After that I got married and I left to have children; I was twenty-four. I didn’t work again properly for twenty years. It was something I thought I just had to do.

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Debbie

I always wanted to be outdoors. When I was young we always went on farming holidays, so when I grew up I wanted to be a farmer. My sister was indoors with my mum baking cakes, and I was outdoors, saying “Dad, shall we cut a tree down today?”

When I went to secondary school, the careers lady offered me a Pitman course for typing and all that, but I really didn’t want to be a secretary or an office worker. Gardening was the next best thing that I could do, because I didn’t have a farm.

I started as an apprentice gardener with the Royal Parks. I had to do nine months in each park: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace. That was daunting, because I’d come from Sidcup and then suddenly I was going to London! I was only 16. While I was in Kew Gardens I met my husband – he was in the tree gang.

Then I moved onto Buckingham Palace. It was very old-school. The two men I worked with were old-fashioned gardeners: cloth caps, braces, suit, waistcoat, tweed… They had been there for years. And then suddenly a little 17-year-old comes in, wearing her clip-clop high shoes and goes in to change for work. I think they just thought, “Who the hell are you?”

They weren’t used to a girl. I was the only girl and they just said, “There’s your mess room” and I was segregated from the rest of them. They used to bang on the door and go, “Time!” when my break was up. Maybe they thought that’s what I wanted, or what girls needed.

It was quite lonely. In Buckingham Palace, you don’t see a soul unless the Queen or Prince Andrew walks past! You were told not to talk to them unless they talked to you. I bumped into Princess Diana one day and I had Prince Andrew chat to me once, but apart from that, there was no one else there.

At the end of my apprenticeship I became a Grade One gardener, and then eventually I became the Charge Hand for Hyde Park Corner. I was in charge of eight to ten gardeners. We could design bedding – summer bedding, spring bedding, plant up, water… it was just brilliant.

After that I got married and I left to have children. I was twenty-four. I carried on gardening for family and friends, things like that, but I didn’t work properly for twenty years. It was something I thought I just had to do.

I have a best friend and we always laugh when we reminisce now about how lonely we were. Going to the baker’s, buying a loaf of bread and saying hello to the baker was the highlight of the day. Just talking to someone, because sometimes you wouldn’t talk to anyone until your husband came back. We used to go out and do things, but it’s still not the same as coming to work.

I was creating the perfect little family and I had the cleanest, tidiest, most polished house in the world, but you do think that there’s more to life! In the end, you just think, ‘I need some money and I need a life again.’ So that’s what started me looking.

I was really scared. I looked for a job, and this is the first job I applied for. It’ll be six years in June that I’ve been here. I just filled in the thing online – had to get my son to show me how to do that and then it was a telephone interview. The rest is history. When I came here they hadn’t had a proper gardener for a while; it was a bit of a mess everywhere, but it wasn’t daunting at all because I love a challenge and I could make a real impact. I could more or less put my own stamp on it.
Tracy, our manager, one day said to me “Design me a dementia garden” so I went and researched it. You have to look at every plant that you put in a dementia garden to make sure it’s not poisonous or thorny, so that residents cannot hurt themselves if they eat it or fall over it. The pathways should be a figure of eight so the residents know how to come out of the garden and how to go back into the home. So one cold, frosty day, I sat inside in the warm with some graph paper and coloured pencils and I designed a garden that had all the nice things that a dementia patient needed, and also incorporated some of my favourite colours.

The pinks, whites and blues are pastel, cooler colours which can make the residents feel calmer, more relaxed in a garden. We also have plants that rustle in the wind, jungle leaf plants which are pleasing to look at. People with dementia remember things that they used to do when they were younger, so we put in silver cross prams that they can push around, and we’ve got games such as Jenga, skittles, bowls and croquet if they want to play.
It made people move. They walk more than they used to, I think. From walking up and down a corridor, to now walking out that door, getting fresh air and sunshine on their body. It’s fantastic. That garden is also used by the families who bring their residents out to have a cup of tea, read a paper, do a crossword. You can have your own little space outside. Sometimes I hear all the games going on up there and music in the dementia garden; it’s not the residents – it’s the grandchildren that are banging and crashing around!

We started a little gardening club in almost every unit. Sometimes, residents come and help me sweep the leaves in the winter or the autumn time, some of them are really good at that. They sit with straw bonnets and hats on, in a big circle, I bring the compost in and we plant bulbs, or sunflower seeds. A lot of the time it goes wrong, and they get covered in compost or some fall asleep, but that really doesn’t matter because they’ve tried, they’ve done something; they’ve touched compost, they’ve planted bulbs. If they’ve done it upside down, I just turn them up quickly when they’re not looking!

I think it’s really important for a care home to have such a lovely garden. It’s a very important selling point. I have entered competitions for the last five years and I have won gold medal awards for my gardens. People know about it, there’s never really any recognition. I don’t know why. Maybe they don’t need gold medals, maybe they just need the grass cut once a week or whatever, but there’s so much more to it than just cutting grass.
I’m happy here, in my little world. It’s not the best paid job in the world but it’s the best job in the world. Because I’m free. It’s my park, my garden, but it’s all for them – for all the residents.

I always just say, “I’m only the gardener” but then they all say, “You’re not only the gardener!”