Changing times for West Dean head gardener Tom Brown

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
West Dean head gardener Tom Brown took up his job shortly before a time which changed everything – the pandemic.

Tom will be in conversation with Chichester Observer arts editor Phil Hewitt for a special event for the Festival of Chichester during which he will discuss his career and his work at West Dean – and all the challenges and pleasures it has brought him.

Tom Brown In Conversation will be on Monday, June 24 at 7.30pm in the Assembly Room, North Street, Chichester, PO19 1AF, followed by refreshments, with tickets £12 available from the Festival of Chichester box office.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I started just before the first lockdown,” Tom says. “I started in May 2019 and I had seven or eight months of working out what was going on and how I was going to carry on from two rather iconic gardeners at West Dean, Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain (who had retired). I was also trying to work out which one I was supposed to be replacing on which day because I was replacing both of them! But then having just started, everything shut down with the pandemic.

Tom Brown (contributed pic)Tom Brown (contributed pic)
Tom Brown (contributed pic)

“The main income is through the college and the short courses and that entire income just stopped overnight. To mitigate that the executive team put all the gardening team on furlough apart from one. I had one gardener on site and we just had to prioritise the collections under glass, the collections that could not be replaced. We had to look after the rarer things and the rest of the garden was left to its own devices and nature just took over. We went without the main gardening team for six to eight months.

“And in some ways it was really liberating. I had been trying to work out in some ways what Jim and Sarah would have done, how they would have managed it, and that was quite restrictive. I felt quite shackled to the way that things had been done and shackled by their amazing legacy and then we had the lockdowns. And then we had the drought of 2022 followed by the floods of the following winter. It felt like everything biblical was being thrown at the garden. And I realised that just trying to do what we had done before wasn't fruitful. I realised that I could not carry on trying to manage it in the way that the garden had always been managed and still stay sane. I thought if I am going to cock it up, then I should cock it up in a way which was my own – and just that thought was really liberating. Things had to change, and for the last four years we have set about things in really quite a different way with some ambitious projects and some different planting. And the majority of people have really responded to that. With a large garden like West Dean, if you stop experimenting then you stop moving forward. You need to be trying things in different ways and looking at all the different variables. If you do that, then you learn and then you might be able to develop new techniques and different techniques.”

By having to let go, Tom was forced to allow things to move forward into a different era – and he and the team are now seeing the benefits, as Tom will discuss for the Festival of Chichester.

Related topics: