Former botanic garden curator claims his work has ‘gone to hell’ and accuses owner of mismanagement

Row over renowned botanic garden as ex-curator accuses businessman owner of allowing it to fall into disrepair and says his hard work has ‘gone to hell’

  • Simon Goodenough, 67, said he was outraged to find Ventnor Botanic Garden ‘overrun with weeds’ and ‘completely run down’ 
  • The former curator had worked on the site for 25 years and left in 2011, but has since called for a change of management
  • The site was taken over from the council by American businessman John Curtis in 2012
  • The gardens on the Isle of Wight are known as the hottest in Britain and boast subtropical plants

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A war of words has broken out as the former curator of a celebrated botanic gardens has claimed his hard work has ‘gone to hell’ and called for a change of management.

Simon Goodenough, 67, said he was outraged to find Ventnor Botanic Garden ‘overrun with weeds’ and ‘completely run down’ when he returned to the site he had looked after for 25 years.

The gardens on the Isle of Wight, previously lauded by Prince Charles and Camilla during a visit in 2009, have been open for 50 years and are a renowned destination for plant lovers being situated in a warm micro-climate.

Before: The botanic garden boasts that it is 'unrivalled for its collections of subtropical plants grown unprotected out of doors'

Before: The botanic garden boasts that it is ‘unrivalled for its collections of subtropical plants grown unprotected out of doors’

Former curator of the garden, Simon Goodenough, said he was outraged to find it 'overrun with weeds' after he cared for it for 25 years

Former curator of the garden, Simon Goodenough, said he was outraged to find it ‘overrun with weeds’ after he cared for it for 25 years

After: Recent pictures of the gardens show paths strewn with leaves and overgrown vegetation

After: Recent pictures of the gardens show paths strewn with leaves and overgrown vegetation

'Disrepair': Visitors have called the £10.50 admission fees for the Botanic Garden 'scandalous'

‘Disrepair’: Visitors have called the £10.50 admission fees for the Botanic Garden ‘scandalous’

Now, top gardener Mr Goodenough has written a lengthy open letter attacking its ‘mismanagement’ under its current owner American businessman John Curtis.

‘I’ve sat watching for 11 years as things get worse and worse but feel that I can no-longer remain silent on the direction of travel of the garden,’ he wrote in a local newspaper last week.

Mr Curtis has since hit back, claiming the former curator is actually criticising his own work as some of planting decisions he made during his time there are partly responsible for the garden’s current state.

Negative review: One visitor described 'dead and dying plants everywhere' and called the price of admission 'scandalous'

Negative review: One visitor described ‘dead and dying plants everywhere’ and called the price of admission ‘scandalous’

Critical visitors described their recent experiences at Ventnor Botanic Garden

Critical visitors described their recent experiences at Ventnor Botanic Garden

Other visitors posted more positive reviews of the tourist destination, which has three-and-a-half stars on Tripadvisor

Other visitors posted more positive reviews of the tourist destination, which has three-and-a-half stars on Tripadvisor

The dispute started when Mr Goodenough – who left his post in 2011 – recently re-visited the botanic garden which boasts that it is ‘unrivalled for its collections of subtropical plants grown unprotected out of doors’.

Mr Goodenough, who started working on the garden in 1985 said it is ‘very upsetting’ to watch his hard work ‘go to hell’.

‘There is obviously little or no maintenance going on the place is overrun with weed species and what was a rich and diverse horticultural and botanical collection is completely run down,’ he said.

‘The so-called Mediterranean Garden is now a sea of weed species and the collections of plants amassed in the 1980s and 1990s all but gone.

‘Although there are many amazing, large and rare specimens to be seen still, many of these are showing a lack of care and maintenance.

‘The garden does not now deserve the title Botanic. Huge strides will have to be made to rescue the garden from what appears to be an inexorable slide to ruin,’ he said.

‘I have tended to ignore bad Trip Advisor comments but having seen the ‘garden’ with my own eyes to say I was shocked is an understatement,’ Mr Goodenough added on local news website On The Wight.

The popular destination – touted to be ‘Britain’s hottest garden’ because of its ‘remarkable’ microclimate – was founded in 1970.

Garden fanatics: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh and Prince Charles visiting the Botanic Garden in 2009

Garden fanatics: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh and Prince Charles visiting the Botanic Garden in 2009

The Prince of Wales admiring the greenery during a tour around Ventnor Botanic Gardens in 2009

The Prince of Wales admiring the greenery during a tour around Ventnor Botanic Gardens in 2009

Prince Charles in 2009 walking along a path at Ventnor lined with brightly-coloured plants

Prince Charles in 2009 walking along a path at Ventnor lined with brightly-coloured plants

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall admiring flowers during a visit to the Isle of Wight gardens

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall admiring flowers during a visit to the Isle of Wight gardens

But recently the popular attraction, which includes a restaurant, café, boutique and a Wellness Centre as well as its horticultural offering, has received a slurry of negative reviews online.

The most recent Tripadvisor comments on the tourist hotspot, which has an average rating of three-and-a-half stars, described it as ‘a waste of money’, ‘obviously run down’ and ‘in need of expert attention’.

One tourist, who said he had visited the gardens 14 years ago and described it as a ‘highlight’ during his family’s Isle of Wight trip, said he was ‘mortified’ to see the gardens reduced to a state of ‘neglect’.

'Dead and dying plants everywhere': Mr Goodenough described his upset at the lack of care for the gardens

‘Dead and dying plants everywhere’: Mr Goodenough described his upset at the lack of care for the gardens

‘A once thriving, vibrant and obviously cared for garden is now a shambolic mess. Dead and dying plants everywhere, tired over run beds and borders, complete lack of labels, disgusting facilities, the toilets were especially horrible.   

‘The buildings showed little or no sign of care and maintenance. We saw no gardeners at all and lots of evidence of neglect,’ he said.

Until 2012 the site was owned by the Isle of Wight Council before Mr Curtis took it over, signing a 125-year lease.

In a rebuttal of Mr Goodenough’s criticisms, Mr Curtis defended his progress since the takeover.

 He claimed the garden was ‘transitioning’ from the methods of traditional horticulturists and was instead creating ‘synthetic ecosystems’, which take years to create. 

‘We believe the future of gardening in the face of climate change and accelerating plant extinction rates will celebrate this approach. We call this approach The Ventnor Method.

‘It is not a flower-filled quaint English border with graduated heights of planting in threes and fives.’

'Hottest gardens in the country': Ventnor Botanic Garden is a favourite among green-fingered visitors. Pictured: Echiums which are native to the Canary Islands at Ventnor

‘Hottest gardens in the country’: Ventnor Botanic Garden is a favourite among green-fingered visitors. Pictured: Echiums which are native to the Canary Islands at Ventnor

Microclimate: Ventnor undercliffe, where the garden is located, benefits from warmer temperatures than the rest of the UK

Microclimate: Ventnor undercliffe, where the garden is located, benefits from warmer temperatures than the rest of the UK

But the former curator – who now manages a private estate in Berkshire – rubbished this approach.

‘The much vaunted ‘Ventnor Method’ is a smoke screen for a total lack of care and maintenance and is completely at odds with the naturalistic plantings that I had the pleasure to curate.

‘The garden does not now deserve the title Botanic. Huge strides will have to be made to rescue the garden from what appears to be an inexorable slide to ruin.’

But current owner Mr Curtis blamed some of Mr Goodenough’s planting for the problems.

‘What Simon planted in the 1980s is now mature. The eucalypts are towering over the east end of the garden and slowly choking out the shrub and perennial layers underneath,’ he said.

Mr Curtis conceded he has to ‘battle weeds like every other gardener’ but added that the success of Mr Goodenough’s trees means ‘many of the understory plants are perishing due to the established canopy above and the phytotoxic leaf litter below.’

Mr Goodenough – who has worked at Kew Gardens as well as The National Botanic Garden of Wales – defended his tree planting and said that he ‘would have managed them’ had he still been the curator.

Mr Goodenough knocked 'tired and over run beds and borders' he claims he saw around the garden

Mr Goodenough knocked ‘tired and over run beds and borders’ he claims he saw around the garden

Struggling in the heat: Wilted ferns line one of the paths at Ventnor Botanic Gardens as temperatures soar

Struggling in the heat: Wilted ferns line one of the paths at Ventnor Botanic Gardens as temperatures soar

The Botanic Garden – which charges £10.50 for an adult to enter – has lost its ‘high profile’ head gardener Michelle Cain amid claims that only inexperienced horticulturalists remain working there.

Owner Mr Curtis said that the company ‘could not create the budget or resources required for her to succeed’.

‘We will be hiring more junior gardeners to drive the presentation of the plant collection in the coming weeks,’ he said.

‘When we started to rescue the garden in 2012, it was losing £20,000 per month with 14 council staff not accustomed to working in the private sector.

‘(People) do not always comprehend the level of effort and innovation required to create a viable entity from that starting point.

‘And we have done that while pumping £750,000 into the garden and its buildings.

‘To date we have restored or renovated 16 buildings. The Fountain Area, the Olive Grove, the Japanese Garden and the Magnolia Walk have all been developed.’

'Not the tidiest': Weeds lining a path at Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight

‘Not the tidiest’: Weeds lining a path at Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight

Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends' Society (VBGFS) has pulled its funding until it can be assured that plants will be appropriately cared for

Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society (VBGFS) has pulled its funding until it can be assured that plants will be appropriately cared for

Former curator Mr Goodenough said that the ‘rapid turnover of staff is a big cause for concern’, as tourists have criticized the lack of training among gardeners and café staff online.

‘There are so many missed opportunities at Ventnor and there are so many good examples of gardens run as charities all over Britain,’ the ex-curator said.

‘Ventnor Botanic Garden is not one of them.’

Mr Goodenough is not the garden’s only critic.

Chair of the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society (VBGFS) Valerie Pitts recently emailed all 300-plus members to inform them it would cease its funding of plants for the Living Collection in protest until it can be assured the plants can be appropriately planted and cared for.

Uncared for: Concerns have been raised about the rapid turnover of staff at the tourist destination

 Uncared for: Concerns have been raised about the rapid turnover of staff at the tourist destination

Overgrown: Borders in the garden are looking worse for wear according to some visitors and its former curator

Overgrown: Borders in the garden are looking worse for wear according to some visitors and its former curator

'Overrun with weeds': The garden claims its 'Ventnor Method' allows plants to 'self-sustain'

‘Overrun with weeds’: The garden claims its ‘Ventnor Method’ allows plants to ‘self-sustain’

Climate scientist Sophie Hebden, who visited the garden recently with her family, said while it was ‘not the tidiest of gardens’, Ventnor showcased sustainable planting techniques and was weathering the current period of drought well.

‘I did see some bryhers and stuff towards the back, it wasn’t that tidy’ she told MailOnline.

She added that while the garden is mostly green compared to many across the UK at the moment it could be better value for money with more educational content and ‘improved signage’ around the garden’s methods.

Ventnor Botanic Garden and John Curtis were contacted for comment.

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