Meet the team: Head Gardener, Catherine
Published: Feb 28, 2019Get to know our Paignton Zoo team...
Did you always want to become a gardener?
I wanted to be a scientist and follow in my mum’s footprints, but I discovered I was more practical than theoretical and started a horticulture class at the age of 16
What inspired you to become a gardener?
I always enjoyed being in the garden as a child and seeing the giant waterlilies on TV was amazing.
I discovered that you could do it as a job and went on to study gardening, the passion of the people around me and their stories also inspired me.
How did you become a gardener?
I went to Bicton College at the age of 16 – it was the first course I took after school. My first job was a work placement at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. I also did a traineeship with National Trust for Scotland for a year at Threave Gardens and a scholarship at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.
How long have you been at Paignton Zoo?
I have been here for 14 years (on the 24th January 2019)
Why did you choose to work for a zoo?
I was living locally and working at Dartington Hall when the opportunity for Head Gardener came up at Paignton Zoo. It was a big step up for me and I was keen to rise to the challenge.
Do you work across the whole zoo site?
I work across Paignton Zoo and Living Coasts – if it’s green and leafy, it’s my responsibility! I also help with projects at Newquay Zoo.
How many species do you have throughout the botanical gardens?
We have approximately 221 families, with over 2400 species or taxa in our botanical collection.
What is your favourite plant species at the Zoo and why?
All the obvious ones! The Titan arum, giant waterlily…there are so many to choose from. The giant waterlily because they are so big and they are one of the plants that inspired me as a kid – I saw them on TV and how you can stand on them, so they are iconic to me.
The Japanese maple (by the giant tortoise house) is beautiful and I think it is the best specimen plant at Paignton Zoo. It’s very old, with wonderful form and autumnal colours.
Do you have a typical daily routine?
My day starts at 7.30am as we have to get a head start on our guests, particularly in the summer months. We need to get the site ready and get any noisy jobs done before guests come in to they can have a nice day. We have a morning briefing and then team members get started on their tasks. These vary seasonally but regular tasks include collecting browse for the animals and weeding.
What is your favourite part of the job?
I love the variety that Paignton Zoo has to offer and I see something amazing every day. Of course the animals are a big part but we have some amazing plants. I love that what we do as gardeners here contributes to conservation, you can’t say that in many jobs but in this one, I can! It’s also fantastic when a guest recognises the plants and talks about the gardens.
What is the hardest or most challenging part of your job?
It would have to be the planning and logistics of getting jobs done, because we need to work around a lot of different elements, especially our animals. We don’t want to scare them and their requirements can change on a daily basis. For instance, a nesting bird means that we can’t work in the close vicinity and jobs have to be put back.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Making the gardens more beautiful (which is also quite challenging too)!
Are you particularly proud of any accomplishments while you have been at Paignton Zoo?
The Titan arum because we are the only zoo in the UK to have grown and flowered this iconic plant from seedling to full flowering plant. We have cultivated the next generation of our specimens and shared plants with other collections, helping to conserve this Endangered species.
Have you worked on any interesting projects while you have been here?
There have been so many! Crocodile Swamp was the first big tropical house I was involved with and we have had the space to grow giant waterlilies.
Helping with Gems of the Jungle at Newquay Zoo was interesting, working at a different site and managing the logistics of taking everything you need with you, like a mini Ground Force team.
Why do you feel that botanical gardens are important?
Just like our mission statement, I believe that a world rich in wildlife and wild places is important. Plants are a massive part of our biodiversity and the world would be bare without them.
Why are you passionate about conservation?
If you are passionate about something, you want to conserve it. We are so lucky to have so much diversity and we shouldn’t squander that.
What is your most memorable experience here at Paignton Zoo?
There are so many – I don’t know! I’ve been working up a tree with a monkey in the adjacent tree looking at me. You can just imagine them thinking “you’re making hard work of that with all those ropes…”
Do you work closely with any conservation projects?
Yes! We have actively growing strapwort plants for replanting at Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve. We have also been involved with growing whitebeam trees (Sorbus) for a replanting project.
If you could pass on just one message about conservation, what would it be?
Whatever little bit you do helps, we should all at least do our bit.
Are endangered species managed and monitored?
They aren’t managed extensively at the moment, but botanical gardens are starting to look at genomes for certain plants and monitor their numbers.
What makes Paignton Zoo different?
Paignton Zoo has always been a botanical garden as well as a zoo, which makes us distinct from other zoos.