Behind the scenes at Chatsworth in a day in the life of an estate gardener
Covering 105 acres and with a team of just 25 full time staff, looking after the gardens at Chatsworth House is a monumental task.
But it is a task that the gardeners relish, and with roughly 70 part time volunteers on hand, there must be something about Chatsworth that draws horticulturalists in.
"It's like an orchestra with plants, you've got different instruments, your showstoppers.”
Sarah Thompson, an assistant gardener at Chatsworth House who left her role as a civil servant to pursue a career in public gardens, evidently loves her job. She started volunteering in 2016 and became a permanent member of staff three years later.
She said: “I just enjoy being outside. If I am not gardening I am visiting gardens, I am reading about gardens and gardeners, or taking photos of gardens and drawing flowers."
As Sarah gives me a guided tour through the estate she points out plants faster than my pen can move and I decide to give the shorthand a rest for a moment and just take in my surroundings.
It’s amazing how varied the plant life in the garden is. After walking through a tropical garden that is filled with colour, you soon round a corner and find yourself in a formidable rockery made up of greens and browns.
The gardens are full of surprises – in a sparse area of grassland sits a large granite block which looks conspicuously ugly given the beauty of its surroundings. But the block conceals a micro-climate within, and peering through small holes in the granite you can see Birds of Paradise.
The scale of the gardens is so impressive. In the rock garden is a small waterfall which Sarah explained was cleaned by climbers. By the hedgerows, masons were rigging up statues in order to move them to a different part of the garden.
Even just thinking about the amount of effort expended cutting back the walls of the iconic maze made my arms ache. It seemed incomprehensible that a team of 500 could keep on top of these gardens, let alone 25 plus volunteers. And this was a year round operation, not just seasonal work.
Isn’t it tiring? “You are knackered” Sarah said. “But it’s a good type of knackered.”
"If the weather is bad you find indoor work like fixing tools, there’s always something to be done.”
During the pandemic only around half the staff were able to keep working on the gardens. Sarah said: “Your priorities change when you have less staff. Steve, the head gardener was constantly watering plants because you need to at least have a garden.
"We wanted it to be uplifting for when people came to visit again. It was a real joy when people came back because they were really excited to be here. That's one of the great things about working in a public garden, other people get to see it and appreciate it.”
The main work taking place when I visited was mulching trees for the winter. This process of covering the base of plants and trees with composted material helps to keep them warm, provides nutrients, and suppresses weeds.
Speaking to two volunteers who had been getting stuck into the mulch, I learned a little more about the appeal of this kind of work.
Peter Bower had retired and taken up volunteering one day a week at Chatsworth four years ago. He said: “It is a beautiful environment and it’s great to be part of a team and working with a beautiful collection of trees and shrubs. I enjoy being outside and active."
Gregg O’Shea who is also retired, said: “I wanted to do something to fill my time, I had done a quite physical job working in property development, and I missed that. And I was keen to learn more about gardening.”
Sarah explained that some of the volunteers were hoping to gain paid work eventually, as she had done, while others simply had spare time, loved gardening and wanted the experience of working with experts in their fields.
She added: “Volunteers are the cherry on the cake. It means we can do things we otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to do. We have volunteers who are ex-gardeners, some are teachers, we have a paramedic and a bee keeper.”
Chatsworth House also offers traineeships for those wanting to gain experience working at a public garden. Helen Lindley, one of the trainees spoke about her experiences.
She said: “It has been wonderful. Before this I started to visit more gardens and started speaking to the people who are working there and seeing how happy and passionate they are about what they are doing - I wanted to be a part of that.
"I am fairly new coming into a career in horticulture, it’s great to get an idea of how an historic garden works.
“I wanted to work in a public garden because you get the feedback, you hear and see people enjoying the garden. People come and they are viewing the same thing but they are taking something different from it.”
So what’s it like to be a gardener at Chatsworth? Working with a passionate team to design a garden on a massive scale, curating the plant-life so that it looks amazing and astounds visitors. I think Sarah put it best: “That's what’s so cool about this job. We're like magicians.”
Chatsworth House is now preparing for its Christmas market, a free event with more than 100 stalls running from November 6-24.For more information, visit here: https://www.chatsworth.org/events/christmas-market/.