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From horticulture student to Botanic Garden Manager: Peter Thomson's journey and daily routine

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For this edition of Dialogue, we spoke to Peter Thomson our Botanic Garden Manager.

Peter completed an NVQ in Amenity Horticulture at Houghall College in Durham and was placed at the Botanic Garden for two years during this time.

After completing his placement in 1995, he was called into the then Horticultural Manager Steve Ansdell’s office and offered a temporary job for the next six months. This was later made into a permanent role working in a very small team looking after the Botanic Garden under the guidance of Head Gardener Mike Hughes - later to be manager of the Botanic Garden.

Sadly, Mike passed away on New Year's Day 2022 and for the following months Peter lead the team through a very hard time for them all as they had worked alongside Mike for almost 30 years as colleagues and friends.

Peter undertook a lot of management training over the subsequent months, applying for and gaining the job as Botanic Garden Manager in October 2022.

The same year Peter received his long service award (delayed by Covid) from our Vice-Chancellor Professor Karen O’Brien.

Peter hopes through new events such as the Botanic Garden Annual Fun Day and improvements to the Garden, it can be made more accessible for visitors to come and enjoy throughout the year.

Here Peter tells us about a typical day…

5.55am: Wake up usually to George my labrador licking my face to tell me he wants feeding; I have an alarm set for 6am as my back-up! Get showered and dressed, feed the dogs, and take them out for a quick walk.

6.45am: Have breakfast and coffee. Then I like to catch up with the news on TV and think about the workload for the day ahead.

7.30am: Set off to work, I only live a couple of miles from the Botanic Garden, so it doesn’t take long to get there.

8am: Arrive at work and liaise with staff on work being carried out that day and any events taking place in the Garden, school visits etc. Also, deal with any issues or follow on work from the previous day.

9am: Catch up with emails, admin, invoices, Oracle training, organising staff annual leave and processing timecards. I usually grab a coffee from the visitor centre by about 10am.

11am: Check on work in progress around the Botanic Garden. It's good to have a look around the actual site a few times during the week as this helps seeing first hand areas to improve within the Garden and issues that need dealing with. I sometimes do tours of the Garden around this time of day such as monthly walks where I show people what’s new and things that are currently in flower.

12pm: Try to grab a bite to eat and another coffee. This seems to be the time visitors like to come in and ask questions or when deliveries arrive (maybe I’m imagining this though as I’m hungry).

12.30pm: Start ordering items for various tasks around the garden (plants, materials, PPE etc).

1.30pm: Committee meeting usually with Friends of the Garden, H&S, various gardening groups or an on-site meeting to plan for an up-and-coming event within the Garden (Annual BG Fun Day, VC’s Garden Welcome event, Easter Chick hunt etc).

2pm: Usually there is at least one Teams meeting during the afternoon, usually with Event Durham, Biodiversity Delivery Group, Health and Safety or various student groups.

4pm: Plan to finish work and go home (rarely happens as I usually get engrossed in replying to emails). My team finishes work at 3.45pm and the visitor centre closes at 4.30pm so this is when I can get a lot of work done without any interruptions.

5pm: Usually I go home. If I’m not taking my daughter to gymnastics (my partner and I take it in turns depending on who’s going to be home from work first) I can relax for a couple of hours while having dinner. Then when everyone’s home I can catch up with what the family's been up to during the day.

9pm: Catch up on football results, catch up on social media, watch some tv (usually comedy), read (usually garden related).

11pm – midnight: Time for bed!

More about Peter…

What do you enjoy about your role?

I enjoy seeing the Botanic Garden develop and improve with the help of my six staff who all have their own unique characteristics and ideas they bring to the table. Last year we won “Outstanding Team” at the inaugural Professional Services Awards, mainly I think due to the way they have all supported me and each other after the sad and sudden passing of our previous manager Mike Hughes who made the Garden what it is today. Also each day is never the same. No matter how much you plan what you're going to get done that day, something will always crop up to get in the way of those plans, so we have to be flexible and alter our work accordingly. The weather for instance can stop work outside, so we’d then catch up with jobs in the greenhouses or do some online training or plant labelling on our engraver (you always need a plan B).

Sophie walking  Louis the labrador in the woods near the Botanic Garden
Sophie walking Louis the labrador in the woods near the Botanic Garden

What are you most proud of?

My daughter, she surprises me every day. She is a competitive gymnast and works incredibly hard training five times a week for several hours after school and on weekends. Seeing her with her teammates in a competition supporting and consoling each other when things go wrong makes me very proud probably more than when she’s winning medals (though that’s nice to see too).

What’s the best bit of advice you have been given and that you would give?

Theres a few...Treat others how you would like to be treated. Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Surround yourself with positive people.

How do you look after your mental health?

I find music relaxes me no matter how stressed I feel. Also, no matter how stressful the day has been having two dogs that come and greet you as soon as you get home makes you realise there is also life outside of work.

What is your favourite food?

I love pasta but as most people who know me will tell you there isn’t much that I don’t enjoy eating.

Where has been your best holiday?

Barcelona, I love exploring new places and cities, but this was a particular favourite of mine as there is so much to see and do, I visited their Botanic Garden which was very inspiring.

Peter Thomson and his daughter at a Newcastle match
Peter Thomson and his daughter at a Newcastle match

What are your hobbies?

Watching Newcastle United. My daughter who is 13 has started going to games with me now to the continued disgust of my partner, Amy (Sunderland fan).

This surprises many people, but I enjoy gardening. Believe it or not, I find it relaxing and I don’t get much time to do actual gardening in my role as manager. It’s hard to keep a nice lawn when you have two dogs, but I persevere and refuse to put artificial grass down no matter how much effort is involved to keep it looking good.

I try to visit as many gardens as possible for inspiration and to steal ideas! I’m always thinking of ways to improve the Botanic Garden at Durham and visiting other gardens makes you see areas we can improve on. I’m a member of ‘The Professional Gardeners Guild’ and meeting up with members from around the world at their meetings and garden visits is a great way of exchanging ideas and for networking.

I enjoy photography when I get the time. I try to take as many photos of garden plants as I can within the Garden, useful later for PowerPoints, social media and the likes.

Other things I enjoy are regular family cinema trips, going to watch stand-up comedy gigs and live music, all great ways to switch off and escape from whatever is going on in the world!

Do you have any pets?

Yes, two labradors Louis (seven-year-old Fox Red) “old and grumpy a bit like me” and George (two and a half year old Golden) “who has far too much energy for his own good”. I’ve always had labradors. The two before the current ones were both black labs -  probably be chocolate or silver ones next!

We also have a flock of 24 Manx Loughtan & Hebridean sheep we look after in the Botanic Garden and use for conservation grazing.



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