Particularly at this time of year, there is little as pleasurable as a simple stroll around the Bowcliffe Estate and gardens. The borders are full to bursting with vibrant hues of every colour imaginable, whilst the Estate’s ancient woodland is a peaceful haven of dappled light. Regardless where you stand, the 360° vistas across the Estate is wonderful in sunshine or rain and there is no better place to take a five-minute breather from everyday stresses.
From a bystander’s perspective, the Bowcliffe gardens appear to seamlessly shift through the seasons, each one bringing a different but equally polished feel to the Estate. Behind the scenes though, our team of garden geniuses work day-in day-out to plan, create and protect every inch of the Estate gardens, woodland and Potting Shed. This month, we took time to interview our Assistant Head Gardener, Natalie Nixon, about her role amongst the Bowcliffe greenery and beyond…
Name: Natalie Nixon
Position at Bowcliffe: Assistant Head Gardener
Tell us a little about how you got into gardening…
My first garden was a birdbath filled with soil on an old chimney pot. I grew Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) and Night Scented Stocks (Matthiola longipeta). I always used to garden with my Mum and really enjoyed growing things in the vegetable patch she had. We used to spend a lot of time outside and in the countryside and she taught me all the names of the native wildflowers.
There is a history of gardeners in my family. Both my Grandfathers used to do landscaping and gardening work for people in their spare time and one of them worked for Suttons (I have his old secateurs!). All my aunties are enthusiastic gardeners, although one only grows veg as she thinks plants/flowers are useless, as you can’t eat them! My Great-Grandmother was what was known as a “white witch” or “hedge witch”, essentially a self-taught herbalist who used to treat with natural remedies.
Your education and career history in a nutshell, please…
Unfortunately, there wasn’t careers advice that encouraged gardening/horticultural work when I was finishing secondary school! I went to Aberystwyth University and read American Studies.
I then worked for a Jaguar spare parts specialist for five years, two of which were in America. After coming back to the UK I began working in London in marketing and events for a management consultancy. Although I really enjoyed this work I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the entirety of my career, so I started to look for gardening courses and began an RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) night class in the basic principles of horticulture.
For my last two years in London, I would bike to my night class after work once a week and fit in studying at the weekends and evenings.
I was really lucky to get a trainee position at RHS Wisley in Surrey where I would live, train and work for two years. It gave me an amazing grounding in all aspects of horticulture. After graduating I did two years in high-end private gardens in London, followed by three years at Leeds Castle, Kent.
Was there a single moment when you knew that you wanted gardening to be your full-time profession?
When I was working in London and doing my night class I had a gut instinct that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. I started looking for courses where I could learn but also work practically in Horticulture and earn a wage at the same time – along came Wisley!
When did you begin your position at Bowcliffe Hall and why did you want to come and work on the Estate?
June 2017 – Anna (Bowcliffe’s Head Gardener) and I trained together at Wisley (there are only 10 trainees accepted each year). Our year was very close and when we met up for our yearly weekend reunion Anna always talked about Bowcliffe and how much she enjoyed working there. I came for a visit in May and was blown away by how beautiful the gardens were and the setting and landscape they sit in.
Talk us through a day in the life of Natalie Nixon…
I get up about 6am on a work day and – people will hate me for this – do 15 minutes of yoga before the usual breakfast and daily routine. I get to work with enough time for a cup of tea before we start at 8am. Anna runs through the plan for the day; at this time of year (August) it can be lots of little jobs (tidying, picking for the kitchen, weeding, watering, orders, admin, deadheading or feeding) or longer jobs, for example, clipping the yews, planting projects, hedge cutting or rabbit proofing the fencing.
Believe it or not, I sometimes do some gardening when I get home and I try to do some form of fitness every other day, be that running, Pilates or Yoga. I do like to read but I never seem to get round to it (I have a book pal and we send each other books that we think the other would like!).
My husband and I usually catch up over a cup of tea and we take it in turns to cook, although I’m banned from the kitchen when it is his turn as I interfere too much! I love TV too – I tend to watch series such as Poldark and Homeland but am also a big fan of ‘Nordic Noir’ such as The Returned. American comedies including New Girl and The Big Bang Theory are also favourites.
What are the main considerations you need to be aware of when tending to a large Estate rather than smaller garden spaces?
How all departments of the Estate work to the same goal. We must all identify how our efforts must complement others. Just as important are how our actions may also have a negative effect on another area. For example, we wouldn’t want to start major upheaval just before a big event.
Garden and plant wise, what should tenants and visitors make a special effort to see when they visit Bowcliffe?
There are so many I could mention!
Right now it is the main flower borders – they are spectacular at this time of year.
But also the ‘sense of place’ (Genius Loci) is incredibly important. It is how a garden feels and how it affects someone as they walk around it. Areas where this is particularly apparent are from The Wing looking across the valley and the view from the phone box looking across the flower beds to the back of the Hall. Go and see them!
What’s your favourite area of the Estate at Bowcliffe Hall?
The Bridal Borders because of all the exciting plans we have for their renovation.
Hardest and best part of your job?
Hardest – trying to fit in everything we want to achieve at Bowcliffe
Best – being outside all day every day (yes even in the rain!)
Has planning begun for autumn yet? If so, what sort of jobs are being done in preparation?
Yes – there are lots of planting plans afoot, as well as the next round of bulb planting. So we’re planning for those. But we will be mulching this year too so I’m building up the upper body strength!
The biggest challenge when dealing with the Bowcliffe Estate?
Coordinating the work we do to minimise the effect on tenants, events and other visitors to the estate.
What’s your favourite time of year in the garden, why?
That is such a hard question! I love autumn because you get crisp mornings but often sunny days, but also spring as you forget after the winter how everything comes back to life.
Tell us three facts or things we might never know about the Bowcliffe Estate and Gardens…
1.) We have identified three different types of wild orchid on the estate
2.) There is a healthy population of stoats – keeping the rabbits in check!
3.) We have a rainwater harvester that we use to water the plants in dry periods
Your three favourite plants (flowers, trees shrubs) and why you love them so much?
1.) Love-In-The-Mist (who doesn’t love the first thing they ever grew?) I recently did my cousin’s wedding flowers and used this – everyone was talking about it.
2.) Delphinium requienii – it arrived on its own in a garden I used to work in by seed – slugs don’t eat the gloss leaves and it has amazing pale blue flowers.
3.) Wallflowers (Erysimum) they seem to flower forever and over a time of year when there is little other colour. They will grow in the worst stony ground. Even builders’ rubble!
Favourite gardening fact?
The right plant in the right place will reward you endlessly with little effort.
We hear you’re quite the sportsperson – make us feel bad and tell us sports you spend your time doing…
I’m a runner and always have been – but I’m not fanatical. I like to just enjoy it rather than training for anything in particular. In the last few years, I have got more into Pilates and yoga: they really help with flexibility, core and back strength, all of which is essential for the type of work I do.
I learnt to sail and got my competent crew qualification earlier this year. It was way out of my comfort zone so I was so pleased to achieve it.
If you’re not in the garden, where are we most likely to find you?
In the maintenance shed! Or The Potting Shed.
Three facts we might never know about Natalie Nixon:
1.) I lived in Baghdad for my early years during the Iran-Iraq War
2.) I’m a Liveryman for the Worshipful Company of Gardeners and have the Freedom of the City of London
3.) I lived on a narrow boat in Kent for two years before moving up to Ripon