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John Tebbs of The Garden Edit — Changing with the Seasons
John Tebbs has worked as a gardener in London for over fifteen years. In the winter 2013, tired of the bleak English weather and the solitary nature of his work, he created The Garden Edit.
John Tebbs of The Garden Edit — Changing with the Seasons

John Tebbs has worked as a gardener in London for over fifteen years. In winter 2013, tired of the bleak English weather and the solitary nature of his work, he created The Garden Edit, a collection of products and stories inspired by the garden. He told us how the website has evolved and how the process of making it has given his life a welcome new dimension.

How did The Garden Edit start?

A client of mine would always say to me ‘I can’t find you on the internet, you’ve got no web presence, no business cards, you should have a website!’ She kept going on and on, saying ‘you’re getting old, you can’t do this forever’, she’d see me there in winter changing the window boxes, you know when they’re frozen and you can’t feel your fingers anymore. I always knew that I didn’t want a website to promote myself as a gardener. I had been thinking about starting The Garden Edit for a while and her encouragement definitely helped germinate the idea.

Do you write much of the content yourself?

This year we’ve started to generate our own content, whereas before we were just using submissions so it would be more a job of editing… now we’ve started to be a lot more active in terms of what we’re looking towards, and writing and commissioning more.

How long have you been aware of Thisispaper?

For a couple of years before I started The Garden Edit. I love their website, it was a point of reference for me, it’s not a dissimilar aesthetic. It’s interesting how they have evolved.

Have you ever thought about making a physical, printed version of The Garden Edit?

Last November, when we started to get some journal content, we seriously thought about it, got quotes from printers, and then something else came up and the money get diverted and we’ve never really gone back to it.  A lot of people say you don’t really make money from print and that is something we need to do! A publisher has approached us recently to propose a book. Hopefully that is what next year will bring - I’d like to do a book.

So the journal came later in the development of The Garden Edit?

Yes, we started with the shop but we always thought we would do something to drive repeat traffic. We had hardly any money left over but we started the journal six months later, and that’s kind of taken over in a way. This spring we redesigned the homepage of the website so it focuses more on the journal, giving the stories more presence. That’s what people respond to… the products do generate a lot of interest but they’re not the sort of things people buy regularly, more one-off purchases.

I have been longing for some of the items you sell, especially the Grafa hand-tools. Do you use them in your work as a gardener? They’re so beautiful I’d be scared of damaging them…

Yeah!! I do use some of them, and the secateurs, of course! The Grafa tools are all handmade by a gardener in Australia, they are definitely made to be used!

How did you become interested in gardening?

It is something that I just grew up with; I come from a family of gardeners so I had no option really! But it wasn’t something that my parents really wanted me to do for a living…  in fact they probably discouraged me from going into gardening, it was seen as something I wouldn’t have a proper ‘career’ doing…

At university you studied the History of Art and Design.  Was there any point when you thought you might want to do something else? Did you gravitate towards any other kind of career?

At that point I definitely didn’t think I’d be a gardener.  You know how at university you have all these grand ideas that at some point you’re going to be something amazing!? I wanted to work at a gallery or museum, as a curator perhaps; that had been my dream as a teenager. The University that I went to was… there were a lot of rich middle-class kids with family connections, particularly on the History of Art course, and it became apparent that it was a world that you either belonged to or you didn’t, and I didn’t, and I didn’t want to! I really enjoyed it and it was really, really interesting, but I like being outside doing physical work, and I don’t know if that kind of office world would have suited me at that time. I didn’t get to find out anyway!

What sort of gardening do you do?

Just basic maintenance gardening; when I started, people would always say ‘oh, you’ve got to call yourself a garden designer or a landscape architect’, but that really wasn’t what I was or am; it’s just gardening, there’s nothing grand about it, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that… we’re conditioned to want to do something that’s world-changing, you can’t just say that ‘I’m a gardener’… I often say ‘I’m just a gardener’, I almost feel like I have to apologise for it!

"A garden is about maintenance, and it’s a long process."

Over the years has an element of garden design come into your work?

Not really, I do that to a certain extent as a gardener but it’s more of an evolving thing, and you work with the client, rather than telling them what to do. To be honest it doesn’t really interest me that much – I have no desire to be a garden designer. I feel that one of the main problems with the gardening world is that it has become very design-focused, but a garden is about maintenance, and it’s a long process; today it seems to all be about short-termism and hard landscaping, and I think that defeats the point of a garden, it’s not really what I’m interested in. I think it’s nicer to work with what exists than just to sweep it all out, which is so often the way.

So The Garden Edit is taking over from your gardening work?

For the first year I was juggling the two and that was ok. This year The Garden Edit got busier and busier, and doing the gardening got harder and harder. I also do a fortnightly column for Le Monde, and this year I did an additional weekly series through the summer, and a larger story for their summer garden special, and that all came at the busy time in the gardening year so I have had to make a leap of faith with the The Garden Edit and cut back on some of my gardening to focus on that. My partner Brad also puts all his spare time and energies into The Garden Edit and without him it would not happen either. The project has somewhat taken over our lives! We are a very small but dedicated team – maybe one day we will be able to expand and have people to help us out!

Do you spend much time in your own garden? How would you describe it?

No I don’t! When Kasia took the photographs for this interview I had to take the day off to deal with it! I bought a load of pots and compost because I had plants lying everywhere left over from jobs, and thing clients were getting rid of, half-dead things! It was kind of like a holding bay, where stuff would come in and go straight out, and then it became this orphanage of things people didn’t want, but I’m doing so much less now there are fewer orphans. I really don’t spend much time in it.

Do you find, when you do get the opportunity to work side by side in the garden with someone, that conversation flows quite differently?

Oh definitely, yes, having a working conversation, I think there’s something about not having constant eye contact and your body’s engaged in something at the same time as you’re talking. It’s not as intense or direct. I find that conversations whilst gardening can be the best and most interesting ones, and can be very therapeutic.


One of the striking things about The Garden Edit is its emphasis on photography. It has a very distinct aesthetic.

Yes that’s what it’s about, and that’s also one of the great things about Le Monde, I work with a really good photographer for that. It’s nice to see the subject matter captured in a fresh way. Garden photography can be so saccharine… I looked at a garden magazine the other day and I don’t think it has evolved since the ‘90s when I used to buy it as a student, it’s all about people who’ve got massive country houses, not the average person. The thing with gardening is that can cost a lot of money, to have a really fancy garden, there’s no question about it, so I think what we try to focus on is real people and their gardens. I mean, I look at my garden… and it’s crap in conventional terms, but I like it! It’s mine. I think that’s the thing also about it being a process, unless you have permanent staff, where the garden always looks immaculate. That dimension of seasonal change can be lost on the person who owns it – they just want to look out the window and see a stage set! I’ve had clients who don’t like any leaves on the lawn or the beds. I think all of that made me feel quite disillusioned; I don’t want to be a part of a world where every leaf has to be picked up with tweezers! It’s very sanitised; perhaps it’s just because we’re in a city.

You’d think that in a city gardens might be more about bringing nature and it’s changes closer…

Yes, I see so many spaces that would be so much more beneficial to the city if they were just let go a bit… an absolute pet-hate of mine is paved-over front gardens, it’s so depressing when you walk down a street and all the gardens are like that, with cars parked on them.

Is there another city that you’ve recently visited that has struck you for its greenness?

My partner’s from New Zealand, and we were back there in January. Auckland is pretty, its kind of feels like one big garden because it’s so low-rise, you’ll walk down a street in central Auckland, and it’s a row of wooden villas with lots of palm trees among other things, it’s very lush. It’s amazing to see all these plants we grow over here growing big and crazy wild in their natural habitat.

We’ve mentioned how gardening can be a sort of elite practice in a way, and I’ve noticed that on the website there’s not very much complicated technical information, and that’s quite a democratising quality. Was that a conscious move?

It is definitely something we’ve considered as a lot of people have suggested that we do that sort of thing; however, there are so many places you can go to find that sort information I feel that it doesn’t really feel necessary or relevant for us to do it too. I also don’t believe our audience looks to us for instructional information – we are more of a place to come and feel inspired. The Inspired By section on the website, is about our engagement with the traces of the natural world that are around us, and I think what’s been nice is that it kind of shows what people do find interesting, and a lot of it isn’t the most kind of stereotypically beautiful gardens or spaces, it’s often those unexpected places that have just kind of happened. I don’t think people looking at the website have big houses, they’re our age, and with cities getting more and more cramped and full of people the way we engage with gardens and plants is changing.

You’ve done a couple of collaborations to date, with Cos and Trunk Clothiers, is that something you’re going to do more of?

In October we’re launching an online flower service with flower arranger Simone Gooch. I’ve worked with her on several pieces for Le Monde; she made six arrangements and I wrote about the plants that she used in them. She’s great, she’s just moved here from Sydney, and she’s looking for an audience having moved to a new city, and it just felt like a natural progression, in a way, a natural association to what we’re doing, and her work is so different to what we see usually. She’s very influenced by Japanese style, so it’s about different shapes, and quite sculptural flowers, it feels quite fresh, so that’s very exciting.  Floristry and flowers is something that I’ve really become interested in this year.

Hence the section in The Garden Edit Journal, The Arrangement?

Yeah, I guess that came from my own personal interest, maybe in a different life I might have gone down that route! Meeting those girls in Edinburgh [from Pyrus Flowers], who grow their own flowers, they were so inspiring and passionate. It’s really great to meet people like that. They make me want to start gardening again! They have this amazing walled garden full of beautiful flowers. It’s very nice when you meet people who have that energy, and they’re quite gung-ho about it, just like, ‘Ok, lets do it!’

How does it feel have a network of people out in the world who contribute to the website, and people you’ve met through it?

That’s been the nicest thing about it, meeting all these photographers and people that just wanted to engage with it, and doing collaborations, that’s what I think was missing from doing gardening alone.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s thinking of starting a career in horticulture, or words of warning?

Would I recommend it?  It depends what you want from life, it’s definitely a certain type of person that it suits, someone who’s happy in their own company, who doesn’t need a lot of money! I think most gardeners are nice people, that’s what I’ve found, can I say that?

I agree!

They’re all quite chilled out, I think maybe it’s from working with something that’s about the bigger picture, and you’re tuned into the seasons, the slowness of the way those things work, and you deal with people who generally want things now, and that only highlights the stupidity of the world we live in!  I think for me that’s one of the most frustrating things about being a gardener, you’re obviously somebody who’s interested in that side of things, the environment and nature, but then you can be working for people that don’t give a damn about that, and are incredibly wasteful, its quite a hard thing to justify in a way, or quite a disparity in lifestyle. —

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