Jane Moore, group head gardener, Brownsword Hotels
How did you cope during lockdown?
“Working at a hotel group, I’ve seen how hospitality has been one of the worst hit industries through all of this. We were closed for eight out of 12 months at one point and that has been challenging for the whole hospitality industry, including the gardens. My assistants were furloughed.
“The timing of lockdown was diabolical. We were closed until July and I was just mowing, trying to keep everything going. I did the really essential stuff and simplified the kitchen garden, growing nowhere near as much as usual. I grew loads of cucurbits because they are fairly easy and I knew we wouldn’t be open until at least July or August. I’d already planted potatoes. I had to give a lot away.”
What is the forecast for 2021-22?
“We’re still understaffed in all departments. There’s a shortage of hospitality staff across the industry. Hopefully in spring 2022 we will have a clearer picture. We can’t plan ahead for the season in a confident manner. We’ll get through this season as best we can and be in a better place for next year.”
Did you have to cut any projects?
“The day before lockdown I was about to put in a really big order for a planting scheme at one of our properties, but I was hesitating as it was looking dodgy. I ended up phoning the nursery and cancelling the whole thing. I was practically in tears. I hope now towards the end of the year we can set budgets for the following year and go back to near how it was in 2019.”
How did your new book Planting for Wildlife come about?
“I was semi-furloughed this winter so to have something so creative to focus on was a real outlet. Wildlife and the day job go hand-in-hand. You’re out there in nature, surrounded by the birds. I’d been doing a meadow area, which was my baby here, and we have been doing the Big Butterfly Count. If anything, we’re going more and more towards that direction and post-Covid-19, with guests coming back to the hotel after being cooped up, a lot are saying they like the wilder areas.
“One good thing to come out of this is people’s fresh approach to outdoor, wider open spaces and nature. I hope the greater importance of outdoor space will help horticulture in the future to be seen more as a bona fide profession.”
How do you encourage wildlife as a head gardener?
“Be selective and choose plants that are beneficial to wildlife as well as being pretty to look at. There’s a lot you can do with your borders for bees with long season flowering plants. It doesn’t matter if they’re not native if they give pollen and nectar and get the insects and predators in, which brings in the spiders and birds, and the whole cycle grows and develops. Echinaceas are good for tortoiseshell butterflies and Verbena bonariensis is good for bees, long flowering and easy to grow.”
What books have you got planned?
“I’ve just finished one on growing veg, aimed at the real beginner, that is out next spring and I have another in the pipeline.”
Mark Brent, curator, Oxford Botanic Garden, University of Oxford
How did you cope during lockdown?
“It seems so long ago. In March 2020 we closed to the public and all staff were asked to work from home apart from the horticultural team, who were ‘bubbled’. It was a case of finding our feet, initially concentrating on priorities such as maintaining the glasshouses. But as time went on and we gained confidence in what we could do and the Covid security rules, we were able to pick up on the maintenance of the wider collections.
“There was an element of furloughing and, as a manager, maintaining people’s well-being was just as important as maintaining the plant collections.
Overall, when we reopened we were not too far away from the standards the visitors would expect. The team have been magnificent and initiative has been to the fore to overcome challenges.”
Did you postpone any projects and are they up and running again?
“One of the main horticultural projects has been the replanting of the Rock Garden to celebrate the work of John Sibthorp, an 18th century director of the garden who travelled the eastern Mediterranean and gave rise to the Flora Graeca, a seminal work of its time.
“The Rock Garden was put on hold for a while but we have caught up and the new planting is fulfilling its promise. However, Covid has caused us to revise plans to celebrate our 400th anniversary this year. We will hold light-touch events in 2021 and move larger-scale public celebrations into 2022 for ease of social distancing.
Currently we have an exhibition running at the Weston Library, ‘Roots to Seeds’, which celebrates 400 years of botany and plant sciences at Oxford University.”
What are your plans for 2021-22?
“We will continue our programme to celebrate the 400th anniversary at the Botanic Garden and we will renovate the medicinal plant display. The foundation of the garden was as a physic garden in 1621 and we would like to re-present the medicinal collection to highlight its significance not just to our history but the ever-present role of plants in medicine. The university has a global role in the pandemic and we recently hosted the G7 health ministers. A collection of ‘Sakura’ cherry trees, supplied by Frank P Matthews, was planted by the ministers and representatives from the NHS and World Health Organization to recognise all of those affected by the pandemic.
“On 8 June our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales, planted a Pinus nigra raised from seed of its parent tree — planted in 1830 but had to be felled in 2014 — to commemorate our 400th anniversary, the significance being that the original tree was much loved by frequent visitor JRR Tolkien and was a source of inspiration for the ‘Ents’ in The Lord of the Rings. Our partner garden in Japan, the University of Toyama Botanic Garden, will shortly open a special feature dedicated to our 400th anniversary.”
Alan North, head gardener, St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge
How did you cope during lockdown?
“We have managed reasonably well as a team throughout the coronavirus lockdown and this challenging time. It has been incredibly important to focus on the essential tasks and prioritise.
“As a team we have been operating to reduced working patterns. However, through some slight changes to how we manage certain areas of the grounds and focusing on key tasks, along with managing expectations, we feel we have managed to keep the site well presented.”
How have you achieved that?
“This year, for example, we decided to use a low-maintenance annual wildflower mix in four of our key borders rather then going for something that would require more attention. This area has now become a real success.”