Q&A with Sally Petitt, Head Gardener, Cambridge Botanic Gardens

What was your route into horticulture?

I was planning to study architecture, but halfway through A-levels, I realised that what I really wanted was to be a gardener - I had always enjoyed gardening with my grandparents.  I didn’t get a huge amount of encouragement from school, but I wrote to Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, and was lucky because a trainee had dropped out, so I took their place on the three-year traineeship.  I’ve now been here 35 years in various different roles before becoming head of horticulture. 

Tell us about your role.

It’s a wonderfully dynamic place to work, and I’m continually learning about plants, horticulture, and botany.  I don’t get the chance to do any practical horticulture anymore – the role is more managerial.  This was partly a conscious shift as I could see there weren’t many women doing practical horticulture by retirement age.  I have a team of 24 horticultural staff, and I’m involved in planning and strategy, finance, publicity and running the trainee scheme.  I manage to get into the gardens at least once a day.  Even now I’m still struck by plant combinations I hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because of the season or the light. 

What are some of your favourite plant combinations for the winter?

One of my favourite sights is the Rubus ‘Goldenvale’ with its white stems, underplanted with masses of Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops) and Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite).  The carpets of white and yellow with the ghostly white structure above is magnificent.  The Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ with their red stems works beautifully with Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ which also has a red tinge and snowdrops.  This is a fabulous combination that would work in smaller gardens – ideally somewhere where the sun can light up the stems.  Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ with its orange glow, combined with a mass of Helleborus argutifolius is stunning and the heather (Erica x darleyensis ‘Furzey’) adds a soft mauve colour and a different texture. 

What plants do you have for winter scent?

The Chimonanthus praecox (Winter sweet) smells amazing. Sarcococa confusa – which everyone should have near a path to enjoy as you walk past.  Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and ‘Charles Lamont’, as well as Virburnum farrreri are great.  The cheery yellow flowers of the Mahonias also pump out a scent.  Our Daphne bholua ‘Jaqueline Postill’ has the most exquisite fragrance but was hit quite badly last year in the cold snap. 

How has the winter garden developed over the years?

It’s constantly evolving as there are so many more plants available than 40 years ago.  More recently we’ve introduced Pinus mugo (dwarf pine) and grasses such as Miscanthus ‘Ferner Osten’, and Miscanthus ‘Septemberrot’, which creates a graceful arching form.  It’s also resilient and sprung back last year after the snow.  We’ve changed some of the trees, replacing the Acer capillipes (snakebark maple) with Prunus serrula for its beautiful coppery bark 

Do you have any gardens that have particularly inspired you?

The great thing about the winter garden is that it’s as lovely in the summer as the winter, when the form, space, structure, and texture still looks good.  I think form is important in a garden.  One of my favourite gardens, La Louve in France is strong on structure, and another favourite, Fullers Mill in Suffolk has a fabulously diverse plant collection.  Having said that, I enjoy softer, romantic planting for my own garden where I grow an eclectic range of plants including old fashioned roses.