PASHLEY MANOR GARDENS Tulips wisteria and new balustrading by Kate Wilson 1 (004).jpg

Head Gardener Keith Boylett is looking forward to Pashley Manor’s Tulip Festival (24 April-8 May 2018). Keith has worked at Pashley Manor for 23 years and manages a team of four full-time gardeners, six part-time gardeners and one volunteer...

 Keith Boylett, Head Gardener

Keith Boylett, Head Gardener

How did you come to be head gardener at Pashley Manor? I started here in 1995 as a 15-year-old looking for a job in the school holidays. I loved it so much that after college I came here to work full time. After a couple of years as deputy head gardener, I became head gardener at the age of 22.

What are the main jobs you’ll be tackling in April? The early part of April is focused on tidying the spring borders. Because the borders are full of tulips it’s quite a slow, delicate task to weed, tidy and add fertiliser around the perennials and shrubs. After that it’s predominantly preparing for the festival and making sure we can accommodate the volume of visitors we get during that time.

What other garden highlights are there this month? Although the bulk of the daffodils flower in March when we’re not open, we also have a lot of plantings of later-flowering narcissi, such as ‘Pheasant’s Eye’. They bring that last bit of early spring through into our open season. And, depending on the weather, the wisteria might be in flower on the back of the house. If it’s flowering at the same time as the tulips it’s a really stunning view, with the tulip borders below and the whole of the back of the house dripping with wisteria flowers.

How do you plan for the tulip festival? We’ve planted 30,000 tulips each year for the past couple of years, but this spring, with the redevelopment of some of the borders, there’ll be about 40,000. So, 2018’s display should look spectacular. We can’t leave them in the ground because we’ve got summer plants to put in, such as the 1,500-2,000 dahlias for our late summer Dahlia Days show. We treat the tulips as annuals.
Also we want fresh bulbs so we can guarantee they’ll all flower and it allows us to change the planting designs every year. So we lift them all and donate them to nursing homes, hospices and schools. Some are often replanted in local village greens.

Do you have a favourite tulip? We grow about 112 different tulip cultivars, but my favourite ever since I started gardening is ‘Abu Hassan’ (below). I just love the colour combinations – rich mahogany red with golden edging.

Are there any other special projects planned for 2018? There are some borders with old plants in them, and these plants can’t be cut back. They’re big plants, though, so we need a mini-digger to get them out, which makes it a lot of work to completely renew a border. So, rejuventaing one of these borders will probably be an autumn or winter project this year.

● LOCATION Pashley Manor Gardens, Ticehurst, Wadhurst, East Sussex TN5 7HE
● OPEN 31 March-29 September, Tues-Sat plus Bank Holidays and special events, 10am-5pm. Tulip Festival open daily 24 April-8 May.
● CONTACT 01580 200888;

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Fergus Garrett first visited Great Dixter as a student, then joined the team in 1992, working closely with garden creator Christopher Lloyd. Now Fergus heads up a small team of gardeners and volunteers as the garden's Creative Director. Here he shares his insights with Melissa Mabbitt
How did you come to work at Great Dixter? Christo was interested in anyone who was interested, and I was keen, there with my notebook, making drawings. I ended up being invited, along with lots of other people, to the house at weekends. Life was centred around the house and there could be anyone there, from musicians to just someone he’d met on the train! Many years, when I was between jobs, Christo offered me the role of head gardener. I turned it down initially as I didn’t want working there to spoil my relationship with it, but Christo told me to stop being childish. He said: “Just say yes and we’ll take it from there”!

How big is your team? We have the equivalent of about three full time gardeners, including a person who grows all the veg and looks after the house. We always have four to six students, who are highly committed and motivated, and they become the catalyst for it all.

Fergus Garrett.jpg

What are the main jobs that the gardeners need to do through the seasons? Seed sowing and propagating happens throughout the year - we grow thousands and thousands of plants. Planting in autumn carries on through winter right through to August. In October the meadow cutting is finished and we rip apart the garden to get the tender stuff into the greenhouses. Sometomes we have to lift the whole bed as the plants have become integrated. We replace it with bedding for winter and spring, which takes us right through to December. In the New Year we start at one end of the garden starting pruning and weeding, through to the middle of March when we’ve finished the whole garden. Then we start sowing, pricking out and getting creative with our pot displays.

What’s the main thing you do in August? By then most of our plants are in the ground so we’re watering them. We start cutting the meadows as the common spotted orchids, the last ones to flower, have gone to seed, but we always leave some areas uncut to be a safe haven for insects. We cut the hedges as they won’t grow much after this so they’ll look sharp through winter.

What’s your favourite part of the gardens and why? If I had to choose one thing and take it a way to another world, I would say probably the meadows because they’re slightly out of my control. They’re like being on wild horse than being on something tame, and contain another world within them – a bug world – that’s dark and mysterious and where you never quite know what’s going on.

What’s the most challenging part of your job? There’s a fine balance between keeping something familiar to the family that knows it but also staying dynamic. If I still did the same stuff that Christo did the garden would die a death, so I have to make changes, following my gut feeling, but without being gimmicky either. Always with any place that’s old fashioned, there’s a sense of place about it, but we have to fight to keep it quirky.

Are there any special new planting projects for 2017/2018? I’ve started using more conifers. They’re a material that loads of people are uncomfortable with but there are so many striking looking ones, there’s no good being a snob about them. I’m picking out interesting ones with interesting textures. It’s striking what one plant can do – in the exotic garden they can turn the subtropical into the Jurassic.
What’s the best bit of your job? You’re in a heavenly place that’s alive with wildlife, lovely atmosphere and history, the wood is cracked, the York stone paving is worn down. The people here love it – they’re there to make a difference to the place. The students are bright eyed, making use of a place that you love to be in. And I get to meet inspirational people, whether that person is a national collection holder or a student, I meet extraordinary people, many with a heart of gold, and it’s a privilege to be alongside them.

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