Home » News » Meet Benton End’s new Head Gardener, James Horner

Meet Benton End’s new Head Gardener, James Horner

The Garden Museum and trustees of Benton End are delighted to announce the appointment of James Horner as Head Gardener of Benton End. An accomplished plantsman, garden designer and former Great Dixter scholar with a passion for beautiful plants and increasing biodiversity, James takes up the post next month to lead the revival of Cedric Morris’s once renowned and pioneering garden.

Garden Museum Head Gardener Matt Collins visited James recently at the Victorian walled garden he rents in East Sussex; the growing space and experimental ground for his numerous planting design projects to date. With delicate snowdrops heralding signs of spring and the rosettes of curious perennials fattening underfoot, James showed Matt around the 3/4 acre site — which he describes as his ‘plant den’ — and discussed the horticultural journey that has led him to this appointment.

James Horner

Matt: I love the sense of both privacy and playfulness that this space has, from the informal stock arrangement to its position in one corner of a wider, wilder walled garden. How did you come to garden here?

James: I first came here in January 2014, the winter I left Great Dixter. I was growing annuals and cut flowers for a best friend’s wedding and I was really fortunate that one of the people I was working for offered me the opportunity to rent what was once a very lively productive walled garden. It was a 55 minute drive from my house, the rent was peppercorn and there were no constraints. I didn’t own a place to garden and I knew I needed a space to discover my fashion with plants and flowers. My intention [for the garden] probably did start out as a cut flower enterprise — somewhere to grow cut flowers for events and weddings — but then I was amassing plants, too, so it became like a stash or stock yard, a place to acquire plants, put them in the ground and see what happens. The biggest pressure really is my own standards and expectations, though I don’t think I’ve ever invited anyone here when it’s been more messy, Matt, so feel privileged for me being so relaxed about showing you around!

Matt: I feel privileged indeed! It’s really cool to have a space like this where you can prepare and develop plant material. How does it play into your design work?

James: There’s a lot of shift when making gardens: the house build might run over or you can’t do your soil prep at the perfect time; it can be difficult to find rare plants at the moment you need them. Instead, I can generate quite a lot from here. This space works in conjunction with my little nursery at home — I dig something up from here, take it back as a full clump and then split it down into 20-30 small pots at home, where I have a potting bench, three cold frames and standing-out space. Plants grow on there before finding their way into gardens.

Matt: What kinds of plants do you particularly like growing here and where do you find them?

James: I grow a lot of bulbs, perennials, wildflowers, dahlias, shrubs and roses, all sorts of stuff, really. I build up stock by taking cuttings from people, going to nurseries. There are some Harvington hellebores bought as plugs and grown on here. I also get plants from places like Dixter of course, and Marchants Hardy Plants, which is nearby and has always been a favourite place of mine to go. Graham Gough is a tremendous guy, and expert in how he grows plants. I would just buy one plant: a phlox, aster, persicaria or new helenium, say — anything herbaceous — and see what it does, ask “what are you?”. I’d see what the colour’s like, how it grows, how it dies back, what insects it attracts or the timing: when it comes into flower on average each year. And then I’d soon be splitting it or take cuttings.

Matt: What are some of your favourites here?

James: There’s Datisca cannabina over by the wall there, a really strong, long-lived perennial with tassels of yellow flowers and cannabis-like foliage. That’s still standing in February with an intriguing seed-head. And the biennial delphinium, Delphinium requienii, that’s also really cool. It self-sows a lot, and it’s always winter-green with a shiny rosette of leaves; it has grey-mauve flowers in summer. I’ve got a sorbus grown from seed, and a really nice Danae racemosa. I’m trying to germinate some danae from seed but gosh it’s notoriously difficult, because you need several cold spells.

I’m also getting quite into snowdrops. The Avon Bulbs catalogue is a treat isn’t it? This is ‘Atkinsii’, and over there is Galanthus ‘Green Comet’ and also ‘Lord Monostictus’. I can dig you some of that up if you’d like, it has such a great constitution.

Here’s a fabulous hellebore. I was working for Luciano [Giubbilei, the garden designer] on a garden outside Siena and we found this hellebore in the grounds. I collected a couple of seeds but I don’t really know what species it is yet. It’s different to viridis, which is the typical European one; this is a bit more dainty. I sowed it back in June 2019 and this is the first year it has flowered. It’s beautiful, and very early; I think it might be the species liguricus.

Matt: Your collaborative work with Luciano Giubbilei sounds fantastic, assisting with Chelsea Flower Show gardens and travelling internationally to work on beautiful planting schemes. How did that come about?

James: I met Luciano while I was working at Great Dixter. He had approached Fergus [Garrett, Great Dixter Head Gardener] wanting to learn more about planting, and Fergus had the idea of giving him a space within the vegetable garden and asking me to help with it. We created a flower border there to explore which plants interested him. That started a collaborative relationship which has lasted seven years; we’re great friends now. The first trip I went on with Luciano was to the Siena garden in 2015, which I revisited on and off for about four years — I used to rent a car and eat pizza every night, and there’s this wonderful, wise Albanian gardener there, excellent at propagating roses, who used to give me grappa! My focus was planting design: I’d go to site whilst the wider garden design was being formulated, to understand the climate and the soil, and to advise Luciano’s studio on what the plant palette might be. Experiencing the place, the surroundings and the local gardens really informed my design process. We’ve worked on two big gardens in Tuscany together and on Formentera in the Balearic Islands; projects in Dallas, Geneva, Bordeaux. Most recently, a walled garden up in Northumberland.

Matt: You also work for a number of your own clients, designing and maintaining a range of gardens from green city enclaves and hotels to larger farmhouse gardens and wildflower meadows. Which have you enjoyed most?

James: It’s been great working for four and a half years with Richard Smith, who is an artist, fabric designer and painter; he has an approach to colour which is very ‘off-primaries’; he’s interested in subtle colours. So in his garden within the Hastings Country Park, we’ve made flower borders which we know as the ‘off-colours’ borders, full of plants like the dusky grey-leafed Fuchsia ‘Versicolor’, ‘Reine des Violettes’ and chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ roses, and Thalictrum ‘Elin’ with its pewter foliage. Lots of self sowing Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’. I hope this investigation into colour sets me up well to continue in a similar vein to Sir Cedric Morris’s interest in off-beat colour, and his iris breeding.

Matt: It ties in with your own arts background, too.

James: Yes, I did an Art Foundation course at Leeds College of Art and Design, and then went to Glasgow School of Art and did a bachelor degree in Environmental Art. I was inspired by Andy Goldsworthy and artists who rooted themselves into the ways of nature — that connection was something I realised was in me, too. I guess I started gardening around that time, when I was 21-22: I used to go up to Argyll in West Scotland to work at a smokehouse, initially just working with the fires, but then the owner asked me if I wanted to work in the woodlands repairing trails — that was my first job outdoors. The birch trees were magical and the landscape awe-inspiring.

I was born in Leeds, and brought up in a town between Leeds and York called Tadcaster; I used to walk a lot in the North York Moors with my auntie and uncle and their rambling club. My uncle had an allotment with fruit bushes and cordon apple trees, and he taught me how to make chrysanthemum cuttings and sow drill lines of carrots and beetroot. So that was kind of my gardening beginnings. After graduating, I got a job working for Leeds parks department — my first horticultural job — and did a basic horticultural qualification at the same time. I was really fortunate in that, at that period of time, Leeds council were making Main Avenue show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, and I got to help out with the build of two of them. To get that early exposure was incredible, having only been in the industry for maybe a year and a half, and to already be at Chelsea Flower show. To have that access, and to feel the energy at Chelsea in those build up weeks before the show was like, gosh, this industry is kind of amazing; the people are great, and they are loving what they’re doing. It was a real moment for me. At that time, the day-to-day work at Leeds parks department was spent mowing, hedge cutting, planting huge bedding schemes, creating hanging baskets, but I befriended the head gardener and he took me along with him to his Saturday job where there was an amazing limestone quarry garden.

Matt: You were Great Dixter’s first Christopher Lloyd Scholarship student in 2010, but you also worked there a while longer — I remember going to stay and garden at Great Dixter for a while just after you’d left, and your name came up fondly in so many conversations. What was the Dixter experience like?

James: The training at Dixter is very on-the-job, hands on. I did the scholarship and then stayed on for two and a half years longer, so just under three and a half years in total, working in the gardens, helping in the nursery, living on site the whole time. I was lucky to be given a room on the top floor of the house, in the Luytens Wing. Dixter taught me the beauty of being generous, in all ways, with food, with time, with conversation and knowledge sharing, and of course in the borders, with the garden overflowing. Many of the gardening methods I learnt at Dixter I still explore today — the meadows and the biodiversity across the estate taught me principles I’ve always since tried to advocate.

Matt: So what attracted you about the role at Benton End?

James: I’ve had plants of Cedric Morris’s for years, so his name was always familiar; plants like Galanthus ‘Cedric’s Prolific’ and the Benton irises of course — Iris ‘Benton Crathie’ and the beautiful and very vigorous ‘Benton Olive’, for example. Like Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto, he was a gardening figure I was aware of in early years, but have since definitely become a student of. When I saw the job advertised I thought, gosh, this is a one in a million kind of opportunity. It’s all about plants, and people studying plants. The role felt like an exciting prospect to bring together my passion for plants, my experience with design and the process of making gardens. There aren’t many permissions in the industry to just go deep with plants, plant collecting, plant breeding, and I’ve always said that if an amazing opportunity like this came along I would be interested in exploring it. Currently, I don’t get to dedicate myself to one specific garden for more than a day or perhaps a week, so to be in a garden day-to-day is something I want to dedicate myself to and to experience again. Hopefully the results will surprise even myself.

What’s also mouth watering about the role is the opportunity to delve into and take cues from the paintings; not just Cedric’s but those by people who painted at Benton End as well. For art to inform an historic garden project is really exciting. The house has such an incredible history and story — the art school and the bohemia of the place — the challenge will be to make a garden which feels both lost and vital, artistic, not polished and real.

The more I investigated it, the more I became aware that Cedric had huge compassion for nature, and this came through in not just his love of plants and animals but in his paintings of birds and landscape, with the titles alluding to the harm agricultural pesticides were doing to wildlife. With the garden being situated on the edge of town, merging into fields, and having gone fairly wild over the past forty years, I’ll take steps to assess how it’s existing as habitat and a food source for wildlife before — and during — the process of reviving the garden. Cedric’s awareness of the plight of the countryside gives me assurance that the garden can pick up these vital topics and standpoints going forward.

I’m super excited to be starting at the beginning of March. In some ways that’s the perfect time, in terms of seeing most of the bulbs that remain in the garden from Cedric’s time. The site is going to be a challenge, but we are very much at the beginning; everybody’s forming their own ideas about what this project is going to look like. It will take a huge amount of sensitivity, but I feel like there will be a lot of excitement.

More information about Benton End: The Garden Museum announces plans to revive Cedric Morris’ Suffolk home Benton End as a centre of art and gardening – Garden Museum

Photos by Jessica MacCormick