23 Apr 2020

Our Garden Horticulturists – Ayshea Cunniffe-Thomas

Bruce Langridge

Garden visitors may well have noticed our horticulturist Ayshea

She’s often seen driving the horti buggy with plants she’s grown herself, down to our Gatehouse Plants Sales. It’s her pink hair that stands out –  she’s had pink hair for as long as most of the staff have known her, and she’s been with us for around 10 years now.  But it’s not just her pink hair that stands out, she’s an outstanding horticulturist too.

Where were you brought up Ayshea?

I live in a village just outside of Carmarthen called Llangain. A few years ago, we were able to buy the house I was brought up in and so this is where we now bring up our children. The house and garden both need a LOT of work, but I love it here. The views are amazing!
Having been brought up in a rural area, I was always keen on nature. I remember going for nature walks when I was in primary school and being fascinated by the flowers growing in the hedgerow. I’d enjoy helping my Dad in our veg plot, although I was probably more interested in eating the peas than anything, and helping my Mum in her glasshouse where she had a grapevine growing. The glasshouse has long gone but the grapevine is still there!  Hours were spent with my mates off on our bikes, building dens, going on adventures. It was such a wonderful, carefree time.

How did you get into horticulture?

I was about 17, working part-time in our local pub while looking for full-time work. One of our regulars had a commercial nursery and he offered me a job for the summer. One of my first tasks was to ‘take cuttings’. I don’t think I had ever seen this done before or even knew it was possible. I said ‘What?! You take this bit of plant, stick in the compost and you make another plant?!?! ‘ Mind blown! From then on I was hooked! Seeing these rows and rows of plug plants was incredible. Straight rows, so satisfying. And we had such a great team, it was always fun times.

Any special training?

After working on nurseries for a few years, I thought it was about time I got myself a qualification, so off I went to Pershore Horticultural College in Worcestershire. I did a NCH, Nursery.  A couple of years after that, I went to CCTA which is now Coleg Sir Gar where I completed my HND in Horticulture. I also spent a year at Longwood Gardens in PA, USA where I was an international student, rotating through all areas of the garden. This was a fantastic opportunity and I would recommend it to any young horticulturist. In fact, I would recommend any kind of travel; working in other places gives you great variety of how things are done differently, how places are run and how funding – or lack of it – can affect how an establishment is run. And, if you love horticulture but don’t know which particular avenue you’d like to take, try them all. I have been fortunate to work in most sectors of the industry (is that the right phrase?) however, nursery work is my favourite. Mind you, it took me about 15 years to realise that!

What’s your main job role?

My job is split 50/50 (this is flexible, depending). Half my work is in the polytunnel where we grow plants for various areas of the Garden. This means growing mostly for the Broadwalk and the Double Walled Garden. So, it’s mainly herbaceous perennials but some seed sowing and trees and shrubs propagation. I also oversee the production of our own plants for the Plant Sales area. Then, of course, there’s all the other projects we are involved with. Sowing seed from plant collecting expeditions, contract growing and, of course, there was the Ginkgo project which I am immensely proud to have been a part of. I still get regular updates of how ‘my babies’ are getting on, which is fab!
The other half of my time is spent looking after our apprentices. I am their assessor and set them work, make sure they are learning and completing tasks that coincide with the C&G modules, and generally keep an eye on them. I’m always on hand to give advice or help them out wherever possible, and make sure they are doing OK and heading in the right direction. This, for me, is not just in a professional capacity, we really care about our apprentices as people too so this extends to anything they may need help with. I am always available, 24/7 should they need me.

How’s the coronavirus affecting your work?

For the few of us that are still working, it’s a good team effort. We are all working together, metaphorically of course. Personally, it’s been great to continue working, to have that bit of normality. But I won’t say it’s not harder, because it is. I will be very happy to see the rest of our team back on site, as not only will it ease the pressure, I also miss all their faces and the banter and the fun. Without them we are still a team but not a complete team. And I’m sure Blue (Barnes-Thomas) will have a fit when he sees how many courgettes he’ll have!

Are the rest of the Horti team coping ok?

Everyone seems to be getting on with it. What else can we do? It’s such a strange time. And while, initially, I quite enjoyed the peace and quiet of the Garden. Now, when I see things coming into flower and looking fabulous, I feel it’s a shame that visitors can’t be here to see it all. Especially with the glorious weather we’ve been having.

Can you tell us what you favourite plant is and, maybe, your favourite part of the Garden?

My favourite plant changes ALL the time. At the moment I’m into geraniums. Unfortunately, I have discovered my chickens love them just as much as me. Just as they develop a nice clump and look like they’re about to put some flowers out, they get decimated by the little fluffy terrors! So, I’ve had to invest in some bamboo cloches to protect them. And try not to buy any more geraniums or, at least, find out which ones they don’t like to chomp.

My favourite part of the Garden is the Wild Garden area beyond the Slate Beds, overlooking the lakes. It’s peaceful out there and an area I don’t see too often. So, occasionally, when I’m in a buggy for whatever reason, I’ll take a quick spin out there just to see what’s going on, what’s come up, see if I can see a kingfisher. I have seen a kingfisher twice in nearly 10 years of working here. The last time was about six months ago, so I’m pleased to see they are still around.

Tell us about the parties you used to go to in the Stable Block before the Botanic Garden took over

My friend Mad Mark (says it all, really, doesn’t it?!) Richards owned what is now the gift shop and marketing office above. We used to have parties at Mark’s place. However, if you want any details, you are probably better off talking to Mad Mark as his memory is far better than mine! I will say this though, the Stable Block is definitely haunted . . .