The college gardener who knows what bearded irises like best

For history buff and plant enthusiast Terry Hayden, the job of gardener at Christ’s College is perfect. One of his annual tasks is to gather fruit from the College’s 400-year-old mulberry tree. Other duties include bee-keeping and maintaining the historic (and famously chilly) outdoor swimming pool.

Terry Hayden at Christ’s College (Nick Saffell)

Bearded irises love hot sun — their rhizomes like to bake — and they hate damp. The iris garden we’re establishing at Christ’s will show more than 70 of the world’s 300 species and act as a focal point for visitors. In 1946 Christ’s was given a collection of bearded irises by a lady called Mrs Zeligman. We’re concentrating on pre-1940s varieties which are smaller and not as frilly as the hybrids developed later.

The gardens at Christ’s are full of history. The famous mulberry tree in the fellows’ garden was planted in 1608. In 1795 a terrible storm ripped it apart and the gardeners mounded earth up around it to protect its roots. That’s why it seems to be growing out of a hillock. Its branches are propped up on poles. Despite all this, it continues to produce amazing quantities of fruit.

Each year we pick dozens of buckets of mulberries which we deliver to the kitchen. The college cooks make them into jam and compote. We also have a medlar tree, a relative of the apple mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare. I’m the only one interested in the medlar fruit which you leave to rot on the tree before you pick them. I make them into chutney with apple and spices.

Christ’s has one of the oldest, and probably coldest, outdoor swimming pools in the country. With another colleague, I maintain it. The pool was originally fed by Hobson’s Conduit, a water course made to bring clean water into Cambridge. Records suggest it was in use in 1688. The Malcom Bowie changing hut dates from the mid-19th century. A robotic pool cleaner brings its story right up to date.

Another colleague and I look after the college bees. We have four hives. The honey we extract is distributed to the fellows. The college has records that show bees were being kept as far back as 1540. The Old Library even has the first English book on bee-keeping. Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchie was published in 1634.

If, like me, you’re a history buff a place like Christ’s is perfect. Because I’ve read the book about the history of the college, I’m able to answer visitors’ questions. Facts and dates stick in my mind and my girlfriend wonders why I can’t remember anything useful like what we’re doing at the weekend.

When I was 18 I decided not to go to university — despite having a place at Southampton to study geology. I loved helping my dad in the garden and, after taking a year off to do odd jobs, I went to Shuttleworth College to take a national diploma in horticulture. After that, I set up my own small business which gave me lots of experience in different types of gardens.

Terry Hayden at work (Nick Saffell)

I was hugely lucky to get a job at Christ’s. My initial post was to cover maternity leave for one of the gardeners. I was thrilled to be offered a permanent contract. One of the great things about working for a college is that there’s time to do things properly. You work with a whole range of people — with fellows, who might be scientists or historians in their professional lives — as well as your colleagues.

We’re a team of five and we look after six acres of garden. We range in age from 20s to 50s — and we share our knowledge and skills. We have a shed in the far corner of the garden where we keep our tools and brew the tea that’s vital on cold days. Conversations range from what new plants and seeds to buy to the best techniques for jobs around the garden.

The garden is full of wildlife. We have a large number of bird species including coal tits and gold crests. We also have things we don’t want. An invasive species called few-flowered leek is the bane of many gardeners’ lives, including ours. It’s impossible to get rid of it. All we can do is control it. The only upside is that you can use it for cooking — it has a delicious garlicky taste.

We make all our own compost. Head gardener Sergio Ballarin has two shire horses so he supplies our manure. Sergio came to us from Murray Edwards College where he was a senior gardener. He has an artist’s eye for colour and form. You notice this immediately you enter the second court and see the herbaceous planting he’s chosen for the bed running the length of the court.

Christ’s is the only Cambridge college to have a circular lawn. The curves work brilliantly in setting off the straight lines of the buildings surrounding it. Keeping this lawn looking good is a real challenge as in winter it gets very little sun. We use fertiliser and lawn sand — and do lots of mechanical scarifying to remove the thatch and moss.

Being outside much of the time suits me. Physical work makes you feel good even when the weather’s bad. In my free time, my main hobby is walking. I love nature and if I had to describe my approach to garden design, it would be cottage garden style but done with structure and form. You need a good dose of organised chaos in which plants can work their magic.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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