This Cambridge Life

The grateful gardener who brought Apocalypse Now to a flowerbed

He builds human-sized nests from twigs, spins circles in the garden and torches wicker men at Harvest Moon. The music-loving college gardener Peter Kirkham believes that gardens should be unexpected, relaxed and above all fun.

I’ve been a gardener at Murray Edwards College for 24 years. It’s a modern college, established in 1954. Not having the weight of 800 years of history gives us the opportunity to be a bit freer in what we do – and a bit unexpected at times.

Gardens should be fun. We aim to create an atmosphere that will put students at ease. Students coming into college for the first time may be feeling nervous. Some will have come from overseas or haven’t established new friends yet – they may be missing home and family. The garden acts as a soft interface that helps them feel settled in and comfortable.

“There’s a lot to be said for lightening up.”

“There’s a lot to be said for lightening up.”

My mind goes where it wants while I work. Some garden activities, such as raking and weeding are quite meditative, and open up possibilities for daydreaming. This is when I find myself having all sorts of ideas for the garden.

I was raking up one time after a storm. It was a grey day and I was surrounded by twigs and broken branches. I started thinking: let's make a nest, a huge human nest. So that's what we did. We raked up loads of moss and lined the twig nest, threw in some old weatherproof pillows and put up a sign saying: “Feel like nesting?”

“Feel like nesting?”

“Feel like nesting?”

It was a complete flight of fancy, but the students loved it. There’s a lot to be said for lightening up, opening your horizons and letting in a bit of imagination and fun. The nest made people more aware of their surroundings, connected them to nature and the garden, maybe even made them feel a bit cared for.

People have this nostalgic connection to gardens, whether it's a sense of smell or places they've been to. My dad would take me to his allotment when I was little. What I remember most was the overpowering smell of cow parsley, and the smell of cabbages and the smell of the earth. It kind of settled into me.

I go by the name of the grateful gardener on instagram, where I’ve been mixing flowers and music and film since 2013 [see a selection of Peter’s photos below].

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My world unravelled a bit earlier this year. I was diagnosed with a heart problem, a congenital condition that I’ve lived with all my life without realising. I was getting odd pains and I ended up going to the hospital for a scan – on my birthday actually. It turned out that my aortic valve had become heavily calcified and was barely opening. The consultant couldn’t believe that I’d cycled to the hospital and certainly wouldn’t let me cycle home.

In late January I had a life-saving heart valve replacement. I was supposed to return to work in mid-May but then COVID-19 was in full swing and I was put on furlough. I've been back at work since the beginning of October.

“We could all do ourselves a favour by taking the time to breathe, pause and take in our surroundings.”

“We could all do ourselves a favour by taking the time to breathe, pause and take in our surroundings.”

We’re a close-knit bunch of gardeners. Everybody's got their own interests – social history, philosophy, war, art, nature, science – and when we go for a cuppa in the shed we’ll just chat and interject and bounce ideas around. We often end up thinking about the flowerbeds. We like giving them themes.

One time we did Apocalypse Now. I thought one of the beds looked a bit like a jungle and so we got this old scaffold board and put it at the back of the bed with a quote from the Francis Ford Coppola film. It’s the part where they have just left the boat to collect mangoes and are being hunted by a tiger and they’re going slightly mad and one of them says “never get out of the boat!” So that’s what we wrote. We put it behind the bananas and all the exotic foliage, and some people got it, which was brilliant.

The compost heap is my favourite part of the garden. That's the heart of any garden. You know how people always end up in the kitchen at parties? Well we always end up at the compost heap. We sort of gather there. We chat a bit, we might have ideas or we might just have a moan about the world for a while. It’s a place for connecting, talking, sharing stories.

“You know how people always end up in the kitchen at parties? Well we always end up at the compost heap.”

“You know how people always end up in the kitchen at parties? Well we always end up at the compost heap.”

I was raking leaves near the compost heap when I had an idea. It was very cold. The horse chestnut was just turning and I was looking up into the canopy at the spidery branches going over my head, watching my breath going up, smelling the compost nearby.

I thought: wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a compost heap festival? We leave a heap for two or three years before we break it open to spread it on the flowerbeds. We could celebrate that years’ vintage, like a wine.

I made a compost wicker man. I bundled together the stems of Michaelmas daisies, which I’d cut and dried, and tied with string. I gave him a braided twisted willow belt, eyes made out of berries and flowers on his head.

At the time of the Harvest Moon, we ceremoniously trooped the compost man from the garden yard all the way down to the compost heap followed by the ‘minstrels’ – a ragtag group of musicians and an in-house poet who were college residents at the time. We set him up on top of the compost heap and then we torched him.

I think we could all do ourselves a favour by taking the time to breathe, pause and take in our surroundings. During the first lockdown I was getting out for local walks at 6am to avoid coming into contact with anyone else. I hadn’t realised the scope and beauty of all these suburban front gardens.

The quietness of lockdown, the rainbows, chalk messages and artwork on the pavements – it gave me a real energy and feeling of hope, and it really helped with my recovery. I'm ready to spin in the garden again.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Interview and photography: Louise Walsh
Garden photos and video: Peter Kirkham