Chat! Tom Brown, West Dean Gardens Head Gardener

Just one year into the role, West Dean Gardens new head gardener faced the biggest challenge of his horticultural career: having to close the gardens to the public due to COVID-19. After being shut for months, West Dean has finally reopened. In this interview, Tom talks about the surreal challenges he and his team faced and reveals his thoughts on the future of one of England’s great gardens.

In 1932, when he was just 25, Edward James inherited the 6,350 acre West Dean estate, near Chichester in West Sussex. As well as being a keen gardener, he was a patron of the arts, especially surrealist art and its most prominent artist, Salvador Dali. Before he died in 1984 he set up the Edward James Foundation, a charitable trust, which today occupies the magnificent James Wyatt designed flint-faced house, built in 1804.

There have been gardens on this site since 1622, those we are familiar with today first opened to the public in 1871 and for almost three decades were cared for by award-winning head gardeners Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain. When they retired in May 2019, they handed over responsibility to Tom Brown, who had spent the previous 10 years as head gardener at Parham House, having begun his horticultural career at RHS Wisley.

Less than a year into the role, Tom was faced with a challenge he could never have anticipated: he had to close the garden to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of July, a few days after reopening, I sat down with Tom to find out just how he and his garden team coped with the closure and how things were going with the new restrictions on visitors.

Head gardeners are well used to dealing with unexpected challenges — the unpredictability of the British weather, too much or too little water, unexpected disease, etc. — but this year the challenge has been something no one could have foreseen, or more importantly, no one could have planned for. Your predecessors had been here for 28 years and aside from the devastation of the 1987 storm, they never had to deal with anything quite like this. You had barely put down roots before the garden had to close to the public. How challenging has the past few months been?

Tom: Massively. Whilst the pandemic has hit everybody, and many in extreme and tragic ways, horticulturally from January through to the end of May we’re really preparing for the rest of the year and in particular our summer season.

In a normal year, how far ahead are you planning your planting?

Tom: Between 4 and 6 months in terms of our annual displays — the vegetables, the cut flowers and what we grow in the glasshouses. The lockdown came into effect at the end of March on the very day we had Gardener’s World filming here! The garden was looking as it should do and we were in our stride knowing precisely what we wanted it to look like and then overnight it all just fell apart.

And of course there were no guidebooks you could refer to about what you needed to do…

Tom: That’s right. The questions were how do we handle it and what resources do we have to deal with it? We had to gauge what we could achieve based on our resources both financial and manpower. I’ve never had a situation where my entire workforce has been completely wiped out. We have a garden team of nine here, including two trainees, plus a team of fifty volunteers. So we’d normally have upwards of 15 people working on the 100 acres of gardens every day of the week.

I guess all gardens are having to be maintained with far fewer staff?

Tom: It’s down to economics. Very rarely do gardens make money. You’re doing very well if you can wipe your face.

So what decisions did lockdown force you to make?

Tom: As head gardener I’m facilitating my fantastic team, discussing and directing them what they should be doing. When you’ve got this huge garden to look after without the staff you’d normally have, the first question you need to answer is ‘what’s the priority?’’

To begin with, I thought I was going to have one person in the walled garden and at least one person cutting the grass and myself, but due to the health and safety guidelines and the financial implications for the foundation, we ended up having only one of us on site each day. So Anne Kelly who works on the borders, and myself took it in turns to do a certain amount of work in the gardens and a certain amount at home. But of course one person can’t achieve anywhere near the amount of work as 15. That meant we had to prioritise.

What had to take priority?

Tom: First, it was what was going to be most difficult to replace. For example, our collections under glass such as our renowned begonia collection. That is 40 species strong and some aren’t grown commercially anymore. You can’t leave them for a day without attention. Compare that to grass management which you can leave without too much problem. So our priority was preserving our glasshouse collection, which is what we did. Although having only one person on site at a time restricted what we could do.

Now that you’ve reopened — and under the very strict protocols you have to comply with — how has it changed the way the gardens operate and what challenges have you faced in opening safely?

Tom: I think managing the visitor experience has been the biggest challenge. People come to a garden like this to enjoy the freedom and the open space. If you see something you like you go over and have a look, but now everything has to be carefully managed. A big part of the West Dean experience is the glasshouses which sadly for safety reasons we cannot open. But on the flip side there are new opportunities, for example, in exclusive experiences. A year ago, if you’d gone to a garden like this and they said we’d like to offer you an exclusive visit where you can come as a small group, you’d pay through the nose to avoid the crowds. So visitors are now getting a much more intimate experience of the garden because of the absence of people.

The changes begin at the entrance where you have signs saying you’re Covid-19 secure and someone checking that your name is on the list.

Tom: That’s right, there are lots of criteria we have to comply with. We had to completely rethink how people entered the gardens in a way that they could be socially distanced. We’ve been on a couple of Zoom meetings about the logistics of reopening which the RHS have facilitated and you quickly realise that every garden is so different. It means providing a template is almost impossible.

Beyond the logistics, it must also be especially difficult economically. Missing out on months of visitor revenue must have presented huge challenges in terms of running the garden and with regard to future investment?

Tom: It’s going to be very difficult to gauge. At the beginning of the pandemic most of us thought we’d get to a point and then someone would flick a switch and we’d be back to normal again. But the reality is that the recovery from this is going to be much more drawn out. It’s not like anyone can predict that we’re going to be back at 50% capacity by such and such time, because it might drag on and on.

What does that mean for the gardens?

Tom: Take the spring bulbs. We purchased thousands of daffodils, hyacinths and tulips last Autumn. They flowered just before the lockdown which was good, but normally you’d dispose of those bulbs because they wouldn’t give you the best result the following year, especially tulips. But the reality now is we’re not sure we’re going to have the money to buy bulbs next year, so when they finished we lifted all the hyacinth and daffodil bulbs, dried them off and cleaned them ready to reuse next year. In the longer term, that might be a more sustainable way to garden.

You may not have any choice…

Tom: Clearly our budgets aren’t going to be the same next year, so we’re going to have to get creative to make it work.

The pandemic has forced businesses to reevaluate how they operate and how they interact with their customers. How do you see attractions like West Dean changing to address this new reality?

Tom: I think social media has been an interesting development — actually taking the garden to people, rather than expecting people to come to the garden. It’s something we’d done in the past, but it wasn’t seen as the be all and end all, rather it was a nice thing to do. Now with the lockdown, little videos telling people how to grow certain varieties and the like are becoming ever important. A year ago people were talking about retail being all about the experience and now with the lockdown it’s turned it on its head because you can’t experience going places.

One trend we’re witnessing on YouTube is musicians not only putting out performances from home, but also offering more personalised interactions whereby people pay for exclusive content, such as a Q&A session or to see something others can’t. Can you see something like that happening with attractions like West Dean?

Tom: I can. We already do gardening courses through the college — for example, advanced vegetable growing under glass. If I’m in a classroom environment I might be interacting with 15 people, who each pay for the lesson or course. If we did something similar online, you could be reaching many more people, meaning you could also reduce the price of the course.

People are now much more used to interacting via screens, whether it’s buying purchases or taking part in Zoom meetings…

Tom: Indeed, the intimidation has gone.

What parts of the garden have surprised you the most and do you have a favourite spot you keep returning to?

Tom: Like a lot of people, I associated West Dean with the walled garden and the glasshouses. Before he left, Jim said just make sure you preserve the walled garden. It’s a very special place. I also think there’s a lot of potential with our kitchen garden. We removed a lot of the box hedging last winter because of box blight. The areas immediately around the college have loads of potential and I can imagine them becoming my favourite part of the garden in time.

You may not have been around for it, but a few years ago, there was the West Dean Festival. As well as having Adam Ant headline, the most memorable aspect was an Alice in Wonderland reenactment with actors, props and small dioramas in the woodland. It was live storytelling. Why I mention it is because that activity did something that resonated so well with this place — picking up on its connection with surrealism. Personally, I don’t think West Dean has exploited that uniqueness since. To me, that’s a missed opportunity.

Tom: It’s something that we’re working hard on. When I came for my interview, the directors said they weren’t looking for a head gardener to carry on as Jim and Sarah had done. They said we have a Victorian walled garden here which is a marvel within itself, but it’s totally detached from the college and all the artistic experimentation that takes place there. They were keen for West Dean to be horticulturally and artistically unique. So I think that was a recognition that the Estate needs to develop that strong message.

Having attended many RHS shows you’ll have witnessed the trend in recent years for conceptual gardens, horticultural installations if you like…

Tom: Tomorrow I’m going to a nursery specifically to look for inspiration for the planting in front of the college. I’m hoping to be a bit braver and bring the border out about 5m from the building. One of the things I want to sit within the planting are some big surreal pieces in topiary and that’s what I’m going to be looking at tomorrow. I don’t think being safe and formal is the way forward.

That you’ve not been able to maintain much of the garden because of the pandemic is interesting, because naturalistic planting has become a recurring theme of so many recent show gardens, particularly at Chelsea. It’s kind of happening here naturally.

Tom: Absolutely. And add to that all the wildlife that’s come into the garden over the last few months. We’ve seen badgers and hares.

What about chemicals, I assume you’re using a lot less of them these days?

Tom: Twenty years ago people wouldn’t have minded what you sprayed, now using chemicals is becoming a bigger issue. Our peat use, for example, is something we’re changing. That being said, we’ve got to balance any changes we make so we don’t alienate those people who know and love West Dean for what it was and educate them that a few dandelions here and there are not a bad thing.

Talking of visitors, what restrictions are currently in place on the numbers you can admit?

Tom: At the moment, we have slots every half an hour with a maximum of twenty people per slot, but we’re looking to increase that to thirty. The percentage of the income that you’d normally take is fractional, but at the moment because of the furlough scheme, we can just about make that work. When we start coming into the Autumn, our numbers would start coming down anyway.

The best gardens never stand still, they should always evolve, especially if you want to keep attracting new visitors. So, how do you see the future?

Tom: So much depends on what happens with the pandemic and the economy, both of which are out of our control. What I do know is how different gardens have responded to the situation has been very much affected by the depth of their pockets. Have they got the wherewithal to remain closed? Can they afford to maintain staffing levels. Personally, I was really nervous about opening the gardens, I wasn’t sure it was the right decision. Why? Because if people come to West Dean and see us not looking the way it normally would do, is that going to serve us badly in the long run? Are people’s opinions going to stay the same? Will they come back to gardens, grateful that you’re open, but after a few months start questioning why it’s not back to how it should be? It’s too early to judge, but it will be interesting to see how those gardens that made efforts to open, like we did, come out at the end of the year.

My thanks to Rachel Aked at The Edward James Foundation for arranging my visit and the interview with Tom

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people