We caught up with new Head Gardener Gwyneth Hanson and asked her about her approach to gardening and her plans for the gardens at Queen’s.
Have you always been a gardener?
I started my horticultural career many moons ago at the tender age of 16. I have always found the natural world interesting and had started to learn a bit about native plants whilst at school. However jobs in conservation were not as common back then so, when I observed good ol’ Geoff Hamilton always looked content when doing tasks on Gardeners World, I decided to give gardening a try. I was lucky enough to begin my training at Parceval Hall, a fantastic Plantsman’s garden that was only a few miles from where I grew up.
What are you top three tips for aspiring gardeners?
For anyone wanting to start gardening it is sensible to not only learn the practical ‘how to’ of different tasks but also learn a bit of science. Basic botany will give you an idea of how plants grow and respond to their environment and this helps inform your decisions on how to grow them. Also if you learn the correct scientific names, often referred to as Latin names, then there will be less confusion when talking to professionals about plants, as the common names are often misleading. Lastly, remember a healthy soil equals a healthy plant and to broaden this out, if you look after the garden ecosystem it will repay you, i.e. birds and other animals will help control pests.
What’s most important to you when gardening here in College?
Here in the College, I wish to create as much visual interest as I can all year round, but in a sustainable way, like selecting plants for drought tolerance. The gardens are currently planted in a beautiful naturalist style that I love, and which drew me here, but I intend to try and diversify the plant collection, and provide more colour in late autumn and winter as, although folk often think gardens are for summer, they can look amazing for 12 months and the students are not here in the middle of summer.
I understand you are particularly passionate about rare or unusual plants. Will you be introducing any of these to the College gardens?
I am a self-confessed plantaholic, so love almost every plant I encounter. I get excited about any that are rare (either rare in the wild, if a species, or rare in cultivation, for example ancient/heritage cultivars that are no longer grown by modern gardeners). I also love plants that are unusual in some fashion like different coloured flowers, berries, or leaves. These include new plants created by plant breeders and personally (not so much professionally) I am a bit of a sucker for plant novelties, which aren’t always very tasteful. However my broader interests lie in shade-loving plants and plants that offer many features or months of interest (nowadays with most people having small gardens, or sometimes only a balcony or window box, plants need to ‘earn’ their keep by ‘performing’ for months).
Also, with having an interest in Permaculture, I’m keen on ‘plants with a purpose’, and as few of us have the time to weave baskets or dye clothes etc. that purpose is normally that the plant is edible. Not many of us want to have a front garden full of carrots and potatoes to look at, so ornamental vegetables, fruits and herbs, along with edible flowers are favourites of mine. I love to discover new edibles, especially if they look nice too! I hope to introduce more fruit and herbs to the College, and possibly a few ornamental veg too!
What’s happening in the College gardens at the start of Hilary Term?
During January I am pruning some of the shrubs and climbers, cutting back some of the dead stems of herbaceous perennials (there are various plants that can’t be trimmed this time of year or in frosty conditions). I have also been continuing to collect up leaves – they have been acting as a natural mulch, protecting the soil and plant rootballs from winter weather conditions, but I have started to remove them now to allow the bulbs in the borders to come up and be easier to see. In the Fellows’ Garden you can look for the little yellow Eranthis Hyemalis (Winter Aconites) and various mixed species and cultivars of Galanthus (Snowdrop) that are just starting to flower. I have been identifying plants that I can replace and starting to choose new plant material, some of which I hope to start planting soon. I have also begun propagating plants, dividing plants to increase numbers, and I will then move onto sowing seeds when the temperature rises.
Photo: David Olds