10 minutes with Chris Collins, GO's Head of Horticulture
Garden Organic's new Head of Organic Horticulture, Chris Collins has a CV most gardeners can only dream of, taking in two Royal Botanic Gardens and the green space at 'The Queen's church' Westminster Abbey.
With a long TV history, Chris has popped up on everything from Blue Peter - where he ran the iconic London garden for nine years and then created a new one at the BBC's MediaCityUK studio in Salford - to Gardeners' World, This Morning, Children in Need, Garden Invaders and Turf Wars.
Chris trained at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh before working on diverse projects all over the globe, including Africa's oldest botanical gardens in Cameroon and a stint in Japan teaching British gardening techniques. Chris returned to the UK in 1998 and his career blossomed further at Kew and Westminster Abbey.
We decided to find out more about this RHS Chelsea Flower Show medal-winner and where his inspiration for organic gardening came from, so put some of our burning questions to Chris.
How did you career begin? I come from quite a rough background and when I left school I got an apprenticeship on the Brighton Parks. I planted an elm tree in my first week and I knew straightaway that this was what I wanted to do with my career. That tree's now 45 feet tall. Gardening has given me a fantastic life and I owe it so much. I don't know whether it's fair to say gardening saved my life, as you never know what path you might have taken, but it certainly lit things up for me, and still does.
So, what was it like being a Royal gardener? I was Head Gardener at Westminster Abbey and I worked at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Being in charge of legendary gardens is a huge responsibility. You have Her Majesty The Queen turning up at Westminster Abbey pretty regularly, for example, as it's her local church. So you're gardening to the highest possible standards all the time. There was always a lot to do there but I love that because that's when I'm at my best.
And your time running the nation’s most watched garden? There were so many hilarious moments looking after the Blue Peter garden. I’ve worked with Scooby Doo and Buddhist monks. I’ve been eaten by a giant plant. For a feature on composting, we made little Daleks with Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston. There was always something fun going on and I had the chance to direct what we were doing. The greatest thing was that it was really successful at reaching children. My endgame? Is always to spread the message about horticulture.
What’s the best way to inspire the next generation to grow their own? I’m a big fan of gardening being taught in schools. The key thing is to have someone come in once a week to drive the project and share their enthusiasm. Get some raised beds, sow some fruit and veg, nurture them week by week, let them see the growing cycle. This is how you teach kids properly about growing. week by week, let them see the growing cycle. This is how you teach kids properly about growing.
Top tips for anyone getting started? My advice is to start small, at home, even if you only have a balcony or a few pots on a patio. Make it a family project to see what you can grow, whether it’s crops or flowers or a combination. Going out and about to I’m a big fan of gardening being taught in schools. The key thing is to have someone come in once a week to drive the project and share their enthusiasm. Get some raised beds, sow some fruit and veg, nurture them visit places for inspiration makes it more fun.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to people being 'organic'? Organic growing gets painted as something elitist and that's not helped by prices on organic goods being higher than regular products. The whole idea is false. You can only change that view by being out on the ground, telling people about organic life. Working with children and parents has taught me there is a whole new attitude to our environment and this represents a huge opportunity for natural gardening in the future.
The best thing about working with nature?
If you don’t live with the seasons you’re missing out. I’m not keen on the modern idea that you can get any food or flower all year round. It’s madness. The beauty of each season fills you up and it’s like meeting an old friend. To properly notice and to be in contact with each changing season is an absolute privilege.
Gardening teaches life lessons. Wisdom is born from error, for example! Gardeners are on a constant learning picking up new things and that’s rare in life as you get older. The art of gardening is working with nature. Gardening is all about observation and patients: two things that society lacks these days because life is so fast-moving. If you’re prepared for that, gardening is the most rewarding game.
What’s your favourite job in your garden? I love watering because it’s the catalyst for all the other jobs. I don’t believe in hosepipes, so I always wander around the garden with my watering can. It lets me see which plants need feeding, weeding or staking, and I can do all those little jobs right there and then. I go into the ‘zone’ when I’m in my garden. I don’t think anything beats it and there’s a good reason why gardening is compared to mediation. I don’t have any troubles when I’m in the garden because it takes away the troubles of the world.
Hear Chris explain why he's taken on this role in the short video below...