Interview - Ed Ikin, Head gardener, Nymans Garden

Sustainability may be the buzzword of today but, in fact, this concept is as old as the hills.

Composting and grow-your-own, for instance, are now being dressed up as new approaches but they are harking back to common-sense principles outlined in horticultural books many decades ago.

So it is exciting to hear from someone who is pushing sustainability principles forward in a different way and experimenting with methods that make for a more innovative approach. Ed Ikin, head gardener of the National Trust's Nymans Garden in West Sussex, is determined that it will be a beacon for sustainable gardening practices.

Ikin is part of a group of head gardeners who meet to share practical experiences of sustainable gardening, which includes reduced use of chemicals, soil improvement, water conservation and the use of renewable energy. As well as Nymans Garden, the gardens represented by the group are Lytes Cary, Mottisfont, Hinton Ampner, Hidcote and Mount Stewart.

Ikins explains: "We are collating all we know and are attempting to find out what we don't. When the group meets we compare the systems that we all use individually and are trying to draw together the most practical information we can. There is a real push at the top of the National Trust to disseminate knowledge on environmental practices."

Ikin recently led a course introducing professional gardeners to the principles and systems used at Nymans, organised by the Historic & Botanic Gardens Bursary Scheme. Despite it being a wet day, it was impossible to quench the enthusiasm of those in the group, who were wowed by a Swedish Joraform food composter, which processes the waste from Nymans restaurant, including meat and dairy material, within a month.

Ikin says the machine has reduced the waste collected at Nyman by 70 per cent, meaning one less skip is collected every week, saving £300 on landfill costs. The compost produced as a result has seen such high temperatures that bacteria, such as Salmonella and Listeria, have been effectively killed off. Ikin says this compost is so fine that they are considering trialling it for propagation uses.

Another item the group was impressed by was the electric mower, known as the Enviromower and made by the company of the same name. The team at Nymans has installed three solar panels on the roof of the machinery store, which charge car batteries. They then use an inverter to charge 240V rechargeable equipment such as the mower, which runs for an hour and half, and is "quiet and light enough to be used on a bank", according to Ikin.

Ikin is probably best known in the profession as an advocate of biodynamics, which leads the team at Nymans to plant the summer borders with 6,500 bedding plants according to the lunar calendar in May "to ensure the water table and plant-sap levels are optimal for quick establishment", says Ikin.

But the team at Nymans has looked at all areas of the garden and is also pioneering hot composting, organic treatments such as bicarbonate of soda and milk on roses, water collection, use of alternative fuels and integrated pest management.

Ikins stresses that the team at Nymans had already started down the sustainability route when he arrived in 2005. "Water collection from the glasshouse has been done here since the 1990s and the assistant head gardener, Philip, introduced biofuels. There is a group of people here who have the right mentality. Everyone on the property is environmentally minded."

Ikin himself got the bug for sustainable gardening during the four years he spent before Nymans, working as assistant gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. "They went peat-free years before the trust and others did. They were collecting water and using hot composting. I saw it working really well and knew it could be applied elsewhere."

He actually started out studying biology at university but even then was working as a gardener during the holidays. After being mentored by two professional gardeners, who allowed him the use of their library of gardening books, he followed their suggestion and applied for training courses. Now he holds an MA in garden history and has done RHS Levels 2 and 3. And with his work in gardens such as RHS Wisley and National Trust property Polesden Lacey, he was well qualified for the top position at Nymans. It's the ideal occupation for Ikins. "It's the job I've always aimed for. I visited this place 10 years ago and realised it was the garden for me.

"It is beautiful and has the most amazing collection of Chilean woody plants, including trees and shrubs collected by Wilson and rhododendrons brought back by Frank Kingdom Ward."

Progress plays a vital role at Nymans. As well as the sustainable programme, which will soon see Ikins introducing a biomass boiler, the garden will undergo a conservation appraisal. "We are going to do a complete evaluation of Nymans' historical and horticultural worth. We'll decide which areas need redeveloping."

While some may feel dubious about his lunar planting scheme, Ed Ikin is certainly no fool.

While it might be anticipated that Ikin is against the use of chemicals he condones the use of them in an IPM programme and is as concerned as commercial growers about the withdrawal of useful products and the possible loss of more under the proposed tightening of EU regulations.

"We spray chemicals in the winter to get levels of pests down, though we never want to eliminate them. Then we introduce biological controls in the spring."

Other head gardeners and even the commercial sector would do well to follow the example of Ikin, who has achieved discounted prices on products on the proviso that he disseminate information to the public and professionals on how they are performing. The impressive Juraform composter was reduced from £15,000 to £13,000 on this condition.

CV

1993-1996 BSc in biology, University of Sussex

June 1993 to December 1996 Assistant gardener, private garden in Dorset (during university holidays)

January 1997 to October 1997 Trainee gardener, Savill & Valley Gardens, Windsor

October 1997 to September 1998 Trainee gardener, RHS Wisley

September 1998 to September 2001 Gardener, Polesden Lacey, Surrey

2000-01 MA in garden history, Birkbeck College (part-time)

September 2001 to October 2005 Assistant head gardener, Chelsea Physic Garden, London

2003-05 RHS Level 2 and 3

October 2005 to date Head gardener, Nymans Garden, West Sussex.


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