Avon Bulbs and Foxgrove and visits RHS London shows for inspiration. He and Yorke spend a fortnight a year splitting them to create a naturalised look.

Sir Robert Brudenell bought Deene in 1514, when he was in King Henry VIII's Parliament. The gardens are more modern and include long borders, old-fashioned roses and specimen trees. Close to the house on the south side is the parterre, designed by David Hicks. The borders finish at the octagonal stone summer house, built by the seventh earl as "a retreat for his flirtations".

The terraced lawns lead down to the lake where there is bird life ranging from red kites to kingfishers, black swans and little grebes and across the water is rolling parkland with mature trees.

The most flamboyant member of the family to date was the seventh Earl of Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

Edmund Brudenell is the current owner. He has restored the house after occupation by soldiers in the Second World War and improved the gardens during the past 30 years or so, with long, mixed borders of shrubs, old-fashioned roses and annuals.

Jones says his role is "to promote the gardens. I'm happy talking about the garden. I'd like it to get them better known. In this area there are better known gardens than Deene but Deene can hold its own." Nearby is Coton Manor, Holdenby House and Althorp, making the area a rich destination for garden and historic home lovers.

Jones's Deene tours include an overview of the history of the gardens: "How things have got here and developed through history, how through history the garden and taste has changed, all featuring plants out at the time."

He adds: "They're quite informal. I explain away and they ask questions. Thirty people is a manageable group and I love the interaction and feedback it brings from the public."

Another change from a century ago for the head gardener is to work with the owners to develop the garden, usually through dividing, seed-collecting and using cuttings rather than grand projects. Jones says: "Mrs Brudenell likes soft shades - pinks, blues, purples and whites - so I'm using annuals like salvias and cosmos. Using annuals in borders is a good way of getting a lot of colour without spending a lot of money and extends the season for us."

- See www.britainonshow.co.uk

CV

1984: Left school, YTS with Walsall Council then City & Guilds to level three

1980s: Gardener, Scottish gardens

1992-95: Diploma, RBG Edinburgh

1995-2001: Birmingham Botanic gardens, Sheikh Mohammed's garden, private garden in Oxfordshire

2001 to date: Head gardener, Deene Park, Northamptonshire.


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