In Conversation With: Barry Burrows of Bartholomew Landscaping
Due to the Queen’s retirement party, I decided not to publish a blog last week.
So instead of spending my Thursday evening writing, I was in the kitchen until past midnight, making an overly complicated Trifle, and a Pavlova too.
Thankfully, one of my good friends is a professional baker. Which is very useful when your Jelly isn’t setting, but less helpful when you’re trying to be disciplined with your health and fitness.
To compensate, I spent some early mornings this week walking on Hampstead Heath. It’s hard to beat Britain in the sunshine, and an hour spent in nature leaves me feeling well prepared for the day ahead.
In the world of Estate Agency, gardens, terraces and proximity to public open spaces have become a hot topic in the past couple of years.
People are less interested in being close to a tube station, and more interested in where they can walk their impulsively purchased lockdown dog. Prime outer London has boomed, prime central London has been a little quieter.
With all of this in mind I was delighted when Barry Burrows, founder and MD of Bartholomew Landscaping agreed to be next in my series of ‘In Conversation With’ guest blogs.
Founded in 1989, Bartholomew has gone on to win 25 Bali awards and 9 RHS medals, including two Chelsea Flower Show Medals.
SD: Bartholomew Landscaping has been in business for over thirty years now. Can you tell me a little about how it all started?
BB: My interest in gardening started at a very young age. My Grandfather was always either tending to his roses or grafting apples. He’d grow three different varieties on one tree. It was amazing actually.
My father was an engineer, so I spent a lot of time on building sites. On one of these sites I’d noticed some landscape gardeners and I remember being fascinated by what they were doing. It all emanated from there really.
By the time I was in my late teens I’d moved to London and was studying Landscape Design and Construction, whilst working part time. I enrolled in an evening course in Horticulture too. That was, and still is, a real love for me.
And then when I was in my early twenties, I started Bartholomew.
I was designing small gardens out of my rented studio apartment in Pimlico. And in the winter, when there was less work, I was shovelling snow off drives on The Bishops Avenue.
That was a great way to meet people, and to win work. It was amazing how far £30 worth of salt from a builders merchant can get you.
SD: What’s been the key to success over a sustained period of time?
BB: When I was growing up, my father would say;
“To be a good talker, you have to be a good listener”. Always give people time. Always listen to what they have to say, and never interrupt anybody”
He was a thinker. He never watched television, he was always reading.
SD: I think that listening is probably the most under-rated skill of the modern era. We live in a world where everyone wants to talk and to be heard, but not so much the other way around. To listen and learn.
Listening to clients, what really matters to them and what they’re trying to achieve is so important.
BB: Learning how to listen has been critical for me. I’m always trying to pick up small clues from what potential clients are saying. What’s important to them, and what they’re passionate about. It’s about gauging what their garden is going to add to their lives.
Clients often start with a firm set of ideas, but as they talk and more emerges, the skill becomes interpreting those thoughts, but in a way which gives them more than they are capable of imagining. To be able to deliver something beyond their expectations.
SD: There must be quite a lot of pressure alongside that. Delighting people every time.
BB: Not really, because it’s all I know. It’s what I live and breathe, so for me there’s no pressure. I’m just trying to give my clients something that they don’t necessarily know about. That’s my profession, it’s my skill set and my passion too.
It's about drawing out what clients would really like their garden to be like. Without them necessarily being able to articulate that clearly at first.
SD: And as a nation it’s something we think about a lot. Three million people watch Gardeners World every week, which when you consider that we live in a world with Netflix and the like, is an incredible number. Why do you think that is?
BB: I think only about 10% of Britain is developed.
SD: 10%? It definitely doesn’t feel like that, living in London.
BB: Of course we live in the most populated part of the country. But we’re surrounded by countryside, you just need to venture outside of the M25.
It’s also a psychological thing. There was a study done where two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes. One in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic heavy road.
Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.
The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain.
Neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during repetitive thought focused on negative emotions, decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.
I also think that on a much more basic level it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to garden. Just the smell of turning a lawnmower on and cutting a piece of grass.
SD: The smell of cut grass is very nostalgic. I think it takes most people back to some part of their childhood.
BB: Absolutely, yes. The sensory value of gardens is so underestimated. The smell of a certain plant or flower can transport you to a much loved family holiday, or provide a sense of calm, even if often we’re not aware of it.
You see it every summer in London. People who don’t have gardens, and even some that do, gravitate towards public open spaces. To surround themselves with nature. I think as humans that’s part of how we’re wired.
SD: Green space became so much more important to people during the pandemic. What other changes did you see?
BB: A renewed focus on gardens, that’s for sure. People who had neglected theirs for years were suddenly spending much more time in them, and thinking about what they really wanted that space to offer.
They’d always used us for general maintenance, but when they had more time to actually think, then it became “Oh it might be quite nice to have an outdoor kitchen. It might be quite nice to …”
SD: People’s expectations of what their homes need to offer them have changed so much. Both internally and externally.
BB: We were heading that way before the pandemic, because there’s been a trend for a while now of people wanting their gardens to be more than just planting and lawns. It has to work harder, and be a usable and fully functioning space.
Items like outdoor fireplaces, outdoor kitchens, awnings and sofas have all become part of the conversation. And it isn’t just property developers or UHNW buyers either. Now it’s the vast majority of our clients.
It went from a box ticking exercise to a genuine need. Restaurants were closed, pubs were closed, and people were entertaining at home, in their gardens.
SD: What about you, how do you use your own garden?
BB: Well now that my kids are grown up it’s changed. The trampoline and the football goals have gone, and we’ve built a garden studio for my wife, who’s a costume designer for the Royal Ballet.
We’re in the middle of a field full of buttercups, which in the spring is used for lambing. It’s idyllic really. I have some espaliered apple trees and some beautiful roses, in homage to my grandfather.
Most of the plants in the garden have been bought as presents for anniversaries and birthdays, and they’re all meaningful.
I do love my lawn. I guess I’m your typical Englishman in that way. In the summer, I cut it as soon as I get home after work. It’s the first thing I do and I don’t even know why. In case it rains I guess. I’m always worried it might rain, so I take the opportunity when I can.
SD: I think rain is one thing we’re more or less guaranteed during the British summer.
Things I’ve been inspired by this week
Two British legends…