Interview with Kate Burtonwood and tips on sustainable gardening

Our latest event (online of course) with Oxford's Trinity College Head-Gardener Kate Burtonwood raised one initial question from our audience: What on earth does sustainable gardening have in common with Inclusive Trade’s message?”

Everything, it turns out.

Sustainability, responsible production and consumption and gender inclusivity are at the heart of everything we do, and those themes cover just about every profession on the planet. 

But let’s start at the beginning. For someone who had been swinging the power drills and putting together metal tubes for a polytunnel all day, Kate looked remarkable calm, collected and delightful surrounded by her beautiful house plants in her Oxford home.

A typical day for her starts with a quick tidy up and fixes of the extensive gardens of Trinity College, before meeting with the team. But from there anything goes, and no day is quite like the other: From choosing plants, maintenance and mowing schedules, budgeting, building the aforementioned polytunnel to house more fragile plants during the winter months and discussing possibly converting some of the lawns into more biodiverse spaces, Kate’s life is a far cry from the 15 years spent in front of spread sheets in the city.

Kate retrained as a horticulturist, to honour her love of plants and the desire of being outside, and never looked back.

As the questions kept coming from across the globe, we were able to get so many amazing insights and inputs to take away! .... 

“How does Gender relate to Gardening?”

Kate, who started as a volunteer in the Temple Gardens at the Embankment in London, reflects that her initial experiences were with an all female team, and so this wasn’t on her consciousness to begin with - everyone was simply expected to get on with the work. As she started to move into various estates all over the country, from a zoo to private country homes, she did realise that most head gardeners are male, and that it is a very male orientated environment. She frequently gets challenged about her abilities: “Are you sure you can manage that wheelbarrow?”, or “You know this needs fuel?” when she picks up a power tool are just some of the sentences a male gardener would rarely hear. But skill, passion and knowledge are the true tools of a gardener, and so gender exclusivity was never an issue for Kate.

 “What is the big difference between a professional gardener and an enthusiastic amateur?”

Kate: ”Well - basically, if you get paid for it, then you are a professional gardener! There are so many different ways into gardening, that I would never rate one way of entry over another. Gardeners can specialise in tiny spaces as well as landscape gardening - the variations are endless. Passion and emotions are important qualities for a truly inspiring garden, whatever the size, and so everyone who has these qualities and the willingness to learn is perfect for the professional role.

Mostly, gardening is about cultivating and keeping things growing, and not about doing more. Often it can be the job of a gardener to tell their employers that doing less will get better results: less spraying of poisons, less mowing, less cutting down, and more cultivating and sustainability will help the ecosystem to thrive.

“Isn’t all gardening sustainable?”

Kate: All gardening is good gardening, yes. But there are things to look out for: Buy local and independent rather from big chains, ask questions, because if you show that you care the supplier will be interested too and help you. So ask, what do the plants come in? Avoid black plastic, which cannot be recycled. There are many variations of re-compostable containers now.

If you need a larger amount of compost, a small supplier should deliver by the load, rather in individual plastic bags.

Avoid peat! For a while it was the indispensable ingredient in composting bags, but really, the only reason for it to be there is laziness: It doesn’t contain any special nutritions for plants, but it is lighter, and so easier to transport, and it soaks up more moisture, so it requires less watering. Peatlands are important ecological wildlife reserves, and we do not need peat in every garden. The National Trust now has committed to only buy peat free, which is a great step forward.


“How can we as amateur gardening enthusiasts achieve biodiversity?”

Kate: Well, really it just means be diverse and have a wide range of plants - the wider your range, the wider you biodiversity. The easiest way is not to remove existing habitats. Even if you have a little messy corner, they support their own wildlife. When you plan your garden, have a quick look at your neighbours, and make yours different - the more plants and flowers to choose from, the more urban biodiversity.

Lawns, who are an important part of British culture, are quite the opposite of biodiversity: a monoculture that helps a small amount of insect to thrive, it helps to introduce meadow borders for example.


“To spray or not to spray?”

Kate: All insect sprays are toxins, and when you spray, you cannot just kill one species - you’ll kind of decimate all of them. As the saying goes, you can’t have butterflies without caterpillars, in the same way you can have a garden without pesticides. Just be a little patient. Insects are seasonal, and while they will create havoc for a little bit, the plants recover quite easily, and you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy your garden.


“Any tips for those of us who don’t have a lot of space and are new to gardening?”

Kate: Micro gardening is a wonderful stepping stone into gardening. Make sure that you look at your first plants as a living thing coming to live in your home. In the same way how you wouldn’t buy a few puppies, hamsters and kittens, think about your time and resources. So start small; care for a couple of pants first.

As you get more used to your plants and adventurous, plan ahead and extend your season: Google your plants and plant accordingly. Ivy is tough and hardy and flowers at a different time than most plants. Then you may add bulbs. And later you can add flashier stuff that you pick up spontaneously in the super market.


“Can we make our gardens safe for our pets?”

Kate: There really is no blanket advice, so, again, google your plants! The RHS website has good information on animal welfare on their site, and when you are planting inside, little terrariums keep both the plants and the cats safe.

“Composting is all the rage - any tips?”

Kate: Firstly, know that composting takes about a year to yield results. Hot composting in special compost bins is faster but is a commitment - make sure you have the time to maintain your compost heap in order to avoid growing green toxic slush! This by the way is usually the result of just composting green plants. One basic skill of composting is to mix green and brown: add wood chip, shred cardboard and use autumn leaves. When you use your compost, place thick layers around the plant to make sure there are air pockets and they get all the nutrition.

Follow Kate on Instagram @cultivatedgardener and visit her website:

For more inspiration, Kate recommends books by Nigel Dunnett (@nigel.dunnett) and James Hitchmough (@jameshitchmough).

And don't worry you can still catch her amazing insights and inputs online here