Interview - Graham Sanderson, head, the Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park

Graham Sanderson, head of the Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park, has worked for the Crown Estate for 32 years, starting as team leader covering the Valley Gardens species ­rhododendron collection. He is responsible for the site's horticultural and arboricultural management and was awarded the Royal Victorian Medal earlier this year.

Graham Sanderson, head, the Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park - image: Crown Estate
Graham Sanderson, head, the Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park - image: Crown Estate
Q How did you come to be at Valley Gardens?

A When I was about 18, I went travelling with friends doing all sorts of jobs like orange picking to earn some money. When I got back, I did some contract work for the Forestry Com­mission. I went to Tunbridge Wells as an arboricultural officer in 1978. I worked there for two years then decided to come to Windsor. I just saw the job advertised. I moved onto the estate as team leader of the rhododendron species collection. While I was there, I took my diploma in horticulture with the RHS. I worked on the collection for almost 18 years with [former keeper of the gardens] John Bond and I was promoted to the head of the Valley Gardens and assistant keeper of the gardens.

Q What have been the best moments of your career?

A There have been a number of high points. I received the AJ Waley Gold Medal from the RHS in 2008 for the growing and cultivation of rhododendrons. I was asked to supply the flowers for the royal wedding last year from the Valley Gardens and I was very proud to do that. This year, I have been given the Royal Victorian Medal. I have had a very varied and interesting career.

Q What are the challenges of working at Valley Gardens?

A Within 1,000 acres, there is very intensive horticulture and a lot of woodland areas. I manage sites of special scientific interest in the park. There are rare species of fungi and the violet click beetle is found here. There are also heritage sites such as the cow pond and the ruins, and my responsibilities include managing the infrastructure of the park, with spaces like car parks. There is a very diverse level of skill required.

Q How has the weather affected the garden this year?

A There has been a growth issue, with everything lush. I’ve spent more time grass cutting than normal and weeds are growing like everything else. I’m hoping that this will mean better flowering next year. Visitor levels have been lower but, as people got used to the idea that the weather is bad this year, they are picking up. People are coming out anyway, with waterproofs. There have been a lot of coaches this year because of the jubilee.

Q Who else works at the gardens?

A We have small teams that love working in the park. A lot of them live here and work here and they have a strong connection and love for the park. If I was a stick of rock and you cut me open, it would say: "Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park." My son is working here as a tree surveyor and he is very into conservation. My daughter works at the castle — she is PA to one of the canons there. I also have two grandchildren who live here in the park.

Q What developments are happening in the gardens?

A We are forever opening up areas to visitors and planting new trees and shrubs — trying to keep the garden young and keep it moving. You sometimes have to make tough decisions, such as removing big rhododendrons to make way for new ones. A lot of tree planting happens every year. We do a lot of work moving shrubs into different parts of the garden to make more open viewing areas. We’ve introduced a river of grass. It’s in the early stages but starting to look good. One thing I’m keen on is increasing the daffodil population. About March time, you can see a lot of daffodils in flower. I’m extending the rhododendron collection and we had 100 new species the year before last. We are constantly upgrading our facilities — car parks, children’s playgrounds and park infrastructure. We’re about to open a new visitor centre at Virginia Water. It is a £1m project that will provide a coffee shop and toilets. We’re hoping to start building by Christmas. It will be open in March or April next year, ready for spring.

Q What do you think is important for horticulture?

A Education. If you look at my career, I had the opportunity later in life to go back to college, to Merrist Wood. I deal with Berkshire College and a lot of my students and trainees in the gardens come from there and Merrist Wood. An awful lot of young people are interested and there are a lot of courses out there. Sandwich courses don’t tend to happen as much and that’s a bad thing. They need to go back to having a bit of practical experience. Often people want to be designers and don’t know the basic skills. If you don’t learn to plant or prune properly, you can’t do anything, and the only way to learn that is by working under someone.

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