Luxury Family Hotels People: Eliza Ross, the Head Gardener at Woolley Grange
Eliza Ross manages a small team looking after the 14 acres of grounds at Woolley Grange Hotel. She's been there for a year and a half and this summer has initiated the Little Green Fingers Club, when once a week kids of all ages come to the Walled Garden to plant flowers and vegetables in a special bed that's just for them.
Eliza talked to us about her work and about her plans for Woolley Grange, as well as sharing her tips for getting children interested in gardening.
Eliza, what brought you to Woolley Grange and what is your background?
When I was in my 20s I took on my first allotment while I was living in Bristol and working in wildlife television. I was hooked and spent as much of my spare time on the allotment as I could. I eventually decided to give up my job and retrain as a gardener, and I've been gardening professionally ever since.
I've managed several gardens and estates, and in 2007 set up and ran my own organic market garden business growing fruit and vegetables for a farm shop, box scheme and farmers' markets. It was an incredible experience, but insanely hard work and I found I was having to spend most of my time in the office.
I had a stint working at Jekka McVicar's Organic Herb Farm, but I was looking for a job where I could combine my gardening skills with growing produce, and that's when the opening at Woolley Grange came up.
I love Woolley as it's the perfect combination of beautiful historic gardens and working productive garden. It's fantastic being able to harvest the produce and take it straight to the kitchen to be cooked immediately – you can't get fresher than that. But what I love most about Woolley is seeing everyone enjoy the gardens. On a lovely sunny day when there are families and children exploring and enjoying the grounds, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.
What were your first impressions of the hotel?
It's a beautiful hotel in stunning grounds, but it was the incredibly friendly and relaxed atmosphere that grabbed me. It's a luxury hotel but feels like a home, and that's what made me want to work here.
I'm sure all days are different by the very nature of your job, but can you tell us a little about what a typical day at Woolley Grange might entail?
My work is very seasonal – and weather-dependent. In spring, at the beginning of the growing season, I'll spend a lot of my time sowing seeds and planting out. As the year moves on, harvesting produce takes up quite a lot of my time, as does weeding, cutting the grass and watering.
In autumn the bulbs need planting and there's a lot of cutting back and sweeping of leaves to be done. Winter is when I get a chance to slow down a bit, sit in my potting shed and plan the year ahead. Most of the garden maintenance jobs get done in winter, fruit trees are pruned and there's lots of muck spreading to be done (a very good way to keep warm on frosty mornings!).
I also look after the chickens and the ducks as well as the bees, and the swimming pools too, so I'm always pretty busy. Every day is different and that's what I love about my job. And every day I learn something new.
What do you think your greatest achievement at the hotel has been to date – what are you most proud of?
One of my main aims has been to get the Walled Garden fully productive and we're very nearly there. There's still a bit to do, but this is the first year we're producing a serious amount of fruit and veg. We've been growing organically for the last year and soil fertility is already improving. We've been using huge quantities of cow muck from a farm round the corner, but we've also started to use the lovely seaweed left over from spa treatments and that's also been great for improving the fertility. We're also noticing an increase in beneficial insects since we've been growing organically, and as a result there's a much better ecological balance in the Walled Garden.
As well as producing a lot of lovely veggies for the restaurant and shop, the new cutting beds are now producing flowers so we're also managing to fill the hotel with gorgeous cut flowers every day. And we now have a big gang of Indian Runner ducks patrolling the Walled Garden on slug and snail control – better than slug pellets any day. They're a delight to have around, always providing entertainment for the kids. I'm really proud of what a different space the Walled Garden is now.
What are your plans for the gardens?
My overall plan is to improve and restore the gardens while making the grounds even more accessible and fun for children and families. So we've got lots of interesting projects on the go.
We're developing a Nature Garden where kids of all of all ages can explore and be inspired by all the wildlife. I've just put a hive of honey bees in the orchard. It's fascinating learning how to keep bees but I'm also really excited about producing our own honey and beeswax for next year. We'll use the honey in the restaurant and head housekeeper Dawn can't wait to get her hands on the wax as it's a great natural furniture polish. The bees are massively beneficial to the garden and I'm sure we'll also see an increase in yields of our fruit and veggies. Once the bees are settled in, we'll be getting some little bee suits so kids can came and see the bees up close, and hopefully help out on honey extraction day.
Over on the main lawn we're in the process of constructing a Human Sundial. Amy, who is one of the gardeners, came up with the idea and has been spending the last few weeks marking it all out. It'll be ready this summer and kids can have fun standing in the centre and letting their shadow tell the time.
I'm growing masses of loofahs in a polytunnel over in the orchard. We're calling it the 'Loofatorium' and are growing around 50 loofah vines in there. Most people assume that loofahs are sea sponges but they're actually closely related to cucumbers and grow in a very similar way. If all goes well we should be picking them this autumn, drying them out, peeling their skins off and then we should have lots of loofahs by the end of the year. We're hoping guests will be able to take a Woolley loofah home with them, and our spa team are looking forward to using them too.
One of the projects I'm really looking forward to is restoring the old well in the Walled Garden. It's covered over at the moment and no-one knows when it was last used but this autumn we'll be rebuilding it. There's still a water supply down there so we're hoping we can start using it to irrigate the plants.
I'm also planning to plant up a Rose Garden. It's been in the planning stages for quite a while now but hopefully this winter we'll be planting up lots of gorgeous roses and making a lovely secluded little garden. It should be quite a romantic spot.…
Also this winter I'm planning on improving the Herb Garden. I'll be planting separate beds of culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, useful herbs, dyeing herbs, cosmetic herbs and also witches' herbs (mandrake plants are on order!). I've recently started making natural soaps and cosmetics and it would be fantastic to use a lot of the herbs from the garden.
So we're going to be pretty busy!
Lastly, can you share some tips for getting kids interested in gardening?
Let them have a small patch of the garden for their own, buy them a couple of little tools and then just let them get dirty and have fun. There are lots of really easy flowers they can grow from seed, such as poppies, nasturtiums and sunflowers. It's so thrilling seeing seeds germinate, kids can't fail to be excited.
Growing vegetables is always a good idea as eating the fruits of your labour is the best reward. Radishes, carrots and potatoes are all pretty easy, but with help kids can try anything.
It's so important to start kids gardening young – and that's why we started our Little Green Fingers Club this summer. Our younger guests love it!