Battle of the botanic garden: the horticulture war roiling the Isle of Wight | Rewilding

Battle of the botanic garden: the horticulture war roiling the Isle of Wight | Rewilding

John Curtis’s enemies – and for a man who runs a mid-sized botanical garden on the Isle of Wight, he has surprisingly many – have a tendency to refer to him as “the American Businessman”, a phrase that, for many islanders, carries overtones of rapaciousness and cultural barbarism. He would rather not have quite so many adversaries, but neither does it seem especially to disturb him to be the object of simmering ill will on the island. He is not in the business of deliberately goading his detractors, but he tends, in his discussion of the increasingly public argument unfolding around his stewardship of the garden, toward a certain easygoing, sprightly provocation. “I’m a lightning rod,” as he put it to me in our first conversation, and on several occasions thereafter.

Curtis is a slight man in his early 60s with a neat, greying beard and nimble features. He is an intent listener and a rapid and agile talker. He doesn’t strike you as the sort of person who would wind up running a botanic garden on the Isle of Wight, or anywhere else for that matter. Such is his quality of flinty refinement that it is easy to imagine him a senior partner at a white-shoe Manhattan law firm, dispensing astringent wisdom to a younger colleague over a tumbler of scotch at the Yale Club. He was born into one of Connecticut’s oldest families, and is a direct descendent of the Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, and whose A Model of Christian Charity sermon – popularly known as the “City upon a hill” speech – is a core text of American exceptionalism.

Curtis, too, presents himself as something of a pioneer, conducting a grand historical experiment in the field of botanical gardening. For over a decade now, he has owned and managed Ventnor Botanic Garden, a relatively minor but beloved institution on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. From its foundation in 1970 until it was sold to Curtis in 2012, the garden was publicly owned, and run by the Isle of Wight council. The significance of VBG has always had primarily to do with the microclimate in which it sits. Positioned on the southernmost tip of the island, and sheltered from the north winds by the chalk hills rising above the Channel, Ventnor is 5C warmer than the British average temperature. (The place is pitched to visitors as “Britain’s hottest garden”.) The microclimate, too, is at the heart of Curtis’s controversial management, and of the densely acrimonious controversy that surrounds it.

John Curtis, owner and manager of Ventnor Botanic Garden.
John Curtis, owner and manager of Ventnor Botanic Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

At a typical botanic garden, plants from all over the world are cultivated by a team of vigilant gardeners, by means of watering, artificial heating and chemical intervention. Since Curtis’s takeover, very little of this kind of thing – which is loosely understood by the term “gardening” – has been going on at Ventnor. Instead, what is being employed is a set of practices Curtis has branded “the Ventnor Method”. Rather than the rigorous superintending of a typical botanic garden, plants at Ventnor are allowed to grow naturally where they sow. Thanks to the garden’s microclimate, species native to Australia and South Africa and the Mediterranean, which would perish in mainland soil, are able to thrive at Ventnor with little intervention. And it is this comparatively laissez-faire approach to the upkeep of the garden that lies at the core of the controversy. Curtis and his team claim that they are refraining from unnecessary intervention; his critics claim they are in fact failing, utterly and disastrously, to garden, and that as a result, the place has degenerated into an unsightly mess. Last year, a former Ventnor curator claimed that it had deteriorated to such an extent that it “does not now deserve the title ‘botanic’”. He added: “Huge strides will have to be made to rescue the garden from what appears to be an inexorable slide into ruin.”

The ostensible aim of the Ventnor Method is to create what they call “synthetic ecosystems”, which operate more like a natural environment than a typical botanic garden. Leaf litter is left to moulder where it lies; fallen branches, so long as they don’t cause a trip hazard to visitors, are left untouched. Curtis and his chief gardener, Ventnor’s curator Chris Kidd, say that this approach is a natural method of providing soil nutrients. All of this is done in the name of sustainability; the sort of intense resource consumption required in traditional methods of botanic gardening are, they say, no longer tenable in the midst of a deepening climate crisis.

Kidd is a large and ruminative man in his early 50s whose tanned face bears in repose an expression of thoughtful disquiet. He is a lifelong socialist; in his time at Kew Gardens, he organised a walkout – the first ever strike in Kew history – which earned him a reputation as something of a troublemaker in the industry. He speaks eloquently about the history of the botanical garden as an institution, and its status as an inheritance of colonialism. “Giant botanical gardens like Kew,” as he put it to me, “evolved to show the wealth of empire, and used all the resources of empire in order to do it – building glasshouses, and heating them with fossil fuels, to show plants from the whole breadth of the world.” He is adamant that this version of the botanical garden is no longer fit for purpose. He sees Ventnor as an experiment, as an attempt to find out what a botanical garden should look like in the 21st century.

Chris Kidd, chief gardener and curator of Ventnor Botanic Garden.
Chris Kidd, chief gardener and curator of Ventnor Botanic Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Ventnor’s increasingly insistent critics, however – including prominent figures in the botanical community, former employees and the charitable body set up to fund the garden in its days as a public institution – say that what they’re doing is essentially an exercise in rewilding a botanic garden, and that such a venture is an obvious absurdity. The language of environmentalism, they say, is being used to justify what is in reality a deliberate policy of underfunding, and the neglect and dereliction of a once beautiful and botanically significant garden. “I firmly believe,” as another former Ventnor gardener put it, “that something must be done before there is little else left, and a national treasure is lost.”

For 26 years before Curtis bought the lease from the council, Ventnor Botanic Garden was run by a gardener named Simon Goodenough. During his time as Ventnor’s curator, Goodenough made what was then a landmark decision: to exploit Ventnor’s unique microclimate as a means of discovering which plant species would be likely to flourish in Britain as the climate continued to warm. He found that he was able to grow plants from far-flung areas with broadly similar climates to that of Ventnor, so that they could survive outdoors through the year. Goodenough gained a reputation as something of a radical, but he commanded the respect of the industry. Alan Titchmarsh – who, as presenter of the long-running BBC television show Gardeners’ World, was Britain’s most famous plantsman – was a vocal admirer of Goodenough’s innovations, and referred to the garden as “one of the island’s jewels”. The place was free to enter, and widely cherished by the people of Ventnor, and of the Isle of Wight as a whole.

Still, the garden was not a lucrative proposition. In the climate of deepening austerity after the financial crisis of 2008, the local council struggled to justify its mounting yearly losses. By 2011, the garden was costing the council more than £250,000 a year, and it was deemed necessary to seek a private buyer to take over the lease. Their one stipulation was that the buyer had to commit to maintaining the place as a “centre of botanic excellence”, and to do so for the benefit of the community. There were a number of potential buyers, but most were developers, whose interest lay in turning the 12-hectare site into some kind of hotel, with the garden as its setting. (Other potential buyers had more noble intentions, but from a financing perspective looked basically unserious.)

Camellias at Ventnor Botanic Garden in December 2022.
Camellias at Ventnor Botanic Garden in December 2022. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

It was then that John Curtis appeared on the scene, speaking a distinctively American vernacular of entrepreneurial philanthropy. Not only would he save the garden, he claimed, he would see it turn a profit. He talked the talk, and he appeared to be willing to sign the cheques. Goodenough, who now lives in Berkshire, told me over the phone that when he first encountered Curtis he saw him as a “knight in shining armour”. He was impressed by his vision for Ventnor, and his passion for the role of botanic gardens in educating people about the climate crisis. By the time Curtis took over a 125-year lease on the garden in 2012, though, Goodenough had moved on to a new job as curator at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Chris Kidd, his protege throughout the previous decade, took over the role at Ventnor and became Curtis’s right-hand man.

In the years that followed, regular visitors began to note that certain insidious forces had set to work on the garden. Weeds had begun to deface the once meticulous borders and beds; dead leaves were left to pile up, and the garden’s orderly beauty was slowly succumbing to a slovenly disarray. In time, these same forces of entropy began to register on the garden’s once-pristine TripAdvisor page. “A recent trip to the gardens left me feeling very sad and upset to see what a terrible decline there has been,” read one review. “The garden is clearly in urgent need of money and staff, it was run down, and poorly maintained,” read another. One user described it as “a shambles, in deep decline”.

People were beginning to talk, on the island and within the wider world of gardening. Dark intimations were to be heard as to Curtis’s intentions toward the place. What was he up to? Was there money being made? And if so, was it going back into the garden? And then, in the late summer of 2022, for the first time in many years, Goodenough returned to Ventnor to visit the garden he had laboured for so long to create. He was so appalled by what he saw that he sent a letter to the Isle of Wight County Press. It was upsetting, he wrote, to see the garden “go to hell” as a result of the new management’s negligence. “There is,” he continued, “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.”

14/12/2022. The Isle of Wight. Ventnor Botanic Gardens.
Palms at Ventnor Botanic Garden in December 2022. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Curtis was undaunted. In the days that followed, he offered a bullish defence of the Ventnor Method: “We believe the future of gardening in the face of climate change will celebrate this approach. It is not a quaint English border with graduated heights of planting in threes and fives,” he wrote, entrenching his position as a botanical iconoclast. Not long after, another former Ventnor gardener entered the fray. David Pearce, who had trained with Kidd before taking a job at Highgrove House, the country residence of the then Prince Charles, was briskly dismissive of Curtis’s grand claims. “This ‘experimental trial’ practiced at Ventnor Botanic Garden,” he wrote, “lacks any of the scientific backing to make it a viable and supportable scheme. Even if it was, no one should be experimenting to the detriment of a scientifically important collection of plants. The world-renowned botanic garden and its extensive collection of plants, invaluable to science, was simply handed over to someone who had zero experience working in gardens. Through my recent visits, it is clear that Ventnor Botanic Garden is becoming a monoculture of weeds.”

The conservative press took an interest, sensing an opportunity to portray the conflict as a proxy battle in a larger culture war between radical environmentalists and people who just wanted their nice garden back. “King Charles’ former gardener blasts botanic garden’s owner for ‘rewilding’ project he says has turned it into ‘monoculture of weeds’” ran a classically verbose Daily Mail headline. “King Charles’s ex-gardener attacks botanic garden’s ‘greenwashing smokescreen’”, announced the Telegraph. After years of simmering tension with the locals who most cherished the garden, Curtis now found himself at the centre of a PR fiasco.

Curtis and Kidd are quick to point out that what they now call the Ventnor Method is based on the practices pioneered by Goodenough during his time at the garden. The problem was that he had not been around to see it develop, said Kidd, or to encounter the long-term challenges and rewards of the method. This, Kidd suspected, was at the root of Goodenough’s recent disavowal of the garden’s direction. (Curtis, for his part, casually speculated that possibly Goodenough was “hopping pissed off we didn’t call it the Goodenough Method”.)

It was clear that Kidd still retained a great deal of fondness for his former mentor, but he was hurt and somewhat bewildered by the open letter. He spoke of Goodenough as someone who had once been a fellow radical “within the industry”, but who had aged into comfortable conservatism. On a couple of occasions, in fact, he raised the possibility that Goodenough himself might not even have written the letter. His implication was that it had perhaps been drafted for him by the leaders of the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends Society, a registered charity set up in Goodenough’s time to raise funds for the garden, whose members had turned dramatically against Curtis in recent years. (Over the phone from Berkshire, where he now lives, Goodenough confirmed that he had indeed written the letter himself.)

The flurry of open letters, and the media coverage they attracted, brought to wider attention the long-running argument between Curtis and the Friends Society about the direction of the garden. In August, right on the heels of Goodenough’s open letter, the Friends publicly withdrew their financial support, announcing that they would not be funding new plant acquisitions – at least until they could be sure that the plants would be properly cared for.

Valerie Pitts, chair of the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends Society and a critic of how the garden is being managed.
Valerie Pitts, chair of the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends Society and a critic of how the garden is being managed. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

One of the people behind this startling move was a retired school librarian named Valerie Pitts, who had recently become chair of the Friends. Pitts is what Isle of Wight natives call an “overner”: a blow-in from the mainland. After retirement, she moved over with her husband, who grew up on the island. She became involved in the garden soon after arriving, and in early 2022 took the unenviable role of chair. Things were already tense between Curtis and the Friends before she took over, but in her brief tenure so far, levels of cordiality seem, if anything, to have steeply declined.

I met Pitts for tea in the lobby of Ventnor’s Royal hotel on a blustery and rain-spattered morning. Her manner is one that befits her former profession: she has about her an air of sombre civility, and she speaks with the hushed exactitude of a woman used to making herself understood in a whisper. “These days I can hardly read a news report about Putin and Ukraine without substituting Curtis and Ventnor Botanic Garden,” she told me. She punctuated the comparison with a brittle laugh, but it was clear that she was not speaking in jest. Her demeanour in discussing the conflict was, if anything, one of dismal resolve. She was weary, certainly, but stoically determined to continue the fight. And her dislike of Curtis was palpable, and clearly personal.

“He’s an American,” she said, adjusting her pink polkadot scarf, and pouring a cup of tea. “Money is his guiding principle. When he took over the lease, he sent us his CV to prove to us what a big important successful businessman he was. But of course, reading it proved quite the opposite. He never stuck around anywhere for very long. You know: move in, sack a few people, turn a few things around, sell it at a profit.” Lowering her voice to a tremulous hiss, she assured me that Curtis was up to his old tricks at Ventnor. “Believe you me, Curtis is making a profit. He’s a businessman. He’s an asset stripper.”

Cacti at Ventnor Botanic Gardens.
Cacti at Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Pitts reserved particular contempt for a side project of Curtis’s: a line of cordials called Hill Hassall Botanics, named after the doctor who founded a hospital for consumptives on the site of the garden in the 19th century. “It’s a separate company, but the eucalyptus leaves are being harvested on VBG property, on VBG time, with VBG staff, using VBG resources. And it tastes terrible, frankly. It’s horribly sweet, and it doesn’t even taste of eucalyptus.”

Curtis, for the record, denies all of Pitts’ allegations regarding asset stripping and so forth – and I certainly didn’t get the impression that this was what he was up to. He also gave me a miniature sample of the cordial. It seemed fine, as such beverages go; Pitt was not wrong on the question of its sweetness, though it may be a somewhat frivolous charge to level against a cordial.

Curtis is convinced that a lot of the animosity towards him is due to straightforward anti-American sentiment. “It’s just xenophobia,” he said. “‘Americans only think about money.’ I hear that a lot. It doesn’t matter what I say or do, I will always get tarred with the American brush.” (When I mentioned Curtis’s xenophobia remark to Pitts, she told me that this was his way of dismissing criticism from “well informed and well qualified sources”. It was, she insisted, “patently inappropriate and unjustified language”.) In the early days, Curtis feels, there was also a related misapprehension. “I think a lot of people thought, OK, here’s this American billionaire – and let me point out, I’m very far from a billionaire – who is just going to step in and replace the council,” he said. People, he felt, expected him to whip out a solid gold pen, sign some checks and get out of the way, and they were affronted when it became clear that this was not his intention.

It’s not hard to see how this misapprehension arose. Even in the town-and-country attire he wears to walk around the garden – lightly scuffed Barbour wax jacket, Blundstone boots – he cuts an incongruous figure. His face bears not the mottled tan of the perennial outdoorsman, but the even burnish of generational wealth. Even so, Curtis grew up with a feel for gardens, and for open space. His great-grandmother, Jane B Francke, was the conservation chair of the Garden Club of America; her daughter – Curtis’s grandmother – donated to that organisation 1.5 hectares of her own estate, which is now the Jane B Francke Sanctuary on Long Island. His mother was, as he puts it, a “champion of wetlands”; he carried with him into adulthood a sense that he needed to live up to his family’s history.

John Curtis at Ventnor Botanic Garden.
John Curtis at Ventnor Botanic Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, an Ivy League college in New Hampshire, he took a course in botany, and volunteered for the National Park Service. The gardening stuff, though, was an undercurrent; business was the prevailing tide. After graduating from Dartmouth, he did an MBA at Harvard Business School, and worked for some years for a consultancy firm, where he spent his time advising management on ways to maximise profit margins – often by terminating employees deemed surplus to requirements. After that he worked at a multinational consultancy firm called Environmental Resource Management, advising large corporations on environmental impact and sustainability.

In 1998, Curtis and his wife, Mylene, bought a second home on the Isle of Wight. The place appealed to him primarily because it reminded him of Connecticut, where he’d grown up. He’d been coming to the island for 13 years, spending weekends and summer holidays there with his family. He was in his early 50s by the time the situation with the council arose in Ventnor: much too young to retire, but ready for a change of direction. By this time, he had left consultancy, and had spent the previous year or so setting up a biofuel business in Wolverhampton, converting vegetable oil and animal fats from restaurants into biodiesel. “It was a strange little chapter,” recalled Curtis’s daughter Morgan, with a kind of indulgent wonder. “He was living for a while in this, like, caravan at an outdoor education centre, and going to this factory every day and mixing chemicals. He was convinced that this was one of the solutions to climate change.”

Seeds collected at Ventnor Botanic Garden, to be sold in the garden’s shop.
Seeds collected at Ventnor Botanic Garden, to be sold in the garden’s shop. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

The scheme never really took off, and when the government cut the tax subsidy for biofuel initiatives, Curtis started looking elsewhere. It was then that the situation at Ventnor caught his eye. “I was looking for a gear change,” he said, “but quite honestly I could not have told you that that was going to be the rescue of a botanic garden on the Isle of Wight.” When he thought about it, though, the rationale for stepping in seemed increasingly clear. This was a unique botanical garden, with a significant plant collection, and it was in danger. It was going to wind up being turned into a glorified hotel, or let go entirely. This, he said, seemed like a tragedy to him, and he was in a position to prevent it. “I’m someone who connects the dots,” he said, “between global issues and what I go to work to do in the morning. The Chinese are opening four, five botanic gardens a year. In the west, we’re closing the same number. While the extinction rates in flora are skyrocketing because of climate change. It’s obvious, if you read the science, that we’re headed toward the sixth mass extinction. So you look at that and say, why wouldn’t you rescue a botanic garden? Who the hell else is going to catalogue and breed and care for plants that are at risk?”

Since he had acquired Ventnor, Curtis told me, he had from time to time found himself cleaning out the garden’s compost toilet with Chris Kidd. On such occasions, he would rarely pass up the opportunity to remark that this wasn’t a skill they had taught him at Harvard. When confronted with the accusation that his only interest in the garden was profit, he would often make reference to these stints of toilet husbandry. “Listen,” as he put it to me, “in terms of making money, I’ve got a lot better ideas than running a botanic garden on the Isle of Wight.”

I visited Ventnor Botanic Garden in early November last year. The place felt less like a typical botanical garden – regimented beds; aura of educational consequence – than a large and lushly cultivated municipal park. Women in their 60s and 70s strolled the paths in groups of three and four; retired couples nodded and smiled as they passed one another, pausing to let their dogs exchange details. Certainly, the place was scruffier than you’d expect a botanical garden to look, but as I walked it wasn’t the air of slight dishevelment that struck me most forcefully, so much as the near-total absence of labels. I know nothing about botany or horticulture, and so although I was having a pleasant time walking the shaded, meandering paths of the garden’s 12 hectares, I was never actually clear on what I was looking at, or what I was supposed to be learning from any of it.

Unlike a typical visitor to the garden, however, I had Chris Kidd at my side as I walked, pointing out rare species of plants and elucidating the finer points of the Ventnor Method. The absence of labelling, he insisted, was a deliberate gambit. The idea was to create an immersive experience for the visitor. The area we were currently walking through, for instance, was “Australia”: all the plants were native to that part of the world, and as visitors strolled among them, the idea was that they should experience something like the illusion of being in the actual Australian bush. And just as no one tidies the wild, Kidd said, no one labels it, either. If the garden looked a bit of a mess, it was because nature itself was a bit of mess; and besides, the leaf litter helped to cultivate colonies of fungi that would never otherwise grow.

Chris Kidd among palm trees at Ventnor Botanic Garden.
Chris Kidd among palm trees at Ventnor Botanic Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Curtis and Kidd’s critics are not buying it. This sort of thing is all well and good, they say, but it is not what a botanical garden is supposed to be. For a botanical garden to be worthy of the name, its entire collection is supposed to be clearly labelled, so that visitors know what they’re looking at, and rigorously catalogued, so that changes can be measured. Colin Pope, a retired senior ecology officer for the Isle of Wight, worked with Kidd on a voluntary basis at the garden from 2015 to 2020. His main task, he told me, was working on the database, keeping track of acquisitions, and trying to make sure that plants were properly labelled. When he started there, he said, nobody had done very much in that line for quite a long time.

Pope stopped volunteering during the pandemic, because he had come to feel that he was engaged in a pointless exercise.“There just seemed,” he said, “to be a lack of interest and direction in where the garden was going. Though the rhetoric was still there, in practice it wasn’t really happening.”

You don’t need to spend long in Ventnor to understand one reason its botanic garden is of such importance to the people of the area. There is not a great deal else going on there, at least not in the off season. Most of Ventnor’s population of 10,000 are of retirement age; people finish school, they go to work or study on the mainland, and mostly they don’t return. Late on my first morning, I took a walk along the seafront, with its closed tea rooms and maritime-themed gift shops, and saw only two people, solitary old men perched on benches, facing in silent contemplation the roiling channel.

Walking uphill from the seafront into the town proper, I passed the offices of a solicitor with the frankly absurd name of AJ Careless, and then wandered for a while the mostly empty streets. The tourist season was long since over, and pretty much everywhere was shut. I walked as far as the Ventnor Heritage Museum, which Google maps had informed me was open – erroneously, it turned out. In the darkened window was displayed a certificate, announcing that the museum had prevailed in the most comical category in the 2022 Ventnor Carnival Week Window Dressing Competition; but whatever comic spirit had animated the shopfront at the time had long since departed.

The Ventnor town seafront in December 2022.
The Ventnor town seafront in December 2022. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

“It’s a dead town,” as Michelle Cain put it to me later that morning. It was the day after Halloween; Cain, a warm and loquacious woman in her early 40s, wore a black, skeleton-patterned T-shirt, and her bright red hair was tied neatly behind her head. Cain had moved to Ventnor at the start of 2022, when she was hired by Curtis as head gardener. She was filled with enthusiasm and curiosity, she told me, about the Ventnor Method, and the idea of self-regulating synthetic ecosystems. She saw the job at Ventnor as an opportunity to do something exciting, and maybe even important.

Cain didn’t last long in the role. It was impossible to do her job, she told me. There just weren’t enough staff to do what needed to be done, and even if there had been, she felt that there was no long-term strategy. Kidd, she felt, was coasting towards retirement, and she quickly began to clash with Curtis over his management style, in particular his tight control of the budget. She developed a reputation for being a control freak, a label she didn’t exactly reject. “That’s what a head gardener’s job is,” she told me. “And I got the impression that they didn’t really understand what a head gardener does, because they’ve never really had one.”

After an argument with a contractor at the garden’s wellbeing centre, Cain was asked to leave. She had been there barely six months. Remarkably, she does not appear to have taken this personally. She seems, if anything, far less concerned about her career than she does about the garden itself, and the missed opportunities for improving it.

The basic problem, according to Cain and others, is chronic underfunding. This is the real reason, she said, that nature is being left to take its course. “Dominant species,” she said, “have been allowed to dominate because of a lack of garden management, and that means that biodiversity has been lost.” And this state of affairs, she said, is fundamentally at odds with the project of gardening, which was the designing and shaping of a space according to human desires.

The conflict over the garden is a political one: it arises out of opposed ideas of how a resource should be used, and it is fundamentally about power. The hard power of ownership and control is John Curtis’s, but he knows that the soft power of public opinion is not to be discounted, and that it is still up for grabs. In our conversations, he played down the dispute with Val Pitts and the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends Society as just “a skirmish” – a frustrating but basically minor distraction from what he was trying to achieve at the garden. The cash brought in by the friends had in any case declined in recent years, he pointed out. And so their decision to withhold funding for the acquisition of new plants, while damaging from a PR perspective, was not exactly an existential crisis. “I’m not gonna cry into my soup over it,” he said. He was eating a green salad from a plastic container, seated near a large open fire in the garden’s cafe. He was sipping water from a clear plastic cup, on which was scrawled the words “American Businessman’s Cup”.

His rhetorical approach to the conflict was much like that of a sitting prime minister to the criticisms of a particularly energised opposition. The friends were a ceaselessly nitpicking shadow cabinet who wouldn’t know what to do with power if they got anywhere near it. “If Val Pitts has got some big vision for this place,” he said, “I’d sure like to hear it.”

Visitors at Ventnor Botanic Garden in December 2022.
Visitors at Ventnor Botanic Garden in December 2022. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

When I asked Pitts what future she and the Friends saw for the garden, she said that there could be no future as long as John Curtis was in charge. The only way it could be salvaged, she felt, was through regime change. (“Everybody who lives round here wants to see the back of him,” she said.) It was a long shot, but if enough people made enough noise about the unacceptable direction the garden had taking under Curtis, the Council might feel it had no choice but to step in and retake control.

Curtis, for his part, knew that they wanted him out, but he also knew that they had no real power to remove him. Besides, he continued, the whole idea was fundamentally misguided. “Talk to the Americans about their regime changes,” he said, warming to his theme, forking salad leaves with a flourish. “It just makes a bigger mess. Watch what happens in Russia. Everyone wants regime change there. It’s gonna get much, much worse. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for. Suppose there was nobody here with the capacity to backstop a little economic hiccup. Now what? What are you gonna do? You’re gonna fire all the people? You’re short 25 grand, the payroll’s tomorrow. What are you gonna do? People don’t understand this. You gotta stare at the damn thing. That’s the ultimate reality. What are you gonna do? Which one of you people is gonna write the cheque? Because you’ve got hungry mouths out there, and they deserve to be paid. That’s my reality. I signed up for that. That’s what business guys do.”

My impression of Curtis, over the days that I spent in his company, was that he is motivated by a desire to conserve an important botanical resource, and, in a broader sense, by a genuinely environmentalist ethic, but that he is acting on these principles in the only way he knows how: by doing business. Even some of Curtis’s more determined detractors are willing to acknowledge that, though he may have the calculating mind of a businessman, his heart is that of a gardener. Colin Pope, the retired senior ecology officer who volunteered at the garden for five years before leaving in frustration, put it to me as follows: “John Curtis is a difficult person to work for and with, but he genuinely does want the garden to succeed.” Some of the “more vocal” members of the friends, he said, were particularly set in their ways, and pursuing a radically anti-Curtis agenda that was unlikely to end well.

Michelle Cain, notwithstanding her deep misgivings about Curtis’s approach to the garden – and equally deep misgivings about his capabilities as a manager – also felt that he was motivated by a sense of responsibility and care. Despite having been let go, she herself had not given up on the place. That was why she was still in Ventnor, why she had not moved back to the mainland after she’d lost her job as head gardener, why she had rented an apartment in the place she called a dead town. She had started working at the garden because she felt that she could fix it, and she had not stopped feeling that way. She hoped, despite her differences with Curtis, to be able to work there again. She hoped one day to return to the garden she had been forced to leave. A good gardener, she told me, was someone who put the garden before her own ego, before her own career. “The garden is always the boss,” she wrote to me in a later exchange of messages. “Be observant and it will tell you what it needs.”

Staff at work at Ventnor Botanic Garden.
Staff at work at Ventnor Botanic Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

On my last afternoon in Ventnor, I took a final walk around the garden. As I made my way up the meandering paths toward the coastal walkway, I could hear the distant sound of a chainsaw. Some trees had fallen in the previous day’s storm, and people were out clearing paths. A couple in their 70s ambled toward me. I recognised them from a previous visit to the garden; they had stopped to speak with Curtis as he was showing me a plant he found especially interesting. I said I was surprised to see them back again, and they told me they couldn’t get enough of the place. They were aficionados of unusual gardens; they travelled all over Britain and Ireland, taking mini-breaks to see particular places. Of all the gardens in these islands, Ventnor was among their most beloved, and they had come here many times over the years. There was something very special about it, they said. I asked whether they felt it had, as Simon Goodenough put it, been on an “inexorable slide into ruin” in recent times. Far from it, they said. They preferred it now. It was a unique place, and they loved its wildness and its air of slight dishevelment. They weren’t experts in botany or botanical gardens; they just liked nice gardens, and this was a very nice garden.

As I walked on, I passed some volunteers sweeping paths and picking up debris from the storm. It struck me as quietly remarkable that these people were willing to donate their time and energy to the upkeep of a garden that was no longer publicly owned. People loved this place. Even those who despised John Curtis and everything they felt he stood for still volunteered to work in the garden, doing what they could to care for it. On some level they believed that, despite everything, it was still theirs. On some level, they were right.

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