Gardeners reflect on the Covid-19 experience

As Covid-19 hit, historic parks and gardens found themselves forced to shut their gates just at the start of the Spring season. This has made for a Spring like no other. Many gardeners were furloughed as their employers struggled to make ends meet without visitor income, while others were still at work but in rather unusual circumstances. Now that sites are carefully starting to open once more, they face a whole new set of challenges.

We asked Head Gardeners to share their experiences of these odd times.

Many garden staff were furloughed

Many gardens had to furlough their staff, not because they were short of work, but because budgets were dramatically threatened by the loss of visitor income in peak garden season. One such person was Luke Bartle, Head Gardener at the National Trust’s Sudbury Hall, who writes:

‘In mid-March we were told that Sudbury (along with every property up and down the country) was to go into full closure to both visitors and staff apart from those completing essential on-property tasks. As gardeners we were very limited in what we could do working from home – it didn’t take us long to get on top of all the paperwork! Then in early April the gardens team at Sudbury, myself included, were all put on furlough.

I had a rather different experience in being furloughed than most other people. My partner and I were fortunate enough to welcome our first child, Oliver, into the world in mid-April. The length and timing of such leave from work proved rather handy as my role changed from Head Gardener to Head Nappy Changer! This kept me preoccupied, but I still missed work.

In the meantime, the gardens at Sudbury were being managed by property staff who were not furloughed. They did a great job in keeping on top of things by working through a task list that was left. Whilst the hot dry spring was a blessing, it did mean that unfortunately we lost some winter plantings. Due to the rules of the furlough scheme, I was not able to help at all with anything work related. This was quite hard to deal with, and my partner certainly borne the brunt of my frustrations: “If only I could… Shall I tell them this… I do hope that this got done… Oh, I forgot to mention that before I left… Shall I email the volunteers…?”

In mid-June, I was the first member of Sudbury to come back from furlough leave. Whilst it was great spending time with my partner and baby Oliver, I was missing work and the normality that it brings. I write this a week into return. It’s been great to be back on the tools mowing, weeding and strimming again – the phrase ‘back to basics’ sums it up. The weather has taken a turn too and the heavy thundery showers are proving very welcome for the parched ground.

It’s great to see many National Trust properties are starting to reopen in new ways and what is now known as the ‘new norm’. Sudbury is not yet open. I am currently maintaining the grounds as best as possible with limited resources and am really looking forward to reuniting with the team and welcoming visitors back to the property.’

Not everyone can have the benefit of a newborn to distract them through a pandemic, and for other dedicated garden staff, the furlough experience has been a more mixed one.

Corinne Price, Garden and Grounds Manager at the Swiss Garden in Bedfordshire (whose team are pictured above left), gives a frank account:

‘You would think that a ‘gift’ of time away from work would be gratefully received; an opportunity to be super-productive and achieve all the things we wish we had time for when fully immersed in the rat race.  It turns out however that it’s actually a little bit soul-destroying, possibly because of concerns about longer term job security, along with a sense of despondency around not feeling needed and being out of the loop when decisions are being made about ‘your’ garden. Having said all of that, on a positive note my employer has been very good about updating me with progress around the re-opening of the garden, and keeping in touch with furloughed staff and managing expectations around the scheme in what has been a very challenging time for all visitor attractions.

I’ve also managed to complete an aromatherapy diploma – a welcome distraction during the early days of lockdown – which will help with the garden’s wellbeing programme, as I help to run an Essential Oils workshop that we launched last year.  I’ve kept in touch with some of our volunteers throughout lockdown too, and have also maintained contact with some of our external networks, such as the RHS (we became a partner garden in January 2020) and as many members of the Bedfordshire Head Gardeners network as I can, though some are also furloughed at the moment.’

Staff who remained on site

Other gardeners were able to stay at work, such as Mark Bobin, Head Gardener at Minterne Gardens, in Dorset. The secluded location of Minterne, and the fact that its small garden team live close by, meant that work could carry on through the pandemic. With no visitors or events, the garden team could get stuck into tasks normally not possible in this season, albeit with social distancing, separating and cleaning tools for a safe working environment.

Mark Bobin reports that:

‘Having no visitors throughout an extremely floriferous season has been disheartening at times. However, not to be defeated, we actioned a plan to share the garden through social media. Videos and photos posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube showing the development of the garden throughout the pandemic have received a huge response from viewers far and wide and was even picked up by BBC News. We have also made new videos showing the house and gardens as they have never been seen before – including drone footage of the beautiful plants and landscape, which you can see here: and

John Hawley at English Heritage’s Belsay Hall in Northumberland describes his experience as ‘an interesting one’, perhaps something of an understatement: ‘On the day we went into lockdown, many of the plants which we ordered as part of our NLHF project were arriving. I had to make a quick decision and ask the nursery to halt the delivery of the remaining plants until we had established whether I was going to have anyone left to plant them. The original plan had been to put the plants into their approximate positions so our designer, Dan Pearson, could come and arrange them over a three day period, for the garden team to then plant within a week or so. Instead, as they hit site that morning I quickly asked the person delivering the plants to drop them off all together in a convenient location rather than us dispersing them around the garden and risk them being sat there for the summer for us to water. Everything was very much up in the air.

For a while it was just myself attending work to keep things ticking. Then furloughing kicked in and once we had found out who was being furloughed, two of the other gardeners returned. However, two thirds have been furloughed and none of our volunteers have attended. The three of us took on bite-sized pieces of the planting project, interpreting Dan’s plan as best we could and taking images as we positioned the plants for Dan Pearson to approve. It took us around six weeks to do this. This was very challenging and the drought was extremely unfortunate timing. Simultaneously, we had to also maintain the garden, prioritising key tasks such as watering, and weeding the most pernicious weeds and those which were on the verge of setting seed.

Two member of my team have returned from furlough this week, which is a great relief. The rest of the team are due to return slightly later in the summer with some of the volunteers, we hope, returning later on. I would sum up this experience by say that although it has been extremely challenging to take on a large planting project, maintain a Grade I Registered garden, and deal with a drought all whilst on a skeleton staff, it has been a satisfying achievement.’

Similar workload challenges were felt at the National Trust, who furloughed 80% of their staff. Pam Smith, Garden and Parks Consultant for the NT Midlands Region, says: ‘Reduced staffing and a halt on spending meant we were unable to take advantage of the quieter time to carry out any project work, path renewal or much turf care. However many Head Gardeners enjoyed the fact that they could garden more and be out of their office.’

Martin Gee, Head Gardener at Weston Park on the Staffordshire-Shropshire borders reports that the furloughing of most of Weston Park’s staff and volunteers ‘leaves me, working five days and covering weekends looking after the glass houses, and one other working four days.

The fine weather has certainly been a help; it has created more watering in the glasshouses but it has helped with the weeds. We go all around once a week with a hoe and the sun does kill the weeds, so no hand weeding is required. It helped that most of the flower beds had been mulched before lockdown and all the footpaths have been sprayed with a residual spray. Formal lawns are mown every ten days rather than every seven days which gave us time to complete all the spring pruning and propagation for the summer bedding displays.

The vegetable garden has been planted with brassicas and onions these were planted or sown in pots before lockdown. We have recently sown beans and courgettes in pots to be planted in June. We had hoped to expand the veg plots this year but this has been put on hold until next year, as have all our projects.

The plan I put together does seem to be working at the moment but as times goes on it will get more difficult. The pleasure grounds are looking after themselves at the moment but this will change as time goes by. Most of the work in these areas comes in from July onwards, and we start the hedge cutting in August. Let’s hope things start to improve by that point.’

Volunteer gardeners have had to stay away too

Many sites rely heavily on the generous help of volunteer gardeners, and these too have had to stand down. Enid Vallery, one of the Swiss Garden volunteers, describes her experience: “Volunteering at the Swiss Garden is such a pleasure. It has brought together my love for plants and gardening with the opportunity to meet people with the same interests who over a period of time have become friends.

The open space of the Garden creates a feeling of freedom accompanied  by a tranquillity and peacefulness that contribute so much to positive mental health. Its beauty for me is not only in the plants and trees but in the variety of historic buildings, ornaments and structures that accompany them. The waters of the ponds and lake reflect their impressive surroundings, supporting families of ducks, coots, geese and swans – and who can forget the attraction of the three peacocks.

During lockdown I am fortunate that I have my own garden to tend, but it does not provide the same serenity nor the variety of settings that the garden possesses. The companionship of my Swiss Garden colleagues has been sorely missed. Whilst a number of us have stayed in touch by email and text this does not compare with personal contact and interaction. This is especially important when you are, like me, a single person.’

Volunteers came back to the Swiss Garden in mid-June, and despite the many uncertainties, Enid comments that ‘what we do know is that we are so glad to be back’. Rotas are very different however, with only two volunteers in during the morning for a two-hour shift, and two in the afternoon, so as to reduce time on site and minimise the use of facilities. They are not using the staff tea-room and are asked to bring their own flasks, gloves and other equipment so as to reduce the sharing of equipment.  Tools are cleaned down after use.

Now it’s time for gardens to start to re-open

The Swiss Garden is now open again, but reports that so far the garden has been relatively quiet, though with reasonable weekend numbers. This may be due to the weather having changed just as the garden re-opened.  They are offering pre-booked tickets. As it hasn’t been especially busy, they are also letting people turn up without tickets, within a strict maximum capacity of 500.

A new entrance and exit route has been implemented, utilising entry points normally used for much larger activities (the Swiss Garden is part of a wider landscape that hosts events such as air shows), and there is plenty of parking space. This avoids using the usual narrow entry points. As the visitor centre is currently closed, this is not posing any problems with the flow of visitors into and out of the garden. External catering units are being used during this first phase of re-opening in the absence of the usual restaurant facilities. They hope to begin using their own catering pods soon, which will be based in the garden.  Another area of parkland, North Park, has been opened to create more space and spread out visitor footfall. It also offers visitors an opportunity to see more of the historic parkland, which is usually closed to the public, as it is the site of a college.  All buildings in the garden – the Grotto and Fernery, Swiss Cottage and Chapel – are closed to the public at the moment, as there is little room for social distancing in any of them.

There are signs everywhere to remind people about their social distancing responsibilities, and hand sanitiser at entry and exit points as well as in toilets.  Additional portaloos are in place around site to minimise the use of the usual garden loo block, and cleaning regimes are in place to make sure they are all cleaned more regularly than usual and checked throughout the day. Handrails on bridges and other high-risk areas are cleaned down daily too. Staff have separate toilet facilities which aren’t used by visitors. Outdoor picnic facilities are available, and benches haven’t been cleared away or taped off, but are wiped down every day. Feedback from visitors so far suggests that they are happy with the new measures and feel safe in the garden.

At Minterne too the gardens are now again open to visitors. Mark says: ‘The layout, with a one-way system around the garden and with plenty of space to socially distance, has made this possible. The delight from all our visitors and the chance to lift everyone’s spirits is extremely rewarding. Takeaway food and drink are available, and we are also encouraging everyone to share their photos of Minterne Gardens onto social media.

We have noticed that half of our visitors were experiencing the garden for the first-time and of those, a large proportion have bought Season Tickets already. Our hope is that due to the Covid-19 lockdown our visitor numbers next year could double.’

We would like to thank all those who responded to our call for information and wish gardening teams strength and energy for the challenging months ahead.

Linden Groves

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith