I met Julie by chance at Great Dixter, the late Christopher Lloyd's legendary home and garden in Northiam, England. Great Dixter is a mecca for gardeners and garden lovers alike, and we were both there to take part in one of their epic symposiums, where you get to spend a week learning with head gardener Fergus Garrett, widely considered to be one of the best gardeners alive. Soon after the symposia, Julie packed up her life in New York City, where she had been the art director of Vanity Fair magazine for 10 years, and moved to England to work—first as a volunteer, then as a staff gardener—at Great Dixter. It's the kind of life pivot/career change that most people only dream of making, and Julie did it so decisively and with such grace that it's impossible to not be in awe of her. (And her incredible husband, for that matter.) Having recently had the privilege of visiting her again at Dixter and seeing how hard and with what an insane level of skill she and the other Dixter gardeners work, I had a million questions for her about life in the garden.
WHEN YOU GO OUT INTO THE GARDEN EVERY MORNING, WHAT TOOLS DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE ON YOU, REGARDLESS OF THE JOB?
I ALWAYS have a toolbelt with secateurs and my trowel wherever I go. I take my toolbelt on and off, but usually it is on. (I like to have the option of taking it off when I am sowing seeds or pricking out.) You never know what you will be doing each day, so you have to be prepared for everything. I have a small pad of paper with pen at all times for a list of my jobs from Fergus, our head gardener. And gloves on a clip. In my locker or car I keep spares of gloves for different conditions, other secateurs or clips, a handsaw and waterproofs (jacket, pants and hand warmers).
YOU TAUGHT ME THAT ALL GARDENING PANTS SHOULD BE HIGH-WAISTED (THANK YOU FOR THAT!). WHAT ELSE DO YOU CONSIDER WHEN GETTING DRESSED FOR A DAY IN THE GARDEN, KNOWING THAT YOU'RE USUALLY OUTSIDE THE ENTIRE DAY?
Layers. And fabrics are also very important. The Le Laboureur shirts we sell at Dixter are perfect fabric. Carharrt work pants are great too. They are made for gardening, so plants and thorns don’t get caught. And there are pockets—for my phone, a pad of paper and a pen, etc.
I found out this winter that thermals are a must when working outside all day (always on the bottom, too), and always wear a wool hat. When it got really cold, I wore my sheepskin cap with flaps. Two layers of socks; one thin, one thick. Usually in our milder weather here, I wear light layers underneath, sometimes with one of those thin insulating parkas with my Dixter Le Laboureur shirt. I peel off those layers as the weather gets warmer during the day. Just different variations on layering; you have to see what works for you in your conditions. In England rain is always a possibility, so I have a set of waterproofs that I wear over it all when it rains. Working in any level of rain with waterproofs on is good. The pants are just great to work in, you don’t get muddy! They keep you warm, too.
Summer can be hot, so it's always sunscreen, a cotton hat, thin layers, lighter garden workshirt with pockets. I cover up everywhere so I don’t get sunburned, bitten by insects, or scratched by plants. It is really important to be comfortable.
I'M STILL SEARCHING FOR THE PERFECT GARDENING GLOVES. WHICH ONES DO YOU LIKE?
I always wear gloves to protect my hands (even for deadheading). I wear the thinnest ones that the weather permits. It's a personal choice—some people don’t wear gloves at all! Showa has SO many different kinds, for all weather. We use these lightweight ones in the garden and they are great. Utilitarian. All the gardeners get a pair each year. Washable. In the winter, we get these warmer ones.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT SOME OF YOUR OTHER FAVORITE GEAR?
Secateurs: The Onoyoshi F-Type Secateurs are my absolute favorite, so much better than anything else, and they come with an extra spring. They're a great gift (I bought one for my sister!). Onoyoshi also makes a fabulous little pruner snip, highly recommended.
Tool Belt: This pouch by Heritage Leather is great to put the trowel in, on a belt. (I prefer a holster that can weave into your belt, not just hang from it.)
YOU'RE IN GREAT SHAPE, BUT GARDENING AT THIS LEVEL MUST BE INCREDIBLY EXHAUSTING. HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR THE DAY?
Every morning I stretch and do strength exercises (sit-ups, push-ups, squats, plank). I just read an article about how exercise for farmers and gardeners is important, so we stay limber and strong for the work. You need to work out to garden—it's not enough just to have a physical job, you need to train for it so you're as fit as possible and don't get injured. It's hard to find the time, especially when tired after a long physical day, but it needs to be a priority. I try at least on weekends or a few nights a week.
SO HOW DO YOU UNWIND IN THE EVENINGS WHEN YOU GET HOME?
I get home around 6, though sometimes later in the summer when I want to walk around the garden after work when it is so beautiful—around sunset. I always take a shower right when I get home and make dinner, as I am usually hungry! Eating early is really important, so I can read about plants, or study my Dixter plant list and get to bed as early as possble (10 pm at the latest). I try to relax with my husband by watching some great English BBC TV!