The shadow of a gardener is the best manure, claims Anne Swithinbank

Eric Partridge

As a child born and raised in Belvedere, north Kent, Anne was fascinated by the natural world which sat on her doorstep and plants in particular.

“I’ve always been into my gardening and even as a tiny child I’d be collecting or looking at little insects and spiders and all the plants in the garden. As I grew older I collected cacti and succulents and as we only had a small garden I tended to put everything on my windowsill in my bedroom. I was very precocious at the time too and all of my mum’s friends would laugh at me because I’d spout all these Latin names at a very young age and they all said, oh don’t worry she’ll soon grow out of it.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

“We lived on the edge of London and my parents didn’t have horses or care much for gardening whereas I had fixed ideas about what I liked. In those days it was deemed very odd for a girl in my circumstances to take up horticulture as a career, it’s not hard now, but it was back then in the 1970s when I was still at school. We didn’t know anything about college courses so I spent my spare time working in the pet and garden centre at weekends, studying botany and looking after the school greenhouses. One day when I went to the careers advisor and she told me to be a teacher. This didn’t appeal at all!

But it was a visit to Kew Gardens by Anne’s form teacher that changed her life forever.

“Fortunately I had a really switched-on form mistress in the sixth form who had recently visited Kew and, knowing my passion for horticulture, had picked up the Prospectus for the Kew Diploma Course for me. She didn’t even teach me, she was an English teacher but she came and put the Prospectus on my desk so I applied and I got in.”

It was on the same Diploma Course at Kew where Anne met fellow horticulturist and future husband John Swithinbank who hailed from Oldham, when the world as we knew it had not long turned decimal. Three years later after both had qualified with top honours, they embarked on different commercial pathways as Anne explains.

“When we started off we had very separate businesses. John was in partnership with somebody doing landscaping in Surrey and I had my own business which was completely separate, but then the years rolled on and we had kids and we are very much a team now.”

So how did the family end up living in Devon, miles from their respective home-towns?

“When I left home at 19 to go to Kew to study for my Diploma, it was never in my mind to go back home to Belvedere as all I wanted to do was live in the countryside. From when I was really small I just wanted to grow plants, own my own horse and live in the country, so that’s where I was heading. As a young family we’d always gone on holiday to Cornwall I’ve got Cornish ancestors and relations which I’d visit. John always used to come down from Oldham to Torquay and Paignton and we only gradually moved west from Kew and fetched up in Surrey because we were living in Wisley when I was working at RHS Wisley. When we got to a point where John wasn’t running his business anymore and I could work from anywhere we thought, if we were going to go anywhere else, we need to go now while the kids are small, so that’s why we came down here. Plus we’ve always appreciated the South West.”

With Dartmoor just a stone’s throw from their East Devon homestead, the Swithinbanks have a fond affection for the moor itself and spend much time exploring and touring when time and work commitments allow.

“As a family we really enjoy going over to Dartmoor,” Anne admits, “when I was briefly writing for The Moorlander I really enjoyed researching and unearthing unusual stories and we all drove out and made a whole day of it.

‘Like a lot of people, my knowledge of the moor is what you see from the roads. Recently I went on a guided horse ride; we were taken around Widecombe and went up to The Ten Commandments Stones, near Buckland in the Moor from where you can see several tors, that was beautiful, but the whole area around Widecombe is very pretty.

‘We also like Yarner Wood, which was purchased in the early 1950s by the Nature Conservancy and became England’s first National
Nature Reserve, and is where our son Eric did an apprenticeship. It’s really lovely. There are some areas around there with some fantastic and quite specific wildlife, the flora and fauna is pretty unique. We were looking at green hairstreak butterflies and an pearl-bordered fritillaries which I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’m used to garden butterflies and woodland butterflies but I’d never seen those before.

‘We visited some lovely gardens around Okehampton while writing for The Moorlander, including one garden at Belstone with a wonderful display of snowdrops. I went wild camping with my son Eric along the Becka Brook which was both pretty and beautiful in the shadow of Hound Tor.

‘I like driving down the side roads and tracks which are not shown on the maps,” John added, not to be outdone, “we just drive down them to see where they lead and then go on some walks. We love Wistmans
Wood too, which is one of only three remote high-altitude oak woods on Dartmoor, it’s a colony of ancient woodlands all stunted and covered with lichen, which is really difficult to walk around as it’s so tiny and surrounded by boulders. After that we usually head for The Tavistock Inn and see where the devil left his steaming chalice!”

As Anne herself admitted, it was deemed very odd for a girl in the 1970s to take up horticulture as a career, so did she consider herself to be a pioneer for women in horticulture? It was after Anne reeled off a list of historical doyens in the field that I realised the naivety of my query.

“No, there have been loads of lady horticulturists before me, it’s just that where I came from it was unusual at that point in time for a girl to go into horticulture.”

Anne holds one lady in particular high regard. “I always admired Frances Perry. I actually met her when she was quite an elderly lady and she was still going to press events. I used to read her pieces in The Observer and I really liked her practical approach to gardening. She also wrote several books including a famous encyclopaedia entitled ‘Flowers of the World’ in association with the RHS. She eventually moved to Devon and ended her days here.”

“But if you go back even further I really like to read about the quite eccentric ladies such as Dorothy Nevill, Josephine Bonaparte and Ellen Willmott all of whom were really quite eccentric botanical ladies who wanted to collect not just plants but quite a lot of other things as well.”

Anne’s name will be most familiar to listeners of BBCs long-running radio programme Gardeners’ Question Time (GQT) of course on which she has been a regular panellist for over 30 years. During that time she has many special memories but the two which provided much mirth during this interview included a visit to a nudist colony.

“I was on the panel with Bob Flowerdew and Roy Lancaster and there’s a picture somewhere in which we all appear to be naked, but of course we weren’t completely naked, we were covered in flower pots and plants with just our arms and legs sticking out. It was a very unflattering shot I can assure you but it was so hilarious.

Of course the audience were all sat there completely naked which was really strange to begin with because you think that would be off-putting but once the questions started we were concentrating so hard on answering the questions as usual we didn’t bat an eyelid. I think the girl going round the audience with the microphone probably had the hardest job.”

“It’s a good job they didn’t get hold of the wrong end of the stick,” joked John.

What isn’t common knowledge perhaps is that the GQT panellists aren’t privy to the questions which are likely to be posed. Their answers are spontaneous, knowledgeable usually relying on their wealth of practical experience to offer the advice the questioner is eagerly awaiting. It all fell apart however when several years ago before the vegetable celeriac became a popular with growers, one member of the audience asked where they were going wrong as they couldn’t get their specimen to put on any size.

“They came to me first and I said ‘Do you know I’ve never grown it,’ then they went one of the other panellists, ‘no, me neither,’ and the other added, ‘no I’ve never grown it either.’ We only answered a few words each it was quite funny the audience were laughing, they realised what we were doing it was a little like a comedy sketch, and the producer at the time actually ran it as a trail for the programme itself.

“But of course we all had the theory and went on to say well we haven’t grown it but we quite understand what you mean, we can’t give you an answer chapter and verse, so we gave a textbook answer and offered practical advice instead. So we were quite honest, but it was really funny at the time.”

Anne regards her own garden in East Devon as a real working garden and workshop. “We grow lots of food here, it’s an eclectic mixture it has to be,
because when you think of my job if I’m going to produce an answer to a question on GQT for instance that I’ve only just heard within about two seconds it does help if you’ve grown a lot of plants.

“I am patron of the British Cactus and Succulents Society and I really enjoy those plants which I’ve grown since I was a young girl. I’d like to specialise sometimes but I can’t really afford to because I still need to do the trees, the pond, the kitchen garden and the fruit trees.

“I’ll always walk round the garden because they say ‘the shadow of a gardener is the best manure’, it’s an old Chinese proverb and it’s absolutely true. It means that you need to keep an eye on it all, all of the time, you walk round and you notice what’s very dry or too wet, what will need moving or if it’s got a pest on it so you can to sort of troubleshoot on a quick basis and then come back to it when you’ve got more time.

“That’s how you enjoy it. I don’t often sit in my garden but I walk round it a lot, I will walk round it several times a day if I’m writing. I don’t sit still for more than an hour or so I have to get up and have a walk around if I’m writing about something I need to go and look at it or pick a bit of it and bring it back to the office.”

In parallel with Anne’s passion for gardening is her passion for the protection and preservation of wildlife too and she is gradually
‘rewilding’ certain elements of her garden which will benefit all
manner of wildlife at each end of the food chain.

“While my greenhouse and the kitchen garden are the nucleus of where I work, the greenhouse is my headquarters and everything radiates out from out there, but I often think that if I only had that and no other garden I’d probably be quite content. I could fulfil my time quite nicely in that space and it’s fenced so it’s almost like its own little self-contained unit.

Recent headlines declare that almost all UK wildlife is in decline. According to Anne for example we’ve lost 90% of our wildflower meadows since 1940.

“The reason for the worrying decline in insects, hedgehogs and frogs together with different sorts of butterflies and birds comes down to loss of habitat and I take this really seriously because I’ve always been interested in wildlife. It’s a bottom-up thing you need all the invertebrates to provide the food for higher up the chain so I’m seriously into rewilding my garden.

‘We don’t use garden pesticides, we leave areas undisturbed so that creatures can breed up and produce nectar all the way through the year for the bees and other pollen-seeking insects that come after the nectar. We are making thickets for birds to roost, it’s not just about providing food it’s the whole habitat.”

It is recorded that the private and managed gardens of Britain cover about 1million acres. The UK is approaching 60million acres of total land in the UK so gardens make up a 60th of the total acreage of the UK.

As Anne points out, “This is a big area and if we all took rewilding seriously we would make a difference, I think, to wildlife so I’m preaching the message. If you look around you here, I’m almost un-gardening. For instance we’ve got lavender that’s just flowered. All the books will say, and I’ve said it too, is cut it back as soon as it’s finished flowering and then it can firm itself up ready for the winter.

‘However, the other day I looked out and on the seed heads of the lavender was a charm of goldfinches eating the seeds and in the winter you’ll get them feeding on all those lovely oily seeds like the evening primrose so I’m thinking now, well ok, I’ll cut off the bits which are leaning over the path but I’ll leave the rest as food for the bird.

‘We used to take all the grass in the meadow down at once but if you think that at any one time a year there will be something on a piece of grass or a weed, such as a pupa, an adult, an egg, a caterpillar and if you take it all away then that’s all disappeared and you’re not giving wildlife a chance.”

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