Flowers and friendship bloom in historic gardens

There’s plenty that goes into a thriving garden: seeds, bulbs and soil; compost and fertilizer; hard work, long days and sunburned necks.

And love, lots of love.

Jessie Phillips and Emma Lansdowne know all about the hard work and love that go into gardening because not only are they staff gardeners at Royal Roads University, they’re also best friends.

Phillips has worked at the campus for 15 years and her area of focus on the National Historic Site is the famed Italian Garden, as well as the greenhouse where she helps propagate plants.

Lansdowne has been an RRU gardener for about a decade — that’s where the two met and quickly formed a deep bond. In addition to being one of the principal propagators along with Phillips, Lansdowne oversees the border area around the croquet garden (she’s also a PhD student in cultural studies whose research focuses on 18th century gardening and botany).

Together, their working day starts in the greenhouse. Boots on, coffee in hand, they do a morning survey of the plants that get their start there, checking their progress, determining which need a little water and which can wait until later in the day.

From there, they pack their tools and supplies into a shared electric vehicle, similar to a golf cart, and head out on to the grounds. While there’s a fair bit of routine in their days — watering, weeding, deadheading — there’s also something new every day, whether it’s a plant that has just sprouted or one that’s not thriving or has been nibbled on by deer or rabbits.

“What we really love about this job is that there’s so much diversity in it,” says Phillips. “So even though it might be repetitive for a month or two, after that, it’s like a completely different realm of what you’re doing.”

For instance, Phillips says, two months ago, they spent all day in the greenhouse, planting seeds, potting plants. But now…

“Right now we’re in the middle of planting” says Lansdowne, finishing Phillips’ sentence as the friends often do. So, it’s a very specific month-long period at this time of year where we’re bringing down trailers of annual plants and planting in the Italian [Garden].”

“Things move so quickly. Right now, we’re doing plant-up, then it seems like we’ll kind of hit this monotonous stretch of just watering and weeding,” Lansdowne says. “Which is actually lovely because you’re surrounded by gorgeous plants rising up among you, and the bees and butterflies and stuff are beautiful.

“But then all of a sudden, it will be the end of the summer and we’ll be doing all of our cuttings… for the year ahead.”

“It’s kind of our canvas,” Phillips says of the gardens, noting the people who visit — many in awe at their surroundings — help make the job rewarding. “I love doing it so it’s a lot of fun, but when you get to have people come in and appreciate it, that’s the best part, really.”

“I like how close it brings me to the natural world,” says Lansdowne. “You’re just constantly surrounded by this entire ecosystem humming and swarming around you that’s not taking any notice of you at all, and you get immersed in that whole other world.

“I really love that. Seeing the bees swirl around me and the butterflies, and the salamanders in the fall hiding under the leaves. Even the little wood bugs.”

“There’s so much life,” says Phillips, and the pair talk about how, every year, juncos, a type of sparrow, build a nest in the greenhouse and the gardeners watch as they lay eggs and the baby birds hatch.

“What an immense privilege that we have, working here,” Lansdowne says. “That goes with any kind of gardening job, I think, but obviously this site is particularly special.”

But there’s something else, says Phillips: “What makes this place so special, I think for both of us, is that because we’re best friends, coming to work every day is such a joy because not only are we at this beautiful place, but we get to work together.”

Phillips and Lansdowne say the dedication and love the Royal Roads gardening team puts into its work is extraordinary. So how many of them are there? You may be surprised to learn that, to look after 565 acres — including kilometres of trails as well as lawns, roads, a tree stewardship program and the formal gardens — the small team comprises a supervisor, a charge hand, an arborist, eight permanent gardeners plus one seasonal gardener and four seasonal grounds workers.

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