Somerville’s gardens cover almost half a square kilometre and rely on the work of a team of gardeners to keep lawns mown, weeds at bay and herbaceous borders in bloom.
Staff who were here in the spring benefited from a pot plant delivery to their office window sill, while innumerable guests over the years, whether at Gaudies or Open Days or parties, have commented on the magnificent gardens.
Remarkably, the team that keeps the College looking so beautiful is just two men strong and today the head gardener, Robert Washington, celebrates thirty years at the College.
“It’s over half my life and I’ve enjoyed every minute,” says Robert. “It’s been a lot of hard work but the comments we get from Gaudy people on the Open Day are unbelievable. They tell us it’s not possible to do all this with two gardeners.”
Washington will turn 56 this July and was born in Forest Hill, which has remained his home ever since. In 1984, he was working as a forestry contractor and, through some work for the Council, a local parish councillor told him about a position being offered at Somerville. He was interviewed the next day.
“We would visit Sissinghurst, Kew and other gardens to get ideas and pick up plants,” says Washington of his early years at the College. “And I still visit Oxford’s Botanical Gardens twice a year.”
A former Fellow of the College once told Robert that she feared the quad had become “too much arable, too little pasture.” At the end of the nineteenth century, there was a stronger case for extended ‘pasture’, since a donkey and pony used to live on the quad. But it is the ‘arable’ which has transformed the College grounds into ornamental gardens.
Donkey Days: Somerville of yore
“The herbaceous borders are what he should be proudest of – that’s got to be his biggest mark,” says David Townsend, who has worked alongside Robert for the past 21 years. “Since we’ve had more of an input and free hand, he’s put his mark on the place. He’s a big fan of Salvias but we like trying new things generally. We’re in the long game, so we’ll grow from seed, which might take two or three years. Inulas are an example.”
Somerville’s oldest extant herbaceous border runs from the Chapel to the main lawn, and remains home to its trademark blue Echinops (blue thistle), but other beds have been added or changed since Washington arrived. The beds in front of Maitland used to be filled with roses but, Washington says, that meant spraying chemicals all the time. Now they plant 1,200 tulips a year (in the College colours), while the bed the other side of the path from Maitland is one of the more recent herbaceous borders.
“There’s a range there, from London Pride to the big Inula Grande in the centre,” says Robert. “I grew that from seed six years ago and now it’s taller than me!”
The peaty soil has been helpful for all these borders, as has the regular composting. Nevertheless, a few years ago Robert sank 5 or 6 old water tanks from Maitland into the flowerbed between Fellow’s Garden and the main lawn so as to help the wetland plants to survive.
“The bog garden is the one I’m most proud of as I designed it,” he says. “We sunk these great fibre glass tanks, each one around 6 foot by 3, and put shingle in the bottom and peachy compost to lap up the water.”
Another development has been Darbishire quad, which is famous for its castor oil plants but receives regular change in flora. It currently has osteospermuns at ground level, lavender and blue geraniums a little higher and wisteria and passionfruit climbers on the north wall.
Most recently, Dave and Robert laid a new Alpine bed in front of Wolfson, using low plants so as not to obscure the view out to the quad from the sunken Brittain-Williams Room. Phlox and dianthus are among the cheery range of flowers that brighten what could otherwise be a colourless end of the quad. A similar effect was achieved by the beds laid in front of the Margaret Thatcher Centre (MTC), although Robert had never heard the rumours that the MTC quad flowers were chosen for being an approximation of “Tory Blue”.
“Gardening is a way of life for Robert, not just a job,” says David. “So are real ale and Leeds United, of course. And he loves 70s rock – you’ll often see him in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt at weekends. But when it comes to gardening, he really knows his onions. It’s a pleasure to work with him.”
David and Robert in front of Wolfson’s new Alpine bed