I cherish every special, magical moment when I meet a person with whom I share a deep connection and enjoy a true and meaningful, lasting friendship. One such fellow, whom I am very fortunate to call a close friend, is the horticulturist, broadcaster, journalist, author, plantsman and nature lover, John Negus. John is a truly wonderful man, he is an expert gardener and horticulturist; John never fails to inspire me. We have enjoyed working together on a number of occasions. I am so proud of John, I am proud of his lifetime’s work in horticulture, just as I am proud of the gentleman that John is. John has enriched so many people’s lives, mine included. I’d like to tell you a bit about John Negus, here is his story…
John Negus was born in Ash Green, Surrey, on the 23rd of April, 1938. John‘s father owned a shop called Ideal Stores, at Heath End, near Farnham. John’s father was a gifted musician, he played the drums and the ukulele in a band. Although John’s parents enjoyed their garden, John feels that he inherited his love of gardening from his maternal Grandfather, Fred Curtis, with whom he spent a great deal of time in the garden. John fondly remembers his childhood. He can avidly recall the sense of wonder and amazement he felt around plants, nature and wildlife, the joy of which has never left him. John’s Grandfather introduced him to a great many plants. He showed him how to garden, explaining the thinking and reasoning behind each of the tasks he would carry out. John can remember his Grandfather explaining that you could grow runner beans in the same spot year after year with no ill effects, but other annual vegetables needed to be rotated.
John began gardening for the first time with a 6ft square of his family’s garden, which he was given when he was six years old. This garden was everything to John, he lovingly tended this patch of earth that he had become guardian of, with his Grandfather. John packed his garden full of plants, growing everything six inches apart. The result was an intensely filled garden bed, jam-packed with all manner of plants, each one jostling against the other, as they tried to secure and retain the soil, light, and space they needed to grow to fruition. John grew everything he could find – from vegetables to wild flowers; he was totally absorbed within his garden.
The plants that John most vividly remembers growing then were teasels – also known by their botanical name of Dipsacus fullonum. John loved to observe the plants he saw, to witness the interaction between them, insects and other creatures. He remembers how the teasels’ leaf bases naturally filled with water when it rained and became miniature water worlds within which life began. The lives of some fascinating creatures are supported by the rain water caught inside the teasels’ leaves. Indeed, some invertebrates live the first stages of their lives there, while for other creatures life ends inside the teasel’s leaves, when they find themselves accidentally trapped within these water-filled ‘basins’. John loved to watch midge larvae as they wiggled and propelled themselves around inside the pouches of water within the teasels’ axillary leaves. John was spellbound, captivated by the sheer fascination and wonder of discovering midge larvae, so different from any creature he’d ever seen before. He watched intently, as the invertebrates writhed and squirmed, darting about within their water-filled leaf capsules, which became semi-transparent in the golden sunlight. John remembers seeing the midge larvae’s movements as a silhouette, highlighted by the jewel-like sparkle of morning dew in the sunlight. John would stand, stock still, utterly captivated, as he studied his garden for hours at a time, watching the interactions between insects and plants, taking note of how each plant grew and what helped and hindered his plants’ development.
When John was eight or nine years old, he made a record of all the wild plants growing in his local area of Farnham, in Surrey. John discovered and eagerly noted down wild plants such as parsley piert (Aphanes australis), henbit deadnettle (Lamium amplexicaule) and shepherd’s cress (Teesdalia nudicaulis) alongside a great many other native plants. At this time, John enjoyed a close friendship with a school friend, Randall Doyle. Randall was a great birdwatcher, he knew every bird’s name and could tell you about each species, whereas John, on the other hand, knew all the plant names and could share with Randall interesting information about their growth habit and what insects and animals could be found feeding on them. John and Randall used to go on excursions bird watching and plant hunting, each helping the other to identify birds and plants and learn more of their preferences and habits.
As each year passed, John’s love of gardening, plants, and nature pushed him forward; it inspired and sustained him. For many years, John had two adjoining allotments, located near the Six Bells roundabout in Farnham, which John shared with his father. Together they grew a wide range of vegetables and fruit on the free-draining, sandy soil. John has fond memories of growing some really good, large-hearted cauliflowers with his father – no mean feat, as cauliflowers are not the easiest of vegetables to grow. John can recall one late afternoon, when he spotted one of his teachers approaching the allotments on his regular walk home from school. John remembers the surprise on his teacher’s face when he cut a cauliflower and gave it to him.
As there was no water on tap at the allotments, John and his father were reliant on rainfall to water their crops, but not wishing to be at the mercy of Mother Nature, John hatched a plan. John knew that there was a small pond not very far away, on slightly higher ground, which was always full and within the immediate area’s high water table. John wondered if he could direct some of that water and contain it. So, John and his father dug a 4ft hole, removing large and small stones, sand, and gravel, to create their own well and water source. Every morning, without fail, their water hole would give them access to 10 gallons of water. They would gingerly dip their watering cans in and fill them with water. When John was between 12 and 14 years old, he would regularly cycle to the allotments after school, with a spade or fork and a rake or hoe held over his shoulder, cycling one handed along the roads!
John grew ever closer to both the wild and gardened areas of ground found around his childhood home at Heath End. John held a special affection for the pond near Hale Laundry. He used to sit by the pond for hours, watching tiny water voles go about their day. John would patiently listen for the familiar ‘plop’, as a water vole dived in to swim with its nose held pointedly above the water. John would watch captivated, as the voles swam from the bank to an island in the middle of the pond, where the voles would pause to feed on the reeds and vegetation, before they headed off for another swim, sending out shallow, triangular ripples of water behind them.
After leaving school, John started his horticultural career in earnest at ICI Fernhurst, where he undertook his practical horticultural training. At ICI John spent a year in the orchards, pruning and looking after the fruit trees. John’s second year of study was spent working in the company’s Dutch light glasshouses. Merrist Wood College in Guildford was John’s next port of call, as he continued his quest to learn more of gardening, horticulture, and the plants that surround and sustain us.
National Service interrupted John’s horticultural career and saw him take a different path. John thought about which branch of the RAF was similar to horticulture. He decided that medicine was the closest to gardening and nature, so John set his heart on becoming a nurse. John was kitted out at Cardington, Bedfordshire and trained at Freckleton, near Blackpool, to become a Medic. John was posted to Abingdon, Oxon, then to Lyneham, Wiltshire, and Benson near Reading, where he became interested in endocrine glands and worked hard to help those who were unwell.
After coming out of the RAF, John went straight to take a prestigious course, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Diploma, which he studied from 1959 to 1961; by this time John was 21 years of age and the youngest on his course. At RHS Garden Wisley, the former Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society, Chris Brickell, was John’s teacher of botany, taxonomic botany, and genetics, while Mr. Green was the mycologist. John recalls that at Wisley the students would work in the gardens all day and then have lessons and further study in the evenings.
In his first year at Wisley, John shared a room with his new friend, George Ogden. After passing his course at Wisley, George went to live in Bermuda where he became Parks Director for Victoria Park, Hamilton, in Bermuda. Today John and George are still good friends. George travels over from Bermuda and they get together every couple of years to catch up and reminisce, enjoying days out to Wisley and other memorable gardens and old haunts. George Ogden was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal in 2002 – John is very proud of the success of George and his other friends.
John has always been an active person, as well as gardening, he enjoys country walks and weekend hikes. John did quite a bit of running when he was young, he remembers taking part in the Kew-Wisley relay race, running through the streets, from Wisley to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Sometimes John’s team from Wisley won, but Kew were a slightly faster team, so they were usually victorious. John made many friends and has many happy memories of his time at Wisley. After a lifetime of visiting gardens all over the world, Wisley is still John’s favourite garden, indeed, Wisley holds a special place in John’s heart.
Like today’s Wisley students, John and the other students on his course worked in the gardens at Wisley, moving round in rotation to work in each of the different environments found within the gardens, for a set period of time. This rota, the tutelage and instructions given enabled the students to fully understand and be able to confidently undertake the horticultural techniques that were employed in each area. John has fond memories of sweeping up leaves in autumn at Seven Acres, of looking after the Sweet Pea Trials in the summertime, and tending to the plants in Wisley’s Alpine House in springtime. John spent time working in virtually every department at Wisley, except for the greenhouses, which at this time were situated in the area in front of the Laboratory Building, where you’ll now find the Waterlily Canal.
There have been many other changes at Wisley since John took his course, times and customs are very different now. When John was a student at Wisley, the Wisley Diploma took two years of intensive study, during which time students that were accepted were all unmarried and once accepted, Wisley students were strictly forbidden from marrying during the duration of the course. By the time John started his Diploma at Wisley, he’d already been courting his girlfriend Phyllis for three years, the couple were very much in love. John knew that he wanted to marry Phyll, so they had an additional two years of courting to contend with, which felt like a very long time! John and Phyll married after John passed out from Wisley, they were married for 40 years and had two wonderful children together.
After successfully completing his Diploma at Wisley, John went to Sunningdale Nurseries, where Graham Stuart Thomas, the famous Rosarian, headed the plant nursery. John enjoyed showing customers a huge range of plants, some of which they ordered.
After two very happy years selling plants, John answered an advert in the Gardener’s Chronicle, the predecessor for the RHS Garden Magazine. The advert said, ‘Technical Help needed’, John thought, ‘That’s me!’ This was John’s first venture into journalism in 1968, writing for a magazine called Home Gardener. In his interview, John discovered that the Editor lived not far from him, in Boundstone Road – John and Phyllis lived nearby in School Hill, in Wrecclesham, at the time. John remembers that if he wanted to make a call, he would walk to the payphone at the end of the road. The Negus family then progressed to having a party telephone line in the house, so if a neighbour was on the phone, you had to first wait for them to finish their conversation before making your call.
John really enjoyed his time working at Home Gardener, his job was answering gardening queries, which he relished. John enjoyed getting to know the cartoonist and all the different characters employed by the publishers. John worked alongside Tony Venison who wrote for Home Gardener and Country Life Magazine. Sadly, Home Gardener folded two years later, so John was again looking for new employment.
John spotted a job advertised to work at Syon Park, with a lady called Janet Brown. Syon Park were setting up a living catalogue of plants, which John was quite excited about, so he was delighted to get the job! John enjoyed working at Syon, but sadly the venture was not profitable and after a time the company let their staff go, so John was again left looking for a new role.
John’s next move was to successfully apply for the job as Deputy Park Superintendent for Hyde Park, something he was initially quite excited about, but as John found out more about his role and had to deal with the gruesome task of fishing bodies out of the Serpentine, the excitement soon wore off. John didn’t like the idea of living in the centre of London with his young family, he longed to stay in Farnham, away from the noise and hustle and bustle of the city, so he began looking in earnest for alternative employment.
John went to see Fred Whitsey, editor of Popular Gardening magazine. John recalls that he had his interview in the lift going up to Fred’s office; they talked about epimediums and other plants. Having convinced Fred that he knew a bit about plants, John was given the role of sub-editor. When Fred said that he wanted someone to write a series on garden design, John contacted his friend, David Stevens, the landscape architect he had worked with at Syon Park who was pleased to accept the commission. John worked his way up to become Technical Editor of the magazine
After a time, Popular Gardening moved from New Oxford Street to the 25th floor of King’s Reach Tower, Stamford Street, just across from Waterloo Station. John wrote for the magazine for twelve years.
John was kept very busy at this time, he did freelance work for Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Realm and Homes & Gardens magazines, as well as the work required for his main role at Popular Gardening. John was writing under the pen name of Philip Goodridge in Woman’s Realm Magazine. John remembers his Editor asking him, “What would you like to write about?” John told her that he wanted to write a weekly diary of observations that occur in gardening and nature. As John was writing under an alias, they couldn’t show his face, so instead of having a photograph to accompany his column, as the other garden writers did, the magazine published a cartoon drawing of a wheelbarrow with two boots.
John’s next move was to work for a short time at the Grower Magazine, before leaving to work as a full-time freelance writer. John loved the freedom he enjoyed working for Garden News and Amateur Gardening, as well as Woman’s Realm and Woman’s Weekly. John wrote all of his articles on an Olympia Typewriter and posted them to the magazines’ offices. At this time, John was also busy editing books for Octopus Publishing. John is an author himself, having written four books: one on ground cover plants, a book on gardening tools, another on shrubs, and a book that featured gardeners’ questions alongside John’s answers.
Sadly, John’s wife, Phyllis, died in 2001, but John was fortunate to find happiness again with a close friend, Maureen. Maureen is a truly wonderful woman. She has a beautiful singing voice and is a keen gardener herself. More than anything Maureen is just lovely to be with. John and Maureen have so much fun together, they enjoy weekends away visiting gardens and gardening together at home. John and Maureen have been together for 18 years.
John is now 80 years of age, he’s still busy lecturing and working as a freelance writer and has no plans to stop. John has a regular column in Amateur Gardening magazine, where he answers readers’ queries, responding to their letters and emails. At the end of every response, John ends with: ‘Give me a call and we’ll chat about it.’ John receives lots of calls and really enjoys hearing back from the readers he has helped. John enjoys the voice-to-voice contact with his readers and takes great pleasure in helping and assisting others.
As well as his written work, John has given thousands of gardening talks. For twenty years John gave talks on board cruise ships, among them Fred Olsen, Saga, and P&O. John’s work on the ships saw he and Maureen travelling to The Canary Islands, the Caribbean, Spain, and France.
John also used to take part in gardening roadshows, where he enjoyed meeting old friends and new, answering gardening queries of all kinds.
Over the past 50 years, John has given a multitude of talks to gardening clubs and societies, the WI and other national organisations. John has also worked extensively in broadcasting, ‘playing’ at London Broadcasting Company, BRMB Birmingham, Southend, Radio Solent, and Radio Surrey, where, at the latter venue, he enjoys working alongside presenter Joe Talbot.
I asked John what was the wackiest question he’d ever received? He told me that an Amateur Gardening reader had sent him a photograph of Cordyline australis, a plant which has a large rosette of leaves. This reader’s picture showed his Cordyline had been tied up – although the reader hadn’t altered the plant himself, but it appeared to be tied to produce a cone of very thin leaves. All the leaves had been bundled together and tied around with grass, not string. Neither the reader nor John knew who was responsible, or why!
Who has been the most impressive person John has worked with during his lifetime? John tells me that he has worked with many wonderful people, many who have become friends, but he has always been particularly impressed with Penny Drew, who John describes as a fountain of knowledge.
John’s favourite plant is the Penstemon, which has a rather wonderful common name – the ‘beard tongue’. John admires the Penstemon’s beautiful flowers and appreciates the plants from this genus’ drought resistance. John is also very fond of Tibouchina urvilleana – the Brazilian spider plant. John’s plant is in full flower at the moment – it starts performing late in the year – just when frosts are imminent. What about indoors? Well, John’s favourite house plant is Oxalis triangularis.
While John’s least favourite plant is Lunaria purpurea ‘Cannon Went’, which I am actually rather fond of, however John feels this plant is rather lacking in substance, he could quite happily do without it!
The editor of Amateur Gardening Magazine, Garry Coward, believes that John Negus is the oldest person answering gardening queries – John has been replying to gardening questions for 49 years, and he has no intention of stopping now! I am one of a great many horticulturists who have worked alongside John Negus, I so appreciate John’s knowledge and expertise and how he has dedicated his life to horticulture.
Other articles that may interest you……………
To read about the work and life Nick Johnson the Manager of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in the Caymen Islands, please click here.
To read about the work and life of Scott Taylor, the Temperate House Supervisor at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, please click here.
To read about gardens to visit in Surrey, Hampshire, and West Sussex, please click here.