Head Gardener Ian Gilbert: ‘A very pleasant place to be’

This article is part of the People Make Dartington series, meeting a wide range of the brilliantly diverse individuals and businesses who contribute to Dartington estate life. View the full collection here

Our head gardener Ian Gilbert has been at Dartington since 2004 when he joined on a year’s contract. He arrived just at the start of Summer School, at that time under Artistic Director Gavin Henderson.

He says: ‘I was working in the private garden and the Dartington Community Choir was practising. From my point of view, weeding the border in a private garden when someone is singing Handel’s Messiah is a very pleasant place to be.

‘I hadn’t been there very long when Kate Caddy (former Trustee and granddaughter of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst) came out and asked me how I was. People here seemed to go out of their way to ask how you were – quite unusual. I was sitting in the little gardeners’ mess on the great lawn with my Tottenham Hotspurs mug when I first bumped into Vaughan [Lindsay] who said he too was a Spurs supporter. Certainly during his time here I had a very good working relationship: I always felt I could go and talk to him and not hold back if I needed to.’ He says there was a strong feeling then that you were part of a family.

How did he start out in gardening? When he left school he describes his options as: being car mechanic, working for a glass company in Plymouth or taking an apprenticeship in a nursery. After opting for the latter, he gained a National Certificate in Horticulture at Pershore College in Worcester. He then returned to his family in Devon following a family bereavement and spent the next 17 years at Endsleigh Garden Centre, Ivybridge. Ian helped to build up the small family business to what it is today.

Ian Gilbert
After a stint in a garden centre in Cornwall, he returned to Endsleigh but ‘it had kind of lost its appeal by then: it had got too big’. Ian was also at a turning point in his life as he had recently become a single parent following his divorce. He was just thinking of becoming self-employed when he saw the job ad for The Dartington Hall Trust.

While the Elmhirsts had unlimited resources to create a large garden and team to maintain and develop it, the picture is very different today. Ian says: ‘In the time I’ve been here, the gardens team has always been trimmed to the bone. I’m trying to make people aware that we’re only a small team and there’s an awful lot to do to maintain the garden to the standard that everyone expects. There are things people do that just add to our workload. The lawn area in particular takes a battering over the year. Poor drainage and waterlogging are now a real problem, so asking people not to use the area in winter is not being dictatorial but helping to give the lawn areas time to recover.

‘The other obvious areas are the terraces: everyone is tempted to climb up and down them, but the more this happens the more holes appear and this makes maintaining and cutting them with a Flymo more dangerous. The machines tip over which is not a pleasant experience for the staff member using it.

Dartington Hall’s Tiltyard area, with Henry Moore’s Reclining figure sculpture in the foreground and Great Hall in the background

‘Community Day can be very challenging… You want the visitors to have a good time, but you’ve also got one eye on looking after the garden. The garden plays a large part in all that happens here and it’s important that we can all enjoy the space. Hopefully with the help of the existing and potentially new interpretation boards that give a better understanding of the garden’s heritage, then staff and visitors alike will value and respect all the garden has to offer.

‘The job I do is quite stressful and I think as a manager you’re only as good as the people you work with. I am fortunate to have a very hard-working team of people around me who are intelligent, knowledgeable, committed and happy to make their own decisions. So it’s important I give them every opportunity to use their initiative. They are a really important part of how I do my job, and that goes for the volunteers, too.

Ian’s hopes for the future are that The Trust will develop areas for events and facilities on the wider estate, such as the land around Aller Park, which he believes lends itself to recreation, a café area, shops and can help encourage outdoor activities offered by Dynamic Adventures. He says: ‘My wider hope for Dartington is that we can find and settle on an identity that can last well beyond the next five years.’

Find out more about Dartington’s listed Gardens ⇒