Interview - Joseph Atkin, head gardener, Aberglasney Gardens

Joseph Atkin was appointed head gardener at Aberglasney Gardens last month - a place he describes as one of his "favourite gardens in the world" after falling in love with it during a student placement in 2002.

Joseph Atkin, head gardener, Aberglasney Gardens - image: Aberglasney Gardens
Joseph Atkin, head gardener, Aberglasney Gardens - image: Aberglasney Gardens

A man of many skills, Atkin turned to horticulture aged 25 and has worked in the landscaping and grounds maintenance sector, as well as teaching practical horticulture at Pershore College.

He plans to develop a long-term business model for the gardens, drawing on a period spent studying for a diploma at Kew, where he learned that "you can do environmentallyand wildlife-friendly gardening without compromising on design".

Q: What is special about Aberglasney Gardens?

A: It's very old, steeped in history and although it's quite small there's quite a lot going on in it. The area has particularly high rainfall and it's not too cold so it gives us a really good climate for growing. There's a good team of people working here and good gardens - that's probably the big attraction for me as well as the wonderful plants here.

Q: Are there any advantages to working at a privately-owned garden?

A: I feel I have a lot more freedom to pick and choose what we do and I would say we are in a very good position because it's a very well run organisation. The owners are really supportive and they really appreciate my expertise - I feel that, anyway. We sit down and work things out between us. There's also a small sub-committee within the board of trustees and we work together on planning the gardening side. It's working out very well.

Q: What have you got planned for the gardens?

A: I want to finish all the projects that are ongoing at the moment and, in the long-term, develop a business model that will allow us to have at least a couple more full-time gardeners. It's really important to maintain what we have got first and then work on other things after that. We plan to redevelop the piggeries area and may even look at putting in some glasshouses, depending on what we are allowed to do. One of my long-term aims is to develop more wild flower meadows in the amenity grass areas and we are also looking at developing the wildlife side of the gardens with bird and bat houses.

Q: You have spent time teaching at Pershore College - do education and training fit into your plans for the gardens?

A: Education is very important to me and one of the things I'd like to develop here in the long-term is something like an Aberglasney apprenticeship. I think high-quality work-based learning is massively important and there's a huge future in it. Gardens can offer a real educational opportunity for people, with everywhere offering something different for a student. I want to develop student accommodation here and then we can start looking at short-term student placements. We have found it hard to use the funding available for students because we have not got the accommodation sorted yet."

Q: Do you have any concerns about maintaining visitor numbers during the recession?

A: The big thing that's really worrying me is petrol prices because, like a lot of gardens, you need a vehicle to get to us. So yes, it is a worry, but we have also got quite a lot of different and exciting things that we are doing that will hopefully increase visitor numbers. For example, we are working with cut flowers and vegetable gardens and we are trying to use everything we grow so that nothing is wasted - it will also provide the opportunity for people to buy the flowers and fresh produce.

Q: How have the cold winters of the past two years affected the gardens?

A: We have had quite a lot of losses and one of the things I have found is that old books such as the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants & Flowers have been dead right about the hardiness of plants. Because we have a very specialist plant collection here, we are going to wait and give it as long as possible to see what we can get coming back rather than taking things out and replacing them, but there will be a lot of replacements needed.

Q: Where do you plan to source plants for the gardens?

A: My first port of call at the moment is specialist nurseries, but a lot of it depends on what the objectives of the gardens are. To be in keeping with the stock that we've got here already, it's got to be specialist stuff.

Q: Is there any particular style of gardening that inspires you?

A: One of my favourite types of gardens are woodland gardens. Recently I have also become quite interested in cut flower growing - that's exactly the sort of thing we are trying to do this year. Plant sales do very well here but it's just another way of doing the same thing.

2005-06: Horticulture degree, Pershore College
2006-07: Self-employed horticulturalist
2009-11: Technical Instructor, Pershore College
2011 to date: Head gardener, Aberglasney Gardens

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