Creative Caversham – Alison Galer


Outdoor spaces have taken on a new importance in the past year. This month Elestr Lee meets Alison Galer of Florence Gardening, whose expertise enhances gardens all around our neighbourhood.

Healing has been a part of Alison Galer’s life for many decades now. For 24 years she worked as a nurse, including a stint at the RBH, and looked after kidney transplant patients in the area. Then came her decision to retrain as a professional gardener. Nowadays, she is healing the mental scars the past year has brought, by providing her design ideas to renovate and revitalise the gardens which for so many of us have provided comfort and respite during such turbulent times.

“One positive of the past year is that people who used to commute to work have had to stay at home. They could be in their own gardens where they had more time to observe their environment. When lockdown first started last Spring, everything was just starting to grow – people were looking for things to do, and it was available on their very own doorstep,” Alison recalls.

“We are so fortunate where we are, with places such as Balmore Park and Bugs Bottom to explore. Many of us are also extremely lucky to have decent-sized gardens. For our mental well-being, having a garden is so good for us,” she adds.

Alison’s garden design business is named after her keen gardening Nan, Florence – as well as paying tribute to the founder of nursing, Florence Nightingale. “Gardening was always there, a hobby, but then I wanted to do something more creative. I went to night classes to study for the RHS diploma, and then did an apprenticeship with the Women’s Farm and Garden Association. I set up Florence Gardening, initially to do garden maintenance. Then I took my design diploma, and now I train up apprentices and, with my team of gardeners, we look after around 40 gardens.”

Having lived in Caversham for around 13 years, Alison has certainly made her mark on both front and rear gardens in the area – front gardens being of particular interest to Alison. “Many people overlook their front gardens. But it’s what you come home to – I am interested in countries such as Holland where they see their front gardens as sociable spaces. Front gardens may need to be functional, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t also be beautiful. And I think lockdown has encouraged people here to take more pride in their front gardens!”

Alison creates her designs in collaboration with her clients, using both the exterior and interior of their homes as a starting point. She takes inspiration from architecture, historic gardens, and trends in interior design and fashion, and feels that ideas for designing a garden can come from so many sources. She is enthused by the great Dutch gardeners, Mien Ruys and Piet Odulf, founders of the ‘New Perennial’ movement; and creating strong architectural structure through her planting is at the heart of Alison’s approach.

“It is so easy to get hooked looking at pretty flowers in the garden centre. But first you need structure, and then you can add layers,” she advises. Plants she recommends for structure include Nandina domestica or Fatsia japonica.

Passionate about design, Alison got in touch with the Caversham Arts Trail a few years back and offered her back garden as a venue for local artists. “I thought it would be an opportunity for artists to showcase their work in my space, and also to showcase my own work,” she explained. She began taking part in the Arts Trail in 2018, and looks forward to it returning. Alison has been very busy during lockdown (gardening design and maintenance has continued apace), but she has also made time to set up occasional plant sales in her own front garden – keep an eye on her social media pages for details. And she is not averse to a spot of ‘guerilla gardening’ – as testified by her horticultural makeover of the disused telephone box on the corner of Albert Road (outside Beechwood Grove), which has certainly attracted local attention.

However Alison is no stranger to accolades and, in 2016, was thrilled to receive both a Gold Medal and the People’s Choice Award at RHS Tatton Park, for her garden design The Waiting List. And now Spring has arrived, whether we are garden owners or onlookers enjoying a ‘lockdown stroll’ – we can all benefit from enjoying the sights and smells of nature reawakening on our doorsteps.

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