Head Gardener, Robert Dunster has over 40 years’ experience having begun his horticultural training back in 1975 when he became an apprentice at The Queen’s Windsor Castle gardens.
Since then, Robert has worked as a gardener in some of the UK’s most prestigious country houses and estates, including eight years as Deputy Head Gardener for King Charles, at his organic gardens at Highgrove in Gloucestershire.
Now working at the beautiful Berwick Lodge, we spoke to Robert about his family life, a typical day in Berwick Lodge and his key influences.
Where does your passion for gardening originate?
I was brought up on a farmhouse surrounded by apple trees in Kent. We also picked soft fruit as a child which I enjoyed. So from a young age horticulture has been a big part of my life.
Does your family share your love of gardening?
Yes, my mother grew vegetables and herbs in our family garden. Beans, courgettes, and tomatoes were picked daily in the Summer. During my teens my mum made me cut the hedges with shears – there were no hedge trimmers in those days!
Who has influenced you the most in your career?
The first man was Laurence D Hills who was a pioneer in organic horticulture. I was a student in 1978 at the Henry Doubleday Research Association in Braintree, Essex. They later moved to Ryton near Coventry, now known as Garden Organic.
We lived not far from Dixter House & Gardens and loved Christopher Lloyds work. He helped inspire me with herbaceous plants and the use of colour. Later in my life I was Deputy Head Gardener at Highgrove House and Gardens and loved Prince Charles’ Garden where I worked from 1998-2006. It was an honour to work on a private estate with many other garden designers for the future King. It’s a real gem.
How long has Berwick Lodge been open to the public?
Berwick Lodge has been open to the public since 2009. I have been here 7 years as Head Gardener and have transformed the place.
What does a typical day look like at Berwick Lodge?
As Head Gardener, there are plenty of jobs to keep me busy throughout my 3 days on site. Berwick is a wedding venue, so appearance and aesthetics are very important. There are large grass areas across the gardens which are mowed and trimmed every Friday. The other two days I’m busy weeding and deadheading the large borders to keep the flowers going all Summer. I get help from my assistant Jane who does a lot of work in the cutting garden and grows it all from seed.
In the Winter there’s lots of tree work and log splitting to feed the hotel log fires. We like to keep our guests happy and warm.
Do you have a favourite part of the garden and why?
My favourite part of the garden is the very large oval herbaceous/grasses border I created 5 years ago. We have many plant supports from Agriframes which really help to maintain colour from March to December. It’s a very relaxing and beautiful part of the garden with views from the hotel bedrooms. The design has been influenced by the many gardens I have worked on as a gardener during my 45 years in horticulture. I am proud I created this garden. The guests also comment on the very large variety of plants crammed in and I get lots of positive feedback.
Are there any particularly challenging spots?
The main challenge is how to stop deer from eating my plants in the Winter. They browse the garden mostly in the colder months when there is less food for them to eat. I also look after bees and have a log hive and national hive. I’m a bee guardian and not a honey producer.
Do you have plans to change or develop the garden in the future?
The garden has evolved on a small budget. As a long-established gardener with many years’ experience, I’ve tried to make it as cost effective as possible. We are surrounded on one side by ash trees in a boundary of overgrown hedge which suffers from ash blight. The trees are coming out and I like to create a large hedge with specimen trees planted to replace the ash trees. I have planted some new fruit trees and others with the many ash dieback trees.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a gardener starting out?
Patience, determination and a sense of humour are essential for a gardener.
The long year divided up with the changing seasons. It’s a challenge with the changing unpredictable weather and the ever-increasing new pests and diseases coming into this country. To deal with them can become stressful so to adapt and work with nature is the calmest way.
Which other gardeners and gardens do you admire?
I visit many gardens all year, The National Trust and NGS gardens in South Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and parts of Wales. Living in Bristol gives me good access to these places. I keep an open mind with gardens and I change my mind every year, but Lawrence D Hills is the man who gave me a passion for gardening, so I am ever grateful to him. I’m very appreciative that during my long career I have worked organically and with nature. So, I really value organic gardens and the gardeners who work tirelessly on them, they are my favourite.