Head gardener Debs Goodenough discusses her green-fingered work with HRH The Prince of Wales
The Royal Gardens at Highgrove are a varied collection of landscapes with five areas to explore: The Stumpery, Cottage Garden, The Sundial Garden, Thyme Walk, and the Wildflower Meadow. A garden that’s been over 35 years in the making, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales has overseen the design and upkeep of Highgrove with passion, vision, and dedication.
To help realise his green-fingered ambitions for the gardens, His Royal Highness has been working with head gardener Debs Goodenough for the last 10 years. Leading a team of 10 fellow gardeners and overseeing 15 acres of luscious garden, Canada-born Debs works hard to create a space that’s both personal to His Royal Highness and accessible for the 40,000 visitors that descend on the grounds every year. Here she explains what her role encompasses, His Royal Highness’ favourite areas of the garden, and how her team combines the traditional with modern approaches.
What drew you to a career in horticulture?
My mother was an avid gardener when we were growing up, she grew vegetables and fruit for the family, as well as having an ornamental garden with flowers. My earliest memories are of being in the garden with her. She's still growing plants on her window sill at the age of 98.
I grew up on a farm among the plants, trees, and woodland. In my teens, when I was looking at what I wanted to do, I was always growing and propagating plants at the same time so while I tried different things, it all led me to this career.
Can you tell us about some of your first jobs in the industry?
There was mowing lawns in the local civic gardens when I was 16, and after I did formal training I did some maintaining and propagating plants at a horticultural research centre as well as selling plants to local nurseries. From there, I went on to be a trainee in different places in Canada, in the States, and then when I came over to the UK, I was a trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
What does the role of head gardener encompass?
The role is very diverse. It can range from organising and working with the garden team out on the ground. Or I could be taking individuals around the garden, researching and sourcing plants His Royal Highness has asked to be in the garden – he keeps his eyes on what is out and about in the gardening world. I can also be budgeting, planning projects His Royal Highness has identified, planning work programs for team leaders, planning for the seasons ahead, or I could be sending garden reports to His Royal Highness, which I do on a weekly basis – he always wants to know what's going on in the garden.
What goes into a garden report?
It can be how the weather has impacted the garden, the fluctuations in temperature, how much rainfall – His Royal Highness is very keen on knowing how much rainfall we have. The report will also detail what we've been doing in the garden, everything from hedge cutting and grass mowing to areas we're planting in or dead heading. It’s a very good report for me to ask queries about how he wants the garden developed or if there are problems we have. It's a very good communication tool for us to use.
How would you describe the design of Highgrove gardens to someone who had never been there before?
That's a tricky one to encapsulate! But I'd say first and foremost, it's very personal. His Royal Highness' signature is reflected in the style of the planting, the plant combinations, and the organic approach. That's really integral to the whole look. Colour, form, and texture are key elements, and this links the various compartments the garden is comprised of. It's not a formal garden and it's not wild. It's a combination of both and it's very comfortable for most people coming around the garden. It's like going into a home rather than a bare house.
Who designs the garden? What methods do you use?
The garden has been in existence for over 38 years, which is when His Royal Highness bought the property. Over those years, he has had various individuals coming in to assist on the design of the garden in conjunction with himself. Most recently though, he’s taken on a lot of the design on his own. He's got a very good knowledge of the garden, more than anyone else on site.
The methods mostly are still very traditional. Gardening is still gardening, and that will never really change because you still need that manual approach. But technology is really making life a lot of easier for us in the gardening world. We've got new equipment with batteries, so it's lighter, safer, quieter, and cleaner for the team. We've also got camera phones so we can take pictures and identify diseases, and apps that control our automated irrigation system. The quickness you can do that stuff really helps us in plotting and planning our jobs ahead. His Royal Highness is very positive about combining the best of the traditional with the modern if it means efficiency and the garden he wants.
Is your work a collaboration with His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales?
For the most part all the design and work at Highgrove is overseen by His Royal Highness. My role within the garden team is to create his vision in the most efficient, organic, and practical way. I always emphasise it's his garden and our job is to create the garden he wants to see.
He spends a great deal of time in the garden when he can. Whatever time permits, he still prunes, lays out new planting, and if he can he’ll plant the areas himself or in collaboration with the team.
What's your favourite time of year to work in?
That's a really difficult question! I have to say I haven't got one, each changing season brings another element to enjoy. When spring starts there's an abundance of flowers, but what His Royal Highness has created is a very good structure to the garden, so that even when there isn't anything in flower, the shapes of the hedges, topiary, and the planting of the trees still hold the design together. In the dead of winter for example, a frost or a dusting of snow on the hedges is absolutely magical.
Does his His Royal Highness have a favourite time of year to be in the garden?
I do know that he likes particular light levels in the garden, times where the garden is shown off at its best. Those moments change throughout the year and you can have several of them in one day. His Royal Highness understands the garden well enough to know when to catch that golden light, like when you can see the sun coming through the autumnal leaves.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, the team is primarily on seasonal maintenance: hedge cutting, topiary cutting, harvesting vegetables and fruit, leaf collection, as well as one of the projects we have year on year, which is planting more bulbs for spring displays.
I'm also collating all the winter work that I've compiled from notes from His Royal Highness, because he details things he'd like done for the winter throughout the year. This can be anything from tree removal, planting, extending beds, to reworking existing beds for display.
What are the challenges of overseeing the gardens of a property like Highgrove?
I think a lot of people think the main challenge is being organic. But actually that's really not a challenge at all because we're always focused on that. We try and showcase to visitors that we don't automatically pull out the weed killer!
The biggest challenge is actually the increase in visitor numbers. His Royal Highness loves the space and it's great he wants to show the garden to other people. It's just the infrastructure we have to be very careful about, particularly when the weather is inclement and we have to try and get visitors safely around the garden without causing damage to the garden from the footfall. Luckily, year on year, we've been sympathetically upgrading the surfaces so we can minimise these risks. We’re trying to maintain a balance where the garden is open to 40,000 visitors but still feels like a very personal garden.
You've been at Highgrove for 10 years now, what has been your favourite moment so far?
I've had a lot of really good moments that I savour. The obvious one is creating the desired effect that His Royal Highness is looking for in the garden. He's very appreciative when it all comes together and you get it right. Recently this was the display of delphiniums we've had in the garden – this year has been absolutely spectacular.
One of my best moments though has been developing a really good team. They understand the ethos of His Royal Highness’ garden, they're committed to the organic sustainable practices, and they know what it's all about. Within that team we've got trainees, and year on year it's really nice when they move on and we watch their career develop. For 10 years we've been moving trainees on to other gardens and investing in the culture of horticulture.
Do you have a favourite part of the garden?
Every season has its area, so it changes for me. In February for instance, the first bulbs are coming out, which is so exciting. March is nice because grass cutting starts and it starts to tidy up the garden. Then there’s the meadow in April, May, and June, which is just unbelievable, and in July the borders are at their peak and look stunning. Harvest season in August, September, and October is fantastic – we get so many apples, pears, and plums that all get used either by His Royal Highness or get turned into jams, jellies, and juices for later in the season. I could live without the workload in November, but in December we've eventually caught up on all the winter work by then and we have a quiet few weeks ready for the new year.
It really is the most fabulous job.