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Resident Advisor: Nell Jones on curating the Chelsea Physic Garden

Head of plant collections Nell Jones on the joys of a new season, career changes and creating your own edible garden

30 March 2022

Nell Jones
A nesocodon mauritianus flower at the Chelsea Physic Garden
Welwitschia mirabilis plants at the Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden is a serene, hidden treasure just a short walk away from Sloane Street – it is London’s oldest botanic garden and even boasts its own microclimate, which can still feel Mediterranean in wintertime. As the head of plant collections, Nell Jones cultivates some of the world’s rarest flora, so we sat down to find out about how she looks after one of the city’s most beautiful places, her meandering career path and what makes a good edible garden.

 

What was your journey to becoming the head of plant collections at the Chelsea Physic Garden?

I was a headhunter in recruitment for 15 years, and then I thought, I’ve got another 20 years of work so why don’t I just do something else? Something that’s a bit more tangible and rewarding. 

I took some time out to gather my thoughts a bit. I started volunteering in the Garden and ended up doing the traineeship, and then I got a permanent job here, looking after the propagation. From there, I just kept amassing information and responsibility, and then eventually interviewed for this role. 

I’ve been here for about 10 or 11 years now, but I hadn’t been particularly into gardening before! I grew up on a farm in the countryside, so I’ve always been connected to nature, but I’d never really had a garden. 

 

What’s involved in your day-to-day?

My role is twofold. One part is managing the Garden and our team of six people, plus volunteers. I make sure that everything’s done correctly, at the right time of the season. The other side of it is collections management. That involves curation, so I think about what we are growing, what we should be growing, what we can improve, and how we develop these areas to better represent our mission to demonstrate the usefulness of plants to humans.

 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I really love is the diversity of my job. Yesterday I was digging things up, and today I’m talking to you and preparing for a plant identification workshop that I’ll be delivering to the team. Or I could be researching plants to put back into the collection, I could be auditing a collection – looking at what plants we’re missing and what we already have. It’s nice to find out where plants come from and what they do, and find things I’ve never seen before. 

It’s both intellectually and physically challenging, and I really like that combination of the two.

 

Chelsea Physic Garden is home to around 4,000 plants, many of which are medicinal or edible – can you tell us about some of the more unusual ones in the collection?

We have hundreds of things that you just wouldn’t normally see in a garden, but there are two that I think are the most outstanding. One is the welwitschia – a very weird plant. It’s like a tree but with an underground trunk and it only ever has two very long leaves.

We’ve got another cool plant called nesocodon – its flower has bright red nectar and it’s usually only found in Mauritius. Now, a lot of these things seem quite ordinary to me, but when others note how unusual they are, it gives me some perspective.

 

Our mission is to demonstrate the usefulness of plants to humans

 

What are your tips for growing an edible garden at home?

Well, I would say it’s super easy! Choose things that you really want to grow, and that you want to eat. 

If you’ve only got inside space, or a balcony, then growing chillies is really simple – you can get all sorts of different types. Herbs are brilliant, too. If you have a small garden, you can get some pots or raised beds and try growing carrots. But just do it – start sowing stuff and see what happens.

 

What current and future projects are you working on in the Garden?

At the moment, we have a huge project to renovate the glasshouses. They were built from Burmese teak in 1902, which was a time when the garden was really focusing on creating a scientific resource to grow plants that couldn’t grow outside. They are 120 years old, and now they are simply at the end of their life. Essentially, we are taking everything down and rebuilding them, but we will reuse what we can. It should be finished next summer to coincide with the Garden’s 350th anniversary. 

All of the plants in the glasshouses need a protected environment, so moving them for this project is very complex because we have to phase it according to the season and temperature. We will also be reinterpreting and replanting the collections to tell stories of what the plants do and how they’re used, and to talk about contemporary themes such as habitat threats, biodiversity and climate change.

 

What can people look forward to seeing in the Garden this spring?

There are loads of spring-flowering shrubs, such as forsythia, which is bright yellow, and we have fruits such as apricots flowering at the moment, at the end of March. We’re seeing all the buds coming out on the trees too, which creates a green haze when it’s sunny. Then there are the flowering magnolias, hellebores, camellias and daffodils, and soon we’ll have tulips. 

Just seeing everything starting to emerge from the ground makes this the most exciting time of the year. It just makes you feel really happy.

 

And what should people look out for throughout the year on the streets of Chelsea?

My absolute favourite thing to see is the blooming wisterias in Chelsea, which are so amazing in late spring. There’s also a tree that I really love on the corner of St Leonard’s Terrace and Cheltenham Terrace. It’s called melia azedarach – or chinaberry – and it has the most amazing blue pea-like flower. It’s really, really gorgeous. Ormonde Gate also has some beautiful magnolias that bloom in early spring. 

 

Chelsea Physic Garden is at 66 Royal Hospital Rd, London SW3 4HS

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