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BEHIND THE PLANTS: Meet RHS Curator Matthew Pottage

Sun Gardening are launching a new series called 'Behind the Plants', featuring inspirational people who work in and around horticulture. This week, meet Matthew Pottage - Curator at RHS Wisley.

I'm often asked, what does a Curator actually do, and in its purest form, it's a keeper of a collection, and in the case of a garden curator, it's a plant collection. Caring for a garden like Wisley is a diverse and exciting roll, and the development, management and evolution of the plant collection is very much the core part of the role. Ever more important is how the plants are used and displayed to make them inspirational, eye-catching and relevant. Having a team the size of Wisley (over 100 people), a lot of my daily work has to be about direction, vision and strategy, and trying not to get snarled up in the detail, but ensuring skills and understanding are in place to ensure the garden runs well and looks great. In essence that's about employing great people, giving them the tools for the job (literally and metaphorically!) and then giving them space to get on with it.

As the RHS is a charity which doesn't receive any government funding, another part of my work is supporting fundraising, which helps support education and outreach, which have always been two significant areas of the RHS focus. Also sharing what we do, through writing, TV and radio work - I love talking about plants and Wisley, so this is always a pleasure! Like so many, I benefitted from the School of Horticulture at Wisley, and trained as a student before going on to work in the Glasshouse afterwards as a full time gardener. I progressed to Team Leader, Garden Manager and eventually to Curator while completing my RHS Master of Horticulture alongside my job, over a period of several years. Within ten years, I had gone from student to Curator.

I often have to pinch myself when I arrive at work, as I honestly believe I have one of the best jobs in UK horticulture. Wisley is a magnificent garden, and the RHS is a wonderful organisation to be part of. Furthermore, to be Curator during the current investment programme, when some £75 million is being spent at Wisley is a pretty special time (if not rather busy!).

I get such excitement and drive from seeing the gardens evolve and develop, by seeing the plant collection diversify and seeing the visitors react to displays and the quality of the horticulture. I have learnt time and time again that you are nothing without your team and at my level, it really is all about people management and people skills. Often people are surprised about how much has changed at Wisley in the short time while I have been running the Curatorial Department, and not just because of the investment programme, but evolution of the gardens too. The Wisteria Walk, Exotic Garden and the complete refresh of the national heather collection are perhaps some of the most significant. I dare say some secrets to success have been:

  • Work tirelessly - you cannot expect everyone else to work hard if you're the first out of the door at 5pm, if you never reply to emails, or are invisible to everyone because you're forever working from home.
  • Be nice! - you can be professional, hardworking and productive but have fun at work. It takes no time or money to be nice to people and generally everything works a little easier if people rumble along nicely together. Have a clear direction and vision - I've never been one for 'grey areas' or leaving things to assumption - just say what you mean, and be clear and if you don't have a strong opinion on something, say just that. Perhaps its my northern roots, but people who cant make a decision or say what they mean can be very trying!
  • Recognise the great and address the not so great performance: promote and encourage fantastic performance and those who go the extra mile, and observe those who don't deliver - give them further support if that is what is required, or deal with poor behaviour and attitude. One persons poor behaviour can bring down a whole team.
  • Finally, surround yourself with brilliant people and remember to treasure them, remembering 'behaviour breeds behaviour' - if you treat your direct line reports with trust and respect, it will continue through the teams.

To find out more or to visit RHS Wisley, go to

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This story was published on: 11/11/2020

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