Aroundtown meets…Sally Johnson

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Oh, how glorious it is to marvel in the beautiful splendour of nature when summertime arrives. The visual vibrancy, the pretty perfume, the interesting intricacy – there’s nothing finer than an afternoon spent in an English country garden.

And as South Yorkshire’s most spectacular floral retreat, Wentworth Castle Gardens takes a fair bit of looking after for visitors to enjoy the experience time after time.

At the forefront of the green-fingered gardening team, acting head gardener Sally Johnson is responsible for day-to-day planning at Wentworth Castle to keep the 40 acres of gardens in tip-top condition.

We know how strenuous, and sometimes stressful, it can be digging out the mower from the back of the garage and pottering around the garden for an hour or two. But when you sit back and finally relax surrounded by the luscious landscape, the finished result is a satisfying labour of love.

So imagine having the gratification of thousands of visitors who relish in your work.

For Sally, a career in horticulture didn’t strike her as her chosen pathway straight away. Having always had a keen interest in gardening and the outdoors thanks to her dad’s shared passion, Sally was used to being in the thick of it.

“As soon as I was big enough to wheel a trowel, I was always outside with Dad doing one thing or another. But as I started to reach GCSE age, I knew I didn’t want to be in an office, I wanted to work outside. So I thought, might as well give it a go,” she says.

Growing up in Matlock, Derbyshire, Sally chose Broomfield College, a land-based campus set in Broomfield Hall, now part of Derby College where she studied for her National Diploma in horticulture.

After finishing the course, Sally headed back to Matlock to join the team at Cromford Garden Centre, where she stayed for seven years, being plant manager for two of those. However, when the owners sold up in 2007 and the new owners were looking for a different direction for the site, Sally and the team were all made redundant.

“That was when I knew it was time for me to finally do my degree.”

Studying Sustainable Land Management at Askham Bryan College in York, the UKs leading land-based college, it was here that Sally first witnessed the beauty of Wentworth Castle Gardens.

Covering topics such as conservation, bio-diversity and green space management, Sally was to undertake work experience as part of her degree course.

Living in such a picturesque area, the prime choice for Sally was always the stunning surroundings of Chatsworth House, just a few miles from home.

But to broaden her horizons, she also worked at the newly-opened Wentworth Castle Gardens; another grade I listed garden and parkland with interesting follies and monuments.

At Chatsworth, Sally had the chance to try her hand at many areas of horticulture thanks to the 105 acre gardens, including growing and picking fruit and veg for diners from the Kitchen Gardens, and offer a welcoming approach with cultivating the beds and borders.

But as well-established gardens that have welcomed the masses for many years, most of the areas across the site were already in place, with just primping and preening necessary.

On the other gloved hand, Wentworth Castle Gardens was in its prime stages of fruition, having opened to the public in 2007 following a lengthy battle for restoration.

Although known for its naturalistic design, the estate had fell into disrepair having been sold by Bruce Vernon-Wentworth in 1949.

Thanks to the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust, the magnificent estate was redeveloped whilst still in-keeping with its historical roots.

“During my work experience, I was able to work on the 18th Century Union Jack Gardens when they were in their first stages of restoration. The great thing here was that I could also look to the future and make a contribution to the promising outlook that the gardens had in those early days.”

After graduating and time spent working at Calver Sough Nurseries, Baslow, Sally returned to Wentworth Castle over four years ago as a gardening assistant thanks to the help of former head gardener, Michael Klemperer.

Climbing up the career trellis, Sally’s time at Wentworth Castle Gardens has seen her pass through the ranks of supervisor and assistant head, to become acting head gardener earlier this year.

But what is a day in the life of head gardener at Wentworth Castle really like?

“The main thing for me is that I make sure things run smoothly in the gardens and the team is clear as to what is required. I’m now in charge of five full-time and two part-time staff, along with a team of parkland and garden volunteers. And we wouldn’t be where we are now without them all.

“You obviously have to prepare a rota for the week, but you’ve also got to allow for jobs that may crop up along the way,” Sally says.

With more responsibility comes more work away from the garden, with Sally keeping an eye on the staff from their lodge whilst busy ordering new stock to fill the 40 acre gardens, along with planning new displays and projects.

“But I do try and get into the gardens and be practical when I can, I’d miss it if not.”

With a huge spans of area to cover, the team’s weekly itinerary includes hedge cutting and the three P’s – pruning, planting and propagation. And whenever you visit, you’re bound to see one member out on the ride-along mower. With the mowing rota taking a week to complete, the circle of clipping continues each and every day.

In the recently renovated Victorian Conservatory, filled with foliage from across the continents, the temperate climes the plants hail from means that the staff must make sure the conservatory is dampened and misted twice a day, or three times during warmer days.

And bi-annually, the climbers you see trying to peek through the roof of the glasshouse must be taken down to start their trail again.

Starting around the same time as the restoration of the conservatory was underway, Sally says the transformation has been her most precious experience to date.

“The physical restoration hadn’t begun when I joined so it was great to be involved from the off. We had to sort out all the newt fencing before building work could start so as not to harm the newts. We then had to salvage and rescue any plants, replanting them elsewhere.

“I witnessed the construction team dissemble the Victorian Conservatory piece by piece, and we had a field trip to Shepley Engineers to see all the restored pieces laid out – it was such a ‘wow’ moment for us all. Then once back up, it was time to start planting.”

Known for their hundreds of plant species on display around the gardens, Sally and the team take care of three national collections including magnolias, rhododendrons, and camellia x Williamsii which feature heavily amongst the estate.

In full bloom throughout the year, Sally says she constantly relishes in the beauty of the outdoors.

“I love springtime for the plants waking up from their winter hibernation. And I also love the autumn for the change in colour. But it’s always so lovely to see families enjoying the beauty of the gardens in summer.”

With many follies in the estate, the grounds staff make sure the glorified castle ruins and monuments are kept clean and tidy, including the Sun Monument, dedicated to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who brought back the smallpox vaccination from Turkey.

As she takes us on a tour of the expansive gardens, it is clear to see where the many hours are spent each week. With everything from a fernery and stumpery with its own Gordian knot, to a lime tree avenue for Lady Lucy; the exquisite surroundings are truly well kept.

This summer, Sally will be putting the team to work in changing around the Victorian Flower Garden, or Secret Garden as it’s sometimes known. An idea from two of the gardening team, the Victorian Garden will be transformed from the standard summer bedding norm into an edible themed garden.

After looking for a change and to give visitors something new to see, the former bowling green will be swapping geraniums, marigolds and the never-fruited banana plants for the likes of dahlias, Swiss chard, sunflowers and amaryllis.

The Union Jack Garden is also being revamped thanks to a new initiative to Keep Barnsley Buzzing. By working with local schools, one segment of the flag-shaped garden will be turned into a bee education and pollination garden using 18th century plants. The top three designs submitted by school children will be put into action by the gardening team.

With a further two sections planned for new picnic areas, the project has taken three months so far to clear, prepare beds and move plants to new homes; with some also being donated to Matthew Wilson’s God’s Own County – a Garden for Yorkshire exhibition at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Keeping busy both behind the scenes and in the midst of the action, Sally continues to reap the rewards of her time and efforts she continually ploughs into the gardens.

“There’s just something about this place. They say variety is the spice of life, and that’s definitely the case here. I get lots of surprises and love doing something different every day.”

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