Interview - Andy Stevens, head gardener, Borde Hill Garden

Borde Hill is a grade II* listed garden on the borders of Haywards Heath, West Sussex. It is maintained by a small team led by head gardener Andy Stevens.

Andy Stevens, head gardener, Borde Hill Garden - image: Borde Hill Garden
Andy Stevens, head gardener, Borde Hill Garden - image: Borde Hill Garden

The garden was created in the early 1900s with plants gathered by collectors from their travels to the Himalayas, China, Burma, Tas­mania and the Andes, and it contains the best private collection of champion trees in Britain.

Q What are the most recent developments in the garden?
A The Italian Garden has had quite a makeover and we've done quite a bit of planting. We do a new project each year. Last winter was the Para­dise Walk, which was designed by James Alexander Sinclair. It's quite a prominent border and the idea was to get a designer in. Whether a well-known designer will bring people in to see the new design, we will see.

Q Does the garden have things to offer all year round?
A We've been trying to spread the season out. We have a lot of spring colour, some summer colour and the autumn colour can be amazing. The rose garden, quite a new part of the garden, was planted in 1996. It is predominantly David Austin Roses, which are fragrant. Up until that time Borde Hill was mainly a spring garden and it helped extend the season. The flowers come out in about June and last until the first frost.

Q How many gardeners are there on the team?
A I have three full-time staff and one part-time trainee, with four volunteers a few hours each week. Some other gardens have lots of volunteers but that's not necessarily a good thing. It's like spinning plates on sticks — it's a challenge managing it but it keeps you on your toes.

Q Does the Clark family take an interest in the garden?
A Mrs Clark is very keen on the garden and is really the driving force. Mr Clark gives more of a commercial perspective. They offer different areas of expertise and it's a good overall perspective.

Q How are visitor numbers holding up?
A Last year visitor numbers were down but financially we were OK. This year they're down but there are still people visiting. With a sunny Easter it would have been better. It's about trying to get people through the turnstiles. The other gardens in the area include some big National Trust gardens — Nymans and Wakehurst Place. It's a challenge to be up against the big boys. With them, visitors are often members, but with us they have to pay. You've got to turn that to your advantage. We work with the other gardens, with schemes like the Great Gardens of Sussex. A lot more people are doing staycations and we're trying to plug into that as well, but it's all weather-dependent.

Q How does the site differ from the bigger gardens in the area?
A The good thing about this garden is that it's not like the National Trust. The National Trust gardens hold a moment in time, but we can change whenever we like. The planting on the Paradise Walk is all new, for example, and people come and see the changes.

Q What does the garden do to attract more visitors?
A In previous years we have had a sculpture trail to bring people in and this year there will be sculptures by David Watkins around the garden. It helps create a bit more interest. We try to bring in people other than garden lovers. One of the challenges is to get people out into the parkland. It's all part of their ticket. We allow dogs, if they are well-behaved and on leads, and quite a lot of people come here for that.

Q Do a lot of the visitors have specialist interests?
A Ninety-five per cent of people coming just want to see a good garden. There are specialist groups that have their own interests, but most want to see a good garden. The public love champion trees. A lot of the champion trees aren't that big. They are so rare they don't have to be.

Q Are you concerned about ash dieback disease?
A We don't have too much ash and it's not next to the house. If the worst comes to the worst, we won't really notice it.

Q Does the garden have any other specific challenges?
A The soil is predominantly clay. The garden is on an east-west ridge and to the north it is sandy. Sometimes you dig and it's lovely soil and others its sticky, yellow, horrible stuff.

Q How has the weather affected the garden?
A Some things have flowered as normal and some later — notably the magnolias. Some things have lasted longer. It all sorts itself out eventually. This time last year it was very warm. It's what makes life interesting. If it's predictable it's very boring. There's always something to do.

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