Meet Wadham's Head Gardener

Date Published: 30.03.2022

Wadham’s lawns and gardens draw both eye and camera lens, but behind them, hidden human hands dig, prune, and plant. What’s that work like?

“It’s busy even in Winter.”

Andrew is often hard to spot, deep in foliage, or kneeling in the earth. Wadham’s lawns and gardens draw both eye and camera lens, but behind them, hidden human hands dig, prune, and plant. What’s that work like? As Head Gardener who’s been with Wadham for 37 years, Andrew can answer pretty well.

"It's busy even in Winter." Andrew chuckles at the misconception that he gets November-February off. “I didn’t even finish my work from last Winter – I’ll need to carry some of it over to the next one!” The frostier months are a window where Andrew and the team tend to the trees – shaping them, trimming them back – and prepare compost. “We’ve never bought any compost for as long as I’ve been here,” Andrew shares. It's all recycled organic material from the garden, enclosed in waste boards left by builders.

“We also don’t spend most of our time mowing the grass!” Andrew estimates that it takes just 15 hours of labour in a week to do all the mowing. What does take the bulk of their time? “Pruning,” he answers. The gardens are full of borders with shrubs and plants in need of pruning. “Pruning properly,” he adds, which turns out to be knowing when to prune. “The major thing is pruning the plant after it has finished flowering to promote growth. And we grow lots of stuff that’s semi-hardy, and you can’t prune them until spring. Prune them any other time and you’ll kill them!”

Ask what Andrew wants people to get out of their time in Wadham’s gardens and he replies: peace and tranquility. “That’s aided by the reduced noise pollution in the gardens. Because there are walls all around, you don’t hear the traffic.” In fact, though Wadham’s gardens are open to the public, the walls mean they are not visible from the outside. Andrew’s had folks who’ve lived in Oxford, 40 years or more, be astonished when they discover the scale of Wadham’s gardens for the first time.

“We’ve got five acres of gardens here and people just can’t believe it!”

The gardens themselves develop organically – when room opens for a new plant, he’ll look over what he’s already grown in the green house and decide which would fit best. The garden needs to “flow”, as he puts it. And borders are carefully arranged so that there’s something in flower all year round. There’s even a natural give-and-take between Wadham’s garden and Andrew’s own home one. There are over 100 butcher’s brooms – low-growing shrubs – in Wadham that began from a cutting in Andrew’s personal patch! “My garden is like an extension of the college’s”, he laughs.

Of course, Wadham’s grounds are home to more than just greenery. “We have foxes, badgers, squirrels, and wild birds.” As for supporting the insect population, “We try and grow a lot of bee and insect-friendly climbers,” he explains. “In the Barbara Naylor Garden we have scented plants that are attractive to insects.” He hopes to grow a wild-flower meadow in the near-future.

Andrew’s been gardening most of his life. “When I was 12, I had my own section in my parents’ garden. No. Younger than that,” he corrects himself, “From when I was 10. I grew seeds and vegetables.” His parents and grandparents were themselves green-fingered, “but especially my mother”, he reflects. He got his first gardening job in 1969, where he was paid 6 pounds and 9 shillings. The rent in South-West London didn’t leave much of that spare.

Working outdoors and helping things grow still brings him satisfaction. As does seeing people enjoy the environment he’s cultivated. “Even if that’s just a student sitting on the grass with their laptop open,” he shares. But he especially likes seeing people wander the grounds, lost in thought, only to be pulled into the present by a flower that sticks out from the background. “At that point, they might come in for a closer look or get out their phone to take a photo.” That’s definitely an invitation to give the gardens a visit and take some snaps!

Andrew would encourage it. He’s already given a virtual tour of the gardens for those who couldn’t visit during lockdown. But there’s no substitute for having a look around in person. Don’t leave it 40 years before discovering the gorgeous gardens that are right there, in Oxford City Centre, at Wadham!