The destination for history

Ask the author: Arthur Parkinson on spring gardening


Arthur Parkinson trained at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, before working for Sarah Raven at Perch Hill, East Sussex. He was head gardener at the Emma Bridgewater Factory garden and his first book is The Pottery Gardener: Flowers and Hens at the Emma Bridgewater Factory.

Why did you start gardening?

I always liked colour and being outside, it’s a nice feeling that you’ve nurtured something well when you see a garden that is full of flowers. It sort of makes sense of everything when you have those moments.

How did you come to be the head gardener at the Emma Bridgewater Factory?

I was asked to visit to see what I thought. I’d not visited the factory before but I had started collecting a few Emma Bridgewater pieces at home in Nottingham.

What are the biggest challenges and biggest rewards of managing an urban garden?

Seeing bees and butterflies is rewarding because they are in such decline now; I feel good when I walk through the garden on a summer day and it’s really humming away with insects feasting on all the open, nectar-rich flowers. It is good when you get peak season days where certain plants you’ve planted either as bulbs or grown from seeds reach their peak of flower, so in late April and early May the tulips look so flamboyant all open like flapping parrots and fire goblets.  It continues with the sweet peas in June filling their birch tunnel with colour and scent; fragrance really does fill a small garden well.  Cosmos and dahlias party on into summer. When you nail the succession of flowering plants in a garden space so that everything overlaps and you don’t get a dreaded dip in bloom, that’s a very good achievement for any gardener to do. It takes time, though, because you must experiment first with what you like and what works for your space – I haven’t quite got there just yet myself!

The biggest challenge, really, is the effort it takes. Gardening and rearing livestock isn’t a 9-5 job. You can’t disappear for a summer holiday and expect to come back to everything looking well without a caretaker, there is no ‘Save As’ button, so I think that’s been the biggest challenge. I suppose when it’s only you doing something like this, keeping yourself motivated is very important by looking at what other gardens are doing and not losing sight of what the end aim is. The second thing is watering because the beds are raised, so they dry out quicker than you’d think. The same goes for the greenhouses on the factory’s back roof; they can become like a kiln themselves on hot summer days which can spell disaster for any seedlings. Thirdly, rats! When you’re in the middle of a city you must be extra aware of always being clean and tidy because they’ll appear at the slightest lapse – poison isn’t the answer, being organised and aware is!

What inspired you to write The Pottery Gardener?

I wanted to write it to try and give the garden an enduring identity, but the idea for it started as a chicken book.  I’d also taken so many photos of the garden as it had grown that I felt something publishing-wise could be done with them.

Which flowers do you think are essential for any spring garden?

I think pots planted with tons of bulbs by the door are very important for a spring garden. An avenue of them of similar sizes, made up of nice terracotta urns and little galvanised tin baths, lining the edge of a garden path to the front door, or having them crammed together either side of an entrance, creates good impact. You can have pots in in any space and they are perfect for bulbs as they ensure vital drainage if their bottoms have been drilled with holes and layers of crocks are added to stop soggy soil. Iris reticulata look beautiful now, as do big purple and blue crocuses, and then come the richly fragranced hyacinths like the beetroot purple ‘Woodstock’. It is worth planting early spring bulbs on top of tulips so that you have something now to look at, especially in a small garden – you need some flowers in January, February and March, these are the dark months after all!

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books