Tom and Marianna give an insight into their lives and their work, looking after Bloomsbury’s historical squares ahead of Open Garden Squares Weekend
How did you become a gardener at The Bedford Estates?
Tom: I began studying languages at SOAS University of London but quickly realized it wasn’t for me mainly because I was inside all the time but also I really couldn’t see myself in a languages career. I had a bit of experience doing gardening and light agricultural work from working on my Grandfather’s small holding in Harrogate so I got a job working as a gardener at a care home in east London.
When I turned 21, I applied for the Apprenticeship at Kew Gardens. During my three years there I worked across the gardens and in the glass houses with temperate and tropical plants. I also spent some time in Germany and received a scholarship to work in the US where I looked at native carnivorous flora in Oregon.
While I was still in the States I got a call from an alumnus of Kew who asked me to work with him as a junior Gardener in a private house in west London with seven acres of land. Here I looked after an orchid and carnivorous house as well as a cut flower garden
It was my wife that encouraged me to look for Head Gardener roles and spotted the job here at The Bedford Estates in 2015.
Marianna: I finished my RHS qualification in June last year and then moved to London in October. I was looking for my first full time job in horticulture and Tom, the Head Gardener, read my CV and saw a truly passionate gardener. He invited me for an informal interview to show me the gardens first to see how genuinely interested I was the role. He was right about my enthusiasm for gardening and I started work for the Bedford Estates in November 2017.
Do you have creative control over the gardens or is it a collaborative effort?
Tom: Myself, Marianna and Martin Towsey [The Bedford Estates’ Head Gardener] will discuss what we want to do with the gardens, but Martin is confident in my abilities and this gives me a lot of autonomy. I recently handed over the gardens at Ridgmount to Marianna to help with her plant selection and cultivation skills.
Marianna: It is a collaborative effort. Tom gave me the Ridgmount Gardens as a space where I the freedom to experiment. I absolutely love it there. It is a small oasis with plants, wildlife (foxes, birds and bats) and the residents who enjoy it and care for it all help make it a special place. I find it so rewarding when people stop by to tell me how much they like the garden. Many of them even spot the little improvements we have made there and remark on the new plants we have planted for their enjoyment.
What is your favourite season to see the gardens in?
Tom: In the Spring, it has to be Ridgmount Gardens, it has many interesting flowers. It’s a green, colourful haven. In the summer, I think, Bedford Square. There are many people having lunch and the students have lectures there. It’s a garden in the heart of the literary quarter, and you can see it.
Marianna: Spring is always an exciting season; it is even more exciting when you are somewhere new. I love surprises and watching what is emerging from the ground or what colour the flowers are going to be or which tree is going to be dressed with leaves first. It’s exactly what makes spring the most wonderful time of the year for me.
How many plants, flowers and tree varieties do you have in each square?
Tom: We have in the region of 20 different tree species across all the squares but the perennial flowering plants, there are too many to name!
Marianna: Too many to count but still not too many to allow us to plant more to create year round interest.
Do you have a favourite flower or plant that grows in each square?
Tom: In Montague Street Gardens it is the ‘Liriodendron Tulipifera’ tree. In Bedford Square, it is the south island border and the south entrance beds with their late summer Salvia. In Ridgmount it’s the ‘Amelanchier Lamarcki’i trees because they have a delightful feature in every season; flowers in spring, foliage in summer, a gorgeous autumn colour and keep a mossy green through the winter months.
Marianna: Not any specific one, for me it’s trees. I think they are the most important feature in the gardens. Without the trees those spaces would be dull and imbalanced. It is easy to replant perennials or shrubs but it is a different story with trees. They connect us with the past and the future. We all love them which is why people have an emotional reaction when they need to be managed or, in the worst scenario, cut down. I would like to stress there is always a good reason behind it and most of the time it is safety reasons. We also had new trees planted last month and I felt privileged that I could be here to see it happening. Those trees will hopefully be there for our grandchildren and their children too.
Who is the gardener or landscape designer you most admire and why?
Tom: The late Christopher Lloyd who employed Fergus Garrentt at Great Dixter, who subsequently employed Rory Dusoir – who then taught me! He was the Head Gardener who gave me my first job, and taught me so much. Rory is talented and absurdly hardworking. I admire all three, they are experts in their field and can keep a cobbled yard, court yard, meadow or border impeccably.
Marianna: Nature is my favourite designer. We can of course help nature create even more beauty for us people but it never works when we try to go against it. When it comes to human designers I have had a pleasure to know the now retired landscape designer Geoffrey Cridland. He encouraged me to become a gardener by giving me many precious gardening books from his own library. It was in his garden where I saw clematis climbing up to the tree for the first time in my life and thought it was wonderful. This experience inspired me to plant Clematis ‘Apple Blossom’ at the base of Liquidambar tree in the Ridgmount Gardens.
What are you most looking forward to showcasing during Open Garden Squares Weekend?
Tom: It’s the only event that allows us to showcase what we do all year. I’m so proud what the two of us do, and when I tell people it’s only us two, they are always shocked.
Marianna: The Ridgmount Gardens, of course. Can’t wait for that actually!
If you had a piece of advice for [London] gardeners, what would it be?
Tom: There is a great culmination of knowledge and talent in the south east of England, more so than anywhere else I have worked. We’ve got many horticultural institutions like Kew Gardens and many private houses, Royal Parks and gardens across London.
There is a great sense of professional collaboration because we are not competition against each other; this means that if you have a particular technical problem in your garden, someone is always there to help you. I would encourage professional gardeners to make time (or try to!) to visit each other and impart wisdom. Amateur gardeners can also use this knowledge; many people in the industry are willing to offer friendly advice.
Marianna: Be patient, never give up and trust the nature.