In this blog series, we'll be interviewing some familiar faces around Gunnersbury. First up is Head Gardener, Chris Ellis
Chris trained at Kew Gardens and has managed some of the most prestigious gardens and arboretums in the country, working for millionaires and middle eastern royalty among others, but what he does #fortheloveofGunnersbury is his most rewarding job ever, he says.
You’ve got an amazing CV, what attracted you to Gunnersbury?
I loved the idea of restoring this beautiful park and house. I like the fact that it used to be a private estate and now everyone can enjoy it. When I first started, I have to admit I did think ‘Oh, my God, what have I got myself into?’ There was a lot of antisocial behaviour and very little money. There was no team - just me. But it’s an incredible opportunity to educate people and engage with the local community. I love working with my team and with the volunteers.
This is a huge patch to take care of, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s 75 hectares, an incredible green lung bordered by the Great West Road and the North Circular. We’ve got a vast range of butterflies, bumblebees, arachnids and fungi here. There are 2,500 trees and we’re lucky enough to have a collection of what are called Champion trees, which are trees that are celebrated because of their size, their rarity or their historical significance.
Is it difficult having a smaller budget than you did with the other gardens you’ve managed?
As I say, for the first two years it just me – we had no other staff. You just need to make do with you’ve got. The team I have now are wonderful and they’ve got this great ‘can do’ attitude. We regularly reach out to the local community too and they’re brilliant. We now have people who act as volunteer gardeners and volunteer conservation rangers.
What’s your favourite part of the park at the moment?
It’s very difficult to say but I think it’s probably the terrace. The views across the lawns and the trees are amazing. I also love the rose basket beds, which are just over to the right as you look down from the terrace. They date back to the mid 1800s and those curved ladder-like structures represent the Rose Basket handles which will soon be covered in Roses once again.
My other favourite area is the herbaceous border which is on the right as you walk down from the mansions and ponds towards the sports centre. We’ve been planting a lot of Mediterranean and Prairie-style plants such as Verbena, Salvia, Achillea, Euphorbia, Echinacea to name just a few, which are all good for dry conditions. It’s been so well received by visitors that it’s really spurred us on.
And your next area to focus on?
Around the park itself we’ve planted over 100,000 bulbs ready for next year. We’re lucky that we have horticultural students from Capel Manor which is just next to the park, coming to do work experience with us.
We’re now working on the Italian garden parterres, which are to the right as you come into the park from the main entrance. We don’t want to detract from the dark evergreen structure of the Box parterres which means we only use plants that have white flowers or softer pastel shades t pastel shades like Wisteria and Peony rockii.
After that we’re going to restore the Bathhouse Terrace which is down to the left as you look out from the terrace in front of the mansions. We’re planning to plant the kind of sub-tropical plants with Cannas and Gingers that would have been there in its heyday. It’s always a mix of heritage and tradition on the one hand with an influence from the 21st century on the other.
What advice could you give an amateur gardener for creating a really stunning border or flower bed?
It’s not just about a mix of colour – you also need to think about a variety of shapes and textures. It’s a good idea to mix buttons, as we call rounded flowers, with spires. Then make sure that you’ve got flowers that will come into bloom through the year rather than all at once. It’s a bit like a dance in a way. I generally sketch out roughly what I’m going to do but then, when you start planting, you get other ideas. The most important thing is to know the soil and the amount of sunlight and plant what’s appropriate – as we say, “don’t fight the site.”
Your partner is a gardener too, isn’t she?
Yes, we were both working at Kew many years ago and our eyes first met across the propagating table. She’s worked at Michael Heseltine’s arboretum while I was at the university of Oxford Botanic Gardens, which is one of the oldest Botanic Gardens in Europe.
What’s your garden at home like?
When we first looked at the house that we’ve now bought I was really struck by the garden. It was very unkempt and had crazy paving covered in weeds as well as an old weeping Williams pear, all of which I’ve kept. I’ve created a gravel garden and a meadow too and let it stay pretty wild. It’s probably a reflection of me. It’s my nirvana.