Gardens & Grounds

The Complete Gardening Service

Read about the early days of Gardens & Grounds as featured by Cumbria Life Magazine in April 2003 (transcribed below):


Richard Woodburn, of Kendal, gave up a promising academic career to become a full time gardener. Report by Richard Simpson


Some people dream about running that little Lakeland hotel, while for others the escape fantasy is that idyllic second-hand bookshop, full of witty conversation and all those J R Hartley moments. But for the green-fingered the daydream of choice invariably involves becoming a full-time gardener, and then spending every day doing what comes naturally.

But what is the reality of this existence really like? Is throwing it all up and becoming a gardener really a bed of roses, or is the reality actually more about the thorns than the petals?

To find out I've been talking to Dr Richard Woodburn, a man who gave up a promising academic career - he's got an Oxford doctorate, based on his research into the effects of climate change on woodland ecosystems - in order to spend his days in and around the south Lakes, working with the brush cutter, the mower and the spade.

Richard is quick to confirm that his clients, many of whom are keen gardeners who just need a bit of extra help, do indeed dream of living his working life.

'They say 'I am so envious of you', and I always reply, 'it is wonderful on a day like today'. People don't appreciate that to make a living you have to be out in all weathers, and that it's hard physical work too.'

We'll come back to all the rain and the back strain later, but how did Richard come to get interested in gardening in the first place?

'At school I always had an interest in biology, and I also used to mow the grass for dad - and I can remember reading books about lawns even then.' He explains.

Lawn maintenance isn't exactly the typical teenage interest, and Richard's burgeoning love of gardening grew even stronger when his older brother Tim set up a garden maintenance business, based near the family's Sale home. The business did very well too, and so throughout the university vacations (and there are lots of those when you stay on to do post graduate work) Richard learnt his trade the hard way.

'Working for your brother is never easy' Richard recalls; 'He was a real slave driver.'

Throughout this time Richard's academic research work also served to reinforce his growing passion for plants.

'There was quite a lot of plant science involved, about how plants interact with insects, and how insects then interact with birds and mammals.' (And yes, I asked and 'interact with' is indeed scientist-speak for 'get eaten by'.)

During those early years the gardening work was more a way of earning money than a possible long-term career choice. But as he became increasingly disillusioned with the fact that a junior research scientist's life consists entirely of short term contracts - and as a result there's never an opportunity to put down metaphorical or literal roots - Richard came to realise that a gardening business might be a viable alternative. But why come to Kendal, when there are all those wealthy garden owners down in south Manchester , not to mention an older brother to exact revenge upon?

'My grandfather and my dad were both from Kendal', he explained 'and we'd been coming here once a month since I was a child.'

So back in the summer of 2001 Richard took the plunge, and set up in business on his own. And it's all gone very well too. So now, two years into his new career, how would Richard sum up his experiences?

'It's been much harder physically than I expected, because what I've learned from clients is that you always have to be dependable and turn up on the day that you're supposed to - which means that you can't just take a day off when you're tired. And it's also been more stressful than I expected, because it's really not just about being a gardener. For instance you have to dovetail all the jobs together, to try to minimise your travelling time. And there's lots of paperwork too, not to mention the time that you have to spend getting machinery serviced, and in sourcing specialist supplies.'

If that sounds like a gloomy, workaday assessment then it really shouldn't, because it's obvious that Richard loves what he does. Indeed even the much-maligned Lakeland weather isn't, apparently, quite as damp as we all think it is.

'I must admit that I'm quite hardy to the weather, and I enjoy working on a cold, dry day as much as a warm dry one' he says. 'And I've been surprised to discover that, although it does rain on quite a lot of days, it rarely rains all day.'

These are clearly the words of a natural optimist (and of course optimism is the true gardener's natural state of mind), but some of the things that Richard says would be enough to attract even the confirmed non-gardener to his way of working life.

'If I'm working in a very picturesque place, and I very often am, I sometimes look up from the soil and take in the scenery around me. And I think 'this is my office'.'

Mind you on the downside Richard does point out that there is some loneliness in the life of the long-distance gardener, and that he misses the banter of the office or lab-based workplace. But it's clear that his working life offers plenty of compensations, including the opportunity to diversify into other related areas of work.

For example Richard waxes lyrical on the subject of lawns, proving that those teenage passions do tend to last.

'A lawn can look so beautiful when you've finished working on it,' he says, 'and it's really the frame for the picture that consists of the rest of the plants in the garden'.

Richard is so passionate about grass that this year he'll be offering a special service, where he'll diagnose your lawn's problems (mine is moss, moss and more moss), then prescribe treatment - organic or chemical-based - and finally implement it too. (So I guess we should call him the 'lawn knower' from now on.) And that's not all, because inspired by his academic work he's also offering a wildlife gardening service, where he'll help clients to encourage wildlife to visit, and indeed flourish, in their gardens.

Inevitably all this diversification requires ever more reading, thought and research. And that means that the working day can be a long one.

'I think I must have read a gardening book of some kind on every evening that I've done the job' says Richard. That's impressive commitment, and I bet it does wonders for his popularity at home too...


INFORMATION: Richard Woodburn can be contacted on 01539 739009 or 07971 040607.