How many of us can say we bring our whole selves – our values, emotions, life experiences – to work each day? Only a special kind of job makes space for true expression of who you are. Errol Fernandes has found this alignment in his position as Head of Horticulture at the Horniman Museum & Gardens.

“The role connects the things I care about and so many facets of myself,” he says.  Errol wasn’t born into a horticultural family and didn’t spend his childhood in bucolic countryside. Instead, he grew up in west London with a back garden and a nearby brownfield land to inspire him. After training in contemporary fine art, he went on to become a successful conceptual painter.

“The creative thinking and processing, the foundation of conceptual art, are still important to what I do now,” he says. “If the work doesn’t have some weight, some purpose and some truth behind it, then it’s just decoration, right?”

The land he is cultivating is part of a museum founded by Frederick Horniman, a nineteenth-century social reformer and trader on a mission to showcase world cultures and natural wonders to everyday people. Errol's artistic approach is applied directly to the sixteen-and-a-half acres of gardens he manages. “As a team, we explore and experiment,” he explains. “We try to communicate what we discover and our identity as a museum, and to invite people to think differently, shift their idea of beauty and maybe even change their habits.” 

Errol’s ambitions may sound like a lot to ask from a garden, but on arriving at the Horniman, the impact is evident. There are no polite bedding plants at the entrance, no topiarised hedges. Instead, a shock of pink gravel and plants that feel unusual, daring and diverse. “It’s a cabinet of curiosities, botanically speaking, to reflect the collection within the museum.” 

 A large Opuntia cactus nestles beside neat mounds of Erysimum mutabile, while delicate filament stems of Polygonum scoparium weave through the firework blooms of Athamanta turbith. The arid, resilient planting and gravel are striking against the honey-coloured sandstone of the imposing Grade-II-listed building, the scene like a Mediterranean painting. This is the xerophytic ‘border’, designed to emulate global climatic zones with hot, dry summers and cool wet winters. These carefully selected species bake in their south-facing position, receive only rainwater and can tolerate our cold winters.

The idea came about when the Horniman was redeveloping its pathways. Rather than send the rubble to landfill, 15 tons of waste was buried in the ground as a free-draining substrate for the plants to grow in. It directly links to the Horniman’s 2020 Climate and Ecology Manifesto and gets to the core of what Errol cares about.

“I think as skilled horticulturalists and creatives, we can transform not just waste but thinking – through gardening alchemy, we can create something beautiful, useful to wildlife, and a call to action to face up to the climate and biodiversity crisis,” he says. “There is a lot we’re learning from observing plant and wildlife communities within the garden – diversity in nature prompts us to think about how we need to be living as people.”

Errol is determined that the Horniman’s grounds help people reconsider their identity and see themselves as part of nature. In fact, he thinks of human beings as a keystone species, one that has historically disturbed the land, but harbours the potential to have a positive impact.

A man in a shed

In the three years he’s held his role, Errol has guided his team to transform the lawns into buzzing meadows for people to sit in. “It’s where people and wildlife can meet, and there’s something really beautiful about that meeting”. He has planted a Miyawaki micro-forest to protect the garden from pollution, and is currently working on a sunken perennial garden that connects to the taxidermy bird and invertebrate collection indoors.

Errol guides a team of 40 volunteers from the local Lewisham community who believe in and fuel his approach. His interest in galvanising and collaborating with people from all walks of life has a long history. At 29, he embarked on a three-year art psychotherapy master's at Goldsmiths, followed by eight years as a psychotherapist, which involved supporting those facing social disadvantages and mental health challenges.

“I was looking for answers for myself as much as anything, and ways to help people on their journey; gardening became part of this process,” says Errol, who speaks with the sensitivity that comes with growing up alongside someone with complex mental health needs. “After we lost my brother, I had this realisation that life is short, and maybe it’s time for a new season doing something that I always felt compelled to do, which is to grow.”

Man in a garden

Now working at the cutting edge of horticulture, and using the garden as a canvas for engaging with others, Errol has found a way to live out a life lesson passed down to him. “My parents were African-born British Asian citizens who migrated to England in the 1970s. They always instilled the value of the opportunities I was afforded as well as the value I could bring,” he explains. “They taught me to find those opportunities, strive for what I believe in and ultimately, be happy. And I have now found happiness and purpose in what I do.”

Errol wears the TOAST Grandad Collar Crinkle Organic Cotton Shirt, Half Placket Stripe Workwear Shirt, Dropped Shoulder Cotton Linen Shirt, Alfie Cotton Twill Trousers, Bill Cotton Wide Leg Trousers & Decho Weatherproof Cotton Panelled Cap.

Words by Zena Alkayat.

Photography by Guy Bolongaro.

The Horniman Museum & Gardens Plant Fair takes place on Sat 6 July.

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1 comment

What a guy

anne 6 days ago