In the first in a new series of interviews introducing you to the team at Symondsbury, Mel talks to us about how she got into horticulture, her amazing lifestyle prior to settling in Dorset, and her passion for sustainable gardening which brings wildlife to the door at the Estate.
This passion is something that Mel is also going to share directly with anyone interested in gardening and horticulture at the Estate, with a new monthly Head Gardener’s Walk & Talk, which will be held on the first Thursday of every month.
How did your love of gardening begin and where did you first get to use your new skills?
“I’ve loved plants, nature and being in the countryside ever since I was a small child in South Devon. I even spent my pocket money on buying plants and looking after them. It felt very natural to learn more about horticulture after leaving school, and I was lucky enough to get a place at Kingston Maurward Agricultural College in Dorchester where I completed the Royal Horticultural Society General Certificate in Gardening.
I honed my skills on the road as I adopted a travelling lifestyle for 15 years. I lived in a converted horse box with a group of other travellers in trucks and caravans and I would work on garden maintenance at places where we ended up. We even lived for a while in the grounds of Gwrych Castle which has since become famous as the castle they used in I’m A Celebrity!
I was still living in the truck when I went on to do a degree in Environmental Science at the University of Worcester, learning about ecology and habitats. After this I spent time courgette and apple picking in the Vale of Evesham and then travelled around Europe doing fire shows and gardening work to earn money. It was a great life and I’m so glad I did it while I had the freedom.”
What brought you to Symondsbury Estate?
“It started ten years ago when I got a job working for the Estate owner Julia Colfox, helping her with her garden. As the number of holiday cottages expanded at Symondsbury the job grew too and I’ve been Head Gardener here for around four years now and we have become a team of five.
We have Kate overseeing the kitchen garden with Ezra. Then there’s Clare, who I worked with when I was at Kingston Maurward College all those years ago, who manages the production of our cut flowers and vegetables. And last, but no means least, we have Tatiana, a Ukrainian refugee who now lives on the Estate. We’re training her up on different aspects of gardening and she’s doing brilliantly.”
What are your plans for the future with the Estate gardens?
“One thing I really want to do is increase biodiversity on the Estate. We’ve already done quite a lot in this area, for instance, expanding the wild flowers at the top of the car park and planting an edible hedgerow up there too. It has wild cherries, hazel, elder, dog rose for rosehips, thornless brambles, wild pear, sloes, hawthorn and blackthorn. They are all things that can be used for making jam and, as they mature, they will really attract birdlife too.
I’m also focusing on how we can attract bees and other pollinating insects too and we already have a lot of plants that bees love, like the Salvia opposite the Home & Garden store. I was really excited to hear from a local beekeeper that, as the gardens have evolved, they have seen a lot more bees come to the area and filling up their nectar stores. Knowing that how we evolve the gardens has a direct impact on bringing in more birds and insects means a lot to me. I love seeing the birds nesting in our new hedgerows and eating the berries.”
What else do you enjoy about your job?
“I also like just walking around Symondsbury to see what’s happening in nature – there are always new things to discover. Only this week I found rose hips with spikes on the berries – somethingI’ve never seen before! And a wasp nest in an old yew tree – it took my breath away.
It’s also great to see people enjoying the gardens as I know how happy it can make you, being in a place that’s natural and beautiful. I love chatting to our visitors and answering their questions about our plants – and then seeing them buy them in our shop so they can create a little bit of Symondsbury at home!
That’s why I’m really excited about my new monthly Walk & Talks when I can take people around the Estate to show them the highlights in the garden that month, give them tips that they can take to their own garden or balcony and, hopefully, inspire them to do more themselves to attract wildlife to their own outdoor space. My aim is for it to be informative and informal and I will also take the lead from questions people have from their own gardens. I can’t wait!.”