Gardening our way through a global pandemic

For this inaugural blog on our new website and the first of 2021 I wanted to reflect on 2020 and how we managed the Garden through the pandemic but as soon as I had that thought, I realised that I really couldn’t remember when it all started.  Then I started wondering ‘are we in lockdown 2 or 3 at the moment?’, ‘did we have volunteers helping us in 2020?’ ‘when did people come off furlough?’.  I really had no idea so before I even started, a quick internet search was required – in case you’re wondering, we’re just coming out of the third lockdown now.  I then realised that this pandemic has been going on for over a year now, so maybe I should limit my recollections to lockdown 1.0…

First, a little bit about me.

I’m Nell and my role is Head of Plant Collections here at Chelsea Physic Garden and I would describe that role as a combination of Head Gardener and Curator – although only paid one salary unfortunately!  I manage the Garden, set the work schedules, ensure the Garden is maintained to the standards I set and then on the other side of things, I curate the collections ensuring they contribute to our mission of connecting people with plants and helping everyone to understand the importance of plants to our lives.  I am Chelsea Physic Garden born and bred – I did my training here under Nick Bailey and then became Propagation Manager (which is still one of my favourite things to do) before becoming Deputy Head Gardener and finally my current position.  What I love about this Garden and my role is the diversity – one day is never the same as another and the range of plants that we work with here is mind-boggling.  I think I probably learn something new about a plant every single day.

Anyway, enough about me and on to the main reason for this blog.

Lockdown 1.0 – 23 March

Even before this started, the weeks leading up to the lockdown were filled with uncertainty and one of the first things we did was to ask everyone who came into the Gardeners’ mess to wear a mask and then we took our meetings outside (something we still do).  As people got wind of the lockdown the supermarket shelves were emptied.  I was used to getting the train home and then picking something up in Tesco’s on the way – I became rather good at improvising a meal from a spring onion and a lump of cheese; the only things left in the supermarket!

Whilst Gardeners can’t do their work at home, we decided during the first lockdown that only those of us who could get to the Garden without using public transport could come in.  We didn’t know how long this was going to last and, just like everyone else, in those first days and months we made many decisions based on no information or experience; we had to remain agile and flexible.  Our over-riding concern was to keep everyone safe and whilst we all work outside, we also have to get here and share inside facilities.  So many times, it was very difficult to decide what the right thing was to do, but in general it felt better to act before the Government and to do the right thing in supporting the national effort to contain the virus, even if this made things difficult for us.  Of course, whilst we could scale back our efforts and ambitions in some regards, nothing really changed from the plant’s point of view – everything kept growing, needed pruning, weeding, staking etc…

Within a month, we had furloughed half the team, decided not to recruit a seasonal gardener role and asked volunteers not to come in.  We were down to four gardeners covering an intensively gardened four acres, seven days a week.  We also decided that only three people could be at the Garden at any one time.  As well as being worried about anyone on the team getting ill, I was also acutely aware that if one person got it and the rest of the team had to isolate, it was going to be very difficult to keep the Garden going.

I have mixed memories of this first lockdown – some better than others.

I got back to cycling to work which I had stopped doing a few years ago after I got knocked off my bike and had a corresponding knock to my bike-confidence.  This was, and still is, a big win – thank-you Covid-19.  At the Garden, the birds started reclaiming the audio space and we could hear them loud and clear with no aeroplanes nor helicopters overhead and very little traffic on the busy Embankment.  As usual, I had planned a big tulip display for the spring and this went ahead as we had planted them in the autumn but only the Gardeners were here to see it.  I did however have a lot of tulips in pots and so I moved those and some other plants to create a display by the metal gates on the Embankment and Swan Walk so that people could enjoy them when they were out on their daily exercise.  Some days, it felt like we were behind bars in our beautiful prison and I would often talk to people on the other side of the gates; in fact, I got to know some of those people quite well through that time.  Another thing that I treasure.

In many ways I relished the simplicity of this time – there were no meetings, little management and just a clear job to do – keeping those plants and the team alive.  I felt very lucky to be able to go to work each day and have such a clear purpose.  Of course, whilst I was dragging hoses around and despairing at the size of the weeds, I did have a few thoughts of envy at my colleagues who were on full pay at home in a beautiful spring with full permission to not work.  I did offer to get myself furloughed but was firmly turned down J

In conclusion, I am an annoyingly optimistic person, as you will see from this blog.  However, I still can hardly comprehend the scale of death and hurt caused by this pandemic. I keep myself going by taking any positives I can, whenever I can.  I have felt very privileged to be able to be part of the team that has kept the Garden going during this pandemic.  It has really helped me navigate a way through the turmoil.  I’ll finish with this quote from one of my favourite authors as it really sums up my experience:

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore