Image above: Geraldine King
“I only meant to stay six months” said Geraldine King, estate garden manager at Chiswick House. In March 2014 she had been intending to head west to work in the countryside, having given up her job working for the City of London.
“I was actually boarding a plane for a week’s holiday in Lanzarote when I got a call from (former estate manager) Fiona Crumley asking if I could help out the director of Chiswick House, Claire O’Brien, as there was no one with much experience on the team”.
Images above: Geraldine with Sadi the elephant; picking up Captain Rawes camellia from Chatsworth House; pruning
Claire had been newly appointed. Fiona Crumley, who died last year, had overseen the restoration of Chiswick House Gardens and moved on. They needed the expertise of someone used to managing a large park with lots of visitors.
When she came back from holiday Geraldine met Claire and started work at Chiswick House the following week, intending only to stay a few months. Nearly eight years later she will be picking up the threads where she left off, moving to the countryside to take up the position of garden manager of the ornamental gardens at RHS Rosemoor in North Devon.
“It’s a plantsman’s dream” she told me. “The Gardens at Chiswick House are an eighteenth century landscape, so you are restricted in the range of plants you can use. Rosemoor has a massive palette of plants. It is a plantsman’s paradise”.
“But it has been amazing to be part of the birthplace of the Landscape movement at Chiswick. It has given me a love of camellias and I have learned so much. I have always been conscious that I have merely been a custodian of these gardens.”
Image above: Gardeners’ Question Time; Current gardening team; Camellias photograph Jon Perry
Looking after the collection of Heritage camellias in the conservatory at Chiswick House has given her and her team the opportunity to attend international camellia conferences in France and China in pursuit of historic camellias and she now has a wealth of knowledge about them, based on Chiswick’s unique collection.
READ ALSO: Captain Rawes returns to Chiswick House
Image above: First time Chiswick House Gardens won both Heritage Park of the Year and Walled Garden of the Year in London in Bloom
Heritage Park of the Year winner four years running
She has led her team of gardeners – two estate gardeners, one kitchen gardener, freelance tree contractors and some 60 garden volunteers – to win Heritage Park of the Year four times in a row (2016 – 2019) in the London in Bloom competition. Twice they won the double – both Heritage Park of the Year and Walled Garden of the Year in 2018 and 2019. They won Walled Garden of the year again in 2021 and they have regularly picked up a clutch of awards and special mentions for the work of the volunteers.
Geraldine has been a London in Bloom judge for 22 years and an RHS judge for six.
Chiswick House has 65 acres, with an Italian garden, a rosary, a shrubbery, a kitchen garden and two wildernesses as well as the Heritage collection of camellias. They have a lake to look after and meandering paths used by thousands of people and dogs every week.
Image above: Doing a spot of boat work
Geraldine had previous experience of managing a large acreage and dealing with the public, having run Hyde Park as an assistant garden manager for the Royal Parks for four and a half years before coming to Chiswick. She planted an avenue of trees for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and met the Queen, surprised that they were about the same height (ie. short).
She had also managed a large park in West Ham, working for the City of London.
Geraldine started her career as an apprentice with Luton Borough Council in 1992. After a short stint as a ledger clerk which she hated, a job came up as a groundsman. They asked her one question: “Can you drive a tractor?” She said “Yes” and she was in. After a period they took her on as an apprentice and sent her to do her National Certificate in Horticulture at Oaklands College in Hertfordshire.
She later took a year’s sabbatical to do her National Diploma in Horticulture at Cannington College in Somerset, where she was awarded the St Bridget’s cup for student of the year, and went on to add a Certificate of Management studies from Birkbeck College in London.
Image above: Chiswick House Gardens being judged for London in Bloom
“I’ve absolutely enjoyed working with all the volunteers at Chiswick” she told me. “I’ve had fun and I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve had an amazing gardening team and it’s been great to watch them develop and enhance their careers”.
She was full of praise for the community vibe in Chiswick, paying tribute specially to Karen Liebreich, Abundance London and the Chiswick Flower Market, to the Chiswick House Dog Show team and even The Chiswick Calendar for its support.
“I’d like to say a massive thank you and come and see me at Rosemoor” she said, which I suspect is one of the traits which makes her such a successful manager.
She leaves on 19 January. Chiswick House Trust is advertising for her replacement here: chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk
Images above: Geraldine doing tree work; posing with the team at one of Chiswick House’s many public events; taking part in Chiswick Flower Market
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