Nick Johnson – the Kew Gardens horticulturalist
Jane McGuire

Nick Johnson – the Kew Gardens horticulturalist

Nick Johnson the Kew Gardens horticulturalist

First published date March 11 2015 Amended date May 21 2015

It’s safe to say, before sitting down to chat with Nick Johnson, you could have fit my horticultural knowledge on the back of a stamp. Yet despite having no idea how to plant, grow or prune a plant, I have a resounding memory of visiting Kew Gardens not so long ago and being blown away by the displays. Therefore when it came to finding an expert to interview, there was only one place I needed to look. Luckily Nick, the manager of the Princess of Wales conservatory at Kew, was more than happy to answer my slightly naive questions and share his words of wisdom with Hotcourses. Discussing orchids, endangered species and everything in between, whether you are a budding gardener or an avid horticulturalist, this is one expert worth listening to.


So Nick, have you always been interested in gardening?

Yes I think I’ve always had green fingers – my father used to grow orchids when I was a child so I think I got my love of glasshouse horticulture from him.


How did things progress from there?

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in my teens, but spent a lot of time protesting against road buildings and fell into a very horticulture and environment based crowd. They switched me on to the love of nature and plants. I then got offered a place with a landscaping company and I really delved into it; I love the job satisfaction you get every day with this job. You make a difference every time you work in an area, even if it’s just mowing a lawn or planting a bed, there’s always some difference you can make and that’s very good for the soul.


Did you study or was this something that came naturally to you?

No there was definitely study involved. I did an apprenticeship with a landscaping company and was sent to college a day a week at Merrist Wood. I studied the RHS diploma and then when I came to Kew I joined the rotational trainee programme, which I was on for two years.


How long have you been at Kew now?

Fifteen years! The thing is with horticulture you never stop learning – there’s so much to surprise you and engage you every day in your working life. Particularly at Kew, where you’ve got some of the largest plant collections in the world, to be able to work with such a diverse genre is really inspiring.


Stupid question– what is the difference between gardening and horticulture?

Gardening is done by an amateur or someone who is doing it on an ad hoc basis. A horticulturist is someone who has studied the science behind it and put the time and effort into making a career out of it.


If you could pinpoint, what’s the best part of your job?

I was a nurseryman for a good ten years of my life and the best part of my job then was discovering new plants. I spent time in a lot of the UK overseas territories helping the onsite horticulturalists and restoration conservationists set up nurseries. So being able to travel to these amazing locations, see their flora and learn about their culture was really amazing for me. Now, as a display horticulturalist managing the Princess of Wales conservatory, it’s making the displays that make people’s jaws drop. That’s the really gratifying part of the job, where you make something that’s your concept, you think about it and in collaboration with a lot of people, you make something really cool that people can come and enjoy and appreciate.


Would you say every day is different?

There are a couple of hours every day which are typical – we spend a few hours before the public comes in watering, making sure we haven’t got any sick plants, leaf picking, pruning and all of the usual things a horticulturist would do. Apart from that, each day is completely different, for example, at the moment we are resoling a cactus bed! It’s nice to have new challenges.


Do you have a creative input in the displays?

Yeah my job is fully creative. I have three other permanent members of staff and together we come up with how we want the display to look and what the story is. There’s always a little narrative that might not be passed across, but it’s in our heads and we try and use what we’ve got to make something aesthetically pleasing.


What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?

Trying to fit everything into a day! In the Princess of Wales conservatory we’ve got ten different climate zones, there’s a huge diversity in Kew and trying to keep up with it all is a constant challenge.


Your work saves a lot of plants from becoming extinct, how does this work?

I used to work in the tropical nursery where we have more than 40 species that are extinct and over 1000 that are critically endangered. Rather than just holding the plants we try and collect seeds for restoration purposes, we study them, we try to work out the best way of germinating them and take cuttings. This then gets passed onto situ conservationists and we keep our ex-situ collection in case anything really goes wrong, there are still some plants here. It’s really using the plant as a tool to understand the species better so we can conserve them in the wild, because that’s the place where they are grown best.


That’s a really great answer. What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

I think apprenticeships are the best way to do this, certainly at the start if you can get an apprenticeship with a good horticulture firm and learn from people who have come before you. Really find out the best way of doing things, go to college and study the science of horticulture and get qualified. There are lots of BTEC courses, there are the RHS courses which are just as good; be keen and willing to turn your hand to anything. Eventually if you can come to Kew and do one of our diplomas; once you have that under your belt you’re sorted for life, and can go off and be a head gardener anywhere, or a restoration conservationist.


Finally, the question I’ve been waiting to ask since we started talking - what’s your garden like at home?

Well I’ve got quite a big indoor garden – my wife loves tillandsias which are air plants and we like to grow them in terrariums. We’ve only just moved to our new place so I’ve got a lot of digging to do at the moment but winter is the best time for that. I’ve got a pergola that I’m making at the moment over some decking that was already there, so yeah, it’s a bit of a mess at the moment but it’s showing promise.


I’ll have to get back to you on that one then – thanks Nick!


If Nick has inspired you to get outdoors and learn a little more about the plants growing in your garden, why not take a look at the horticultural courses listed on our site? With plenty of evening and weekend classes available, there’s an option for every pair of gardening gloves – so what are you waiting for?