Interview: Topher Martyn, Head gardener, Syon Park

There aren't many bosses who can get their team to work for free, night after night. But this is what Syon Park head gardener Topher Martyn managed to achieve in order to prepare for last winter's lighting up of the gardens, after the event organiser pulled out at the last minute.

His team of eight gardeners scaled trees to hang lights and gave out leaflets to advertise the event in the local high street. The finished effect was the Enchanted Woodland trail through the arboretum which brought in 11,000 visitors over 10 nights.

"It was a bold decision to go ahead with the event ourselves," Martyn says. "We don't have an ongoing programme of events like Wisley and Kew. Luckily, it was a fantastic success and this year there will be a new, extended route with more creative lighting."

Rather than causing resentment among the staff, Martyn says the event created a morale boost for workers, "because after all November is a dismal month".

Being prepared to work on events outside the realm of traditional gardening activities is becoming more necessary for head gardeners and their teams as estates like Syon attempt to generate more income. In the 21st century even wealthy landowners such as the owners of Syon, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, are "realistic" according to Martyn and "it is no longer possible to leach from the greater estate".

He raises 80 per cent of the gardening budget through entry fees and events, and is finding that functions like weddings are providing a higher income than visitors.

Syon Park in Brentford, south-west London, is "a profoundly historical landscape", Martyn says. "It was originally the site of an abbey in the 15th century and in the early 18th century became one of Capability Brown's first designs."

Brown designed Syon's 80.9ha of parkland from the 1750s to 1770s, some of which is still grazed by cattle. The estate incorporates a variety of landscapes, including 16ha of formal gardens, an arboretum of rare trees, as well as more natural areas. Martyn believes Syon's Great Conservatory is the "finest historic garden building in the country", a comment that might draw arguments from the neighbours across the river. But it is claimed that it inspired Joseph Paxton's designs for the Crystal Palace.

Despite the garden's layers of history its head gardener is able to summarise Syon as "an 18th century Capability Brown landscape, with a 19th century plant collection that has become a late 20th century visitor attraction."

Martyn is very knowledgeable about the past incarnations of the garden but is not restricted by them, feeling that the garden should be developed and planted with recently introduced species' and cultivars.

He is bulking up Syon's North American trees, which were collected in the 19th century and doesn't want new introductions to only be those available during that period of history. He argues that if restricted in this way, no species from China could be planted now as "there was originally nothing from China planted in the garden".

He admits: "I tend to plant things I like. There is nothing wrong with a personal element in the landscape."

A passion for trees is evident. He describes them as the "cornerstones of landscape" and has raised the species count from 200 to 400 in his nine-year tenure. But there is one drawback of developing an arboretum - the lack of immediate impact. Martyn often wryly tells visitors: "Come back in a couple of a hundred years' time."

Martyn's career in horticulture was decided by a road to Damascus moment, pruning a vine in a private garden in Bristol. "I was working in the sun and getting to eat grapes. I realised this is the life. I quite like doing this, perhaps I should look harder into doing it as career."

He spent 14 years gardening in Bristol "always on the practical landscape side only". Then he moved to study for the diploma in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. After graduating he crossed the River Thames to become head gardener of Syon Park in 1998.

There is a grand vision to return the estate to a more open Capability Brown parkland. This would mean the gradual removal of independent businesses that have been allowed to operate on Syon land over the past 40 years. The London Butterfly House has already closed; it's last day was 28 October. It is likely that Wyevale Garden Centre will remain and there are plans to build a hotel. Martyn is pleased that more green space will be accessible for visitors.

It is unusual these days to find large teams of gardeners - and to find all of them accommodated by their employers. But it is possible to see both on the Syon Estate. Martyn and his family live on the grounds with the rest of the gardening team, and his two young children are often found volunteering to "help" their father at work - you may even see his four-year-old handing out leaflets in Chiswick advertising the Enchanted Woodland. If you do, you might just want to take one.

- The Enchanted Woodland trail at Syon Park can be visited until 2 December.

CV

1984-1987: BA degree in classics at University College London

1987-1992: MLitt(R) degree in classical Greek historiography at the University of Bristol

1988-1992: Gardener for Professor Tom Hewer at Vine House, Bristol

1992-1994: Gardener at the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens

1994-1997: Studied for the diploma in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

March 1998: to date Head gardener at Syon Park.


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