Q & A with Eleanor Alborough, Head Gardener at Deans Court
Ellie is our head gardener at Deans Court, she’s been with us since 2011 when she moved down from Cumbria to pursue a career in horticulture. Ellie’s life has been one almost as close to nature and wildlife as it gets, her story starts with a childhood spent spotting wild herbs with her mother and watching her father basket weaving. Her passion for wildlife only grew as she got older and her life now includes as many outdoor activities and traditional crafts as possible. Everywhere she lives she builds a wildlife pond and names the fiddle, whistle and mandolin as just three of the instruments she regularly plays.
You may recognise Ellie from our Instagram feed where she regularly appears alongside Buster, Bunnie and Gumdrop as she tries to work and they tirelessly try to distract her. Read below to learn a little bit more about her life and what it’s like working in the garden at Deans Court.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
I grew up in the north of the country. We moved house a lot but predominently stayed in Cumbria and County Durham. In County Durham I lived in the Dales amongst heather moorland so spent a lot of time walking, cycling and generally being among wildlife. I have always lived in farming communities, but I am not from a farming family. My father is a vicar.
So your interest in plants and horticulture started young?
Yes, I have been interested in plants for as long as I can remember. Both my parents are interested in plants and flowers. I grew up with my father weaving baskets and in one place we lived he even grew his own willow (a withy bed), I would help him cut and harvest it and occasionally help him weave things. My mother has a keen interest in herbs and wild flowers and so these would be pointed out to me on walks. The first plant name I learnt was Rosebay Willow Herb – I remembered it because it was our goat’s favorite food.
My father was also a member of the British Bryological Society (BBS), he would do surveys and collect samples, some of which I have added to my herbarium. I later became a member myself and although I have lived in lots of different houses over the years I have been lucky enough to have a nice garden at each place. From a young age I always built a wildlife pond in each new garden, and would always help with growing vegetables.
How did you turn your passion for gardening into a career?
My university degree was in Environmental Conservation and I had the option of doing a research master’s degree to further it. However, there tends to be a lot of research positions available in conservation but few jobs and I knew I wanted to do something that was based outside and was practical. It was my (now) husband Chris who suggested gardening. And as soon as he suggested it it made perfect sense – of course, the perfect job for me! We researched what qualifications I’d need and I started doing some gardening work for local people in my spare time. I then did a one year, full time, level 3 course in horticulture at Kingston Maurward college and then came to work at Deans Court.
What do you love most about your job?
My favourite thing is being aware of how the seasons change. A year in the garden goes around like a circle, following the pattern of the weather. Each season I look forward to the next one, be it Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter. In the Winter I always look forward to Spring when we see the first signs of life in the garden, but that quickly turns into anticipation for the summer when the plants will finally begin to grow quickly and those early signs of life really come into bloom. This leads to a busy time in the garden as there is always demand for vegetables and flowers in late spring/early summer – I often wish they could grow quicker! By late Summer I begin to get tired of the hours and hours of weeding, trying to keep on top of it all and start to wish for the Autumn when growth begins to slow and life is a little bit more gentle. As Autumn progresses and the leaves start to fall I begin to think about the Winter's activities, clearing the borders and digging over the vegetable plots in preparation for new growth in the spring. I really can’t think of a least favourite season. Working outside I suppose a lot of people would say they don’t enjoy working in the rain and cold but actually I find it harder to work in the heat of the summer, it can get very hot in the walled garden the sun sometimes seems relentless. It may rain in the Winter but a lot of winter gardening jobs can be done in the rain, you just dress for the weather!
If you had to choose, what would you say is your favourite thing to grow?
I love growing vegetables! However, I find brassicas (cabbage family) a bit harder work. They get easily attacked by pests and diseases and with Deans Court being a chemical free garden it means it can sometimes be very labour intensive tending to them. One example is caterpillars. We cover the brassicas in butterfly netting to stop them laying eggs on the plants, but I discovered a few years ago the butterflies just lay their eggs on the net and the caterpillars drop down onto the plants. So now we have to pick each caterpillar off by hand, and sometimes there can be hundreds! I also like to grow flowers for cutting and planting up herbaceous flower borders. I get satisfaction from most plants I grow, I love watching them reach their full potential, start from just a simple seed.
What other hobbies do you have, away from gardening?
My hobbies are mainly craft type hobbies, including knitting, cross stitch and my dad has recenrtly started to teach me basket weaving. I also like to play traditional Irish music and play the fiddle, whistle, and mandolin. I grew up listening to my dad playing folk music on the fiddle, concertina, and guitar, so it has always been one of my interests. I also like kayaking, coasteering, cycling, camping, snorkeling.
If you couldn’t be a gardener what would you be?
To be honest I can’t imagine myself doing anything other than gardening! But if I couldn't I think I would like to be a paramedic.