Interview - Yvonne Cannon, head gardener, Holker Hall

Juggling the needs of the owner and the public is the modern day lot of the head gardener. For some gardeners, not having complete control of the future of the garden would preclude them from taking a job, even at such a well-known and successful garden as Holker Hall, Lord and Lady Cavendish's family home in Cark-in-Cartmel, Cumbria.

Yvonne Cannon, head gardener, Holker Hall -image: HW
Yvonne Cannon, head gardener, Holker Hall -image: HW

But Yvonne Cannon leapt at the chance to become head gardener in 2007 to oversee the maintenance and development of the 10ha gardens at Holker, owned by the Cavendish family since the 16th century.

She says: "This garden is very personal to Lord and Lady Cavendish. I have never worked for a garden owner who wants me to tell them what to do with their garden. It's up to me to find out how to do what they want."

Cannon is preparing for the annual Holker Garden Festival (4-6 June). "A lot of head gardeners expect to run the show. That's not what I do," she says. "Lord and Lady Cavendish are very hands on, adjusting, adding and taking things away. Whatever their wishes are, I'm very happy. They do involve me in decisions. I'm here to make the garden work for the family."

The festival is one of the largest garden shows in the north. For Holker garden staff, the festival means 14-hour days of gapping up, changing bedding and edging. Cannon says: "For the festival, the garden must be as near perfect as I can get it."

Special guest at the festival this year is BBC Gardeners' World presenter Carol Klein. Last year Monty Don guested and 21,000 people attended, a significant figure on top of the 40,000 Holker attracts to the garden annually.

To keep visitor numbers steady, the gardens are hosting more special events such as theatrical performances. But Holker's car museum, featuring a Donald Campbell Bluebird display, moved to a new site last year. This could mean a drop in visitor numbers - the gardens are known as a haven for the petrolheads' equivalent of the golf widow.

Garden writer Anne Wareham recently suggested charging as much as £50 to enter top gardens. But Cannon says it is difficult to put a monetary value on "something so intangible". She adds: "It's a balance between numbers and investment. We don't want to open for free or £1 or £2 because the public wear out the garden, but we cannot be empty either."

Holker is the flagship of a £19m group employing 260 staff that includes Burlington Slate Quarry, Cartmel Racecourse and three holiday parks. Sir Thomas Lowther planned the gardens in the 1720s and designers Joseph Paxton and Thomas Mawson later had inputs.

Cannon was drawn to work at the garden, which won the Historic Houses Association/Christie's Garden of the Year in 1991, by an interest in Mawson. There is no grand entrance and few vistas in the unusual garden, which does not conform to the typical English model. Cannon describes Holker as a "plantsman's garden - the structure comes from the plants".

Renowned features include the 7.9m girth Great Holker Lime, named one of Britain's 50 great trees in honour of HRH the Queen's golden jubilee in 2002. There is also the National Collection of Styracaceae on show. The site includes three formal gardens - Elliptical, Summer and Sunken - as well as a wild flower meadow and labyrinth.

Planters, with bedding and bulbs chosen by Lady Cavendish, are also a feature. Cannon uses Sinclair bedding compost and plants 7,500 bedding plants a year, grown by a nursery in nearby Ulverston.

Cannon has introduced keeping the grass long, using a Jonsered ride-on mulching mower, and has a policy of trying not to use machinery when the family is breakfasting or when visitors are in the garden.

There are seven staff at Holker, none of them seasonal. Cannon does not want the finished article: "I want someone with an eye for detail, enthusiasm and interest with a spark in their eye and a willingness to work."

She likes to manage budgets: "I find the business side interesting and run my own budgets as if the garden is my own business. I've got the minimum number of staff to take the garden forward. We've got a certain staff level and that's not going to change."

Cannon says head gardeners must allay worries about career changers driving down wages in the industry as voiced by Deene Park head gardener Andrew Jones (HW, 23 April). She adds: "It's up to business managers in horticulture to make sure that does not happen.I know what my level of gardeners are worth. When I came here I improved wages because I expect a certain level of delivery. I could get away with paying a few thousand less, but people don't deserve it."

As a former self-employed gardener, Cannon realises the money can be better in that area, but she prefers job security and "only having to think about one garden and having a structured life. Being self-employed is very uncertain, especially now."

Late 1980s: Studying at Berkshire College of Agriculture and RHS courses

Early 1990s: Berkshire College of Agriculture teaching national diploma in horticulture

1990s-2000s: Providing horticultural services to private clients, working on commissions for Chelsea Flower Show gardens, managing two Silver Gilt gardens at Chelsea - one with David Harbour and the other with Sussan Jahn - and six Royal Swedish Flower Show gardens

2000s: Head gardener, private gardens, southern England

2007 to date: Head gardener, Holker Hall

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Read These Next

Sargent's solutions - regulations and legislative requirements underline the professional status of landscape contractors and gardeners

Sargent's solutions - regulations and legislative requirements underline the professional status of landscape contractors and gardeners

Regulations benefit individual gardeners and landscapers as well as the wider industry, Alan Sargent explains.



Customers do not often know about the different leaf colours and shapes offered by hollies, Miranda Kimberley reports.



These heralds of spring are highly suited to being planted in tree circles, grass and rock gardens, says Miranda Kimberley.

Horticulture Jobs
More Horticulture Jobs

Are you a landscape supplier?

Horticulture Week Landscape Project Leads

If so, you should be receiving our new service for Horticulture Week subscribers delivering landscape project leads from live, approved, planning applications across the UK.

Horticulture Week Top 50 Landscape and maintenance contractors

See our exclusive ranking of landscape and maintenance contractors by annual turnover. 

Industry Data

An exclusive report for HW subscribers revealing the key development trends, clients and locations for 2017.


Free to subscribers, the essential guide for professional plant buyers

Download your copy

Products & Kit Resources