The Story of a
Dazzling, Proficient Professional
A brilliant gardener, skilled horticulturist,
prolific writer, talented garden designer, gifted educator, popular
radio and TV personality, innovative botanic garden curator,
accomplished linguist, perpetual world traveler, consummate student,
faithful friend, beloved family gentleman
by Charles B. Thomas
Click images to enlarge
(In early 2007 I was writing Philip's biography for publication
in Victoria-Adventure's Water Gardening Friends. His premature
death changed verbs to past tense for this Overview.)
Beginning in the 1980s, Philip Swindells impressed me through
his marvelous water garden books. As a result, I invited Philip
to address the world's first international waterlily symposium.
We met in late July 1985 at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square,
Pennsylvania USA, for the Water Lily Society's (now International
Waterlily and Water Gardening Society, or IWGS) gathering. He
electrified the over one hundred attendees with his thoughtful
Soon thereafter Philip won appointment as Director of (now
Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate,
North Yorkshire UK. Two years later, I visited Philip, Hazel,
and their children at their Harrogate home. He generously assisted
with the planning for WLS's first European symposium. In 1989,
he helped to execute the plan.
Philip's broad horticultural understanding attracted the attention
of many plant professionals. He provided consultation services
for botanic gardens, nurseries, landscapers, and garden centers
in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia. Philip assisted
various segments of the plant industry (especially the Dutch
Bulb growers) to convey their messages to gardeners.
Philip traveled the globe sharing his knowledge and observing
wide-ranging horticultural practices. He learned first hand how
plants respond to their environment in various seasons in diverse
climatic situations. In addition to learning by traveling,
he also learned by living for months at a time in dissimilar
On several occasions I met Philip during his travels. One
such memorable event occurred in Colorado when Joe Tomocik guided
us through the Denver Botanic Gardens. All of the waterlilies
displayed accurate labels except one that had no identification.
Walter Pagels of California had found the unknown specimen in
Japan. Immediately upon seeing it, Philip exclaimed, "It's
'Arc-en-ciel'." Philip had seen it a decade earlier in Europe,
and those who knew about the cultivar had given it up as being
extinct. Once identified, the Gardens shared it with propagators,
ultimately making it readily available.
Philip's writings include countless articles, 50-odd books,
and Internet texts. His works are available 24 languages. He
was named UK Garden Writer of the Year. Garden Writer's Association
granted Philip its Quill and Trowel Award (especially significant
since GWA is mostly a North American association). In 1994, IWGS
inducted him into its Waterlily Hall of Fame.
In recent years, Philip was developing Internet gardening
communities. He managed the popular GardenMessenger Yahoo group
and its assorted sub-groups including PondMessenger and SeedMessenger.
Additionally, he edited International Water Gardener along with
its associated regional sites and served as WGI Journal correspondent.
In Philip, I found a man of high moral standing with a massive
heart of good will. He always put his family first.
(Family Matters segment includes quoted and edited family stories
told at Philip's funeral)
Philip in a shop window as the best baby.
Picture provided by Philip's parents.
Philip was born to Grace and Roy Swindells 10 September 1945,
promptly following the end of World War II. Four-year-old Philip
happily welcomed brother Robert upon his arrival home. The cordiality
changed as Philip discovered his sibling's ability to destroy
his treasured toys.
Nevertheless, they played together as brothers typically do.
Together they launched improvised boats in a stinking ditch.
Philip's craft floated nicely while Robert's sank. To Philip's
delight, Robert fell into the water.
On another occasion Philip assisted Robert's attempt to fly
a home-built airplane; an old wooden ammunition box with a plank
for wings nailed underneath. Philip helped Robert by tying him
and his plane in a tree to prepare for flight. When asked to
do so, Philip cut the cords and watched with hilarity Robert's
very sudden descent of several feet to earth.
"Another time," says Robert, "he came upon
a nice little ruse when white chocolate first appeared on the
shelves of our village shop. He showed a piece of it to me all
in its neat Nestle wrapper and invited me to eat it. I was intensely
suspicious but he really was very convincing with his persuasive
talk that this was indeed a new product, and that there really
was such a thing as white chocolate. Eventually I gave in and
proceeded to eat it. I immediately spat it out. It was soap.
When our mother heard of this Phil was ordered to buy me a proper
bar of white chocolate, in recompense, which he dutifully did,
but he still couldn't stop laughing.
"Yet another time he organised a sports day. I think
Cousin George and family friend Heather Devonish were there too.
There was to be an obstacle race but the difference with this
was that it was a sack race too. I didn't believe that I could
jump the pail of water in a sack. No way. But he, much taller
and quite lanky at the time showed just how easy it was and coerced
me to do the same. Of course, I jumped as required but landed
feet first complete with sack right in the bucket of water.
"I was often the fall-guy in those days for Phil. Perhaps
if we had pursued a joint career we could have become a double-act.
Philip at 11 years old, having just passed
his grammer school exams. Picture provided
by Philip's parents.
"But life together was not always like that. We spent
many hours, indeed many weeks, in collaborative projects building,
for example, a completely improvised railway system through the
abandoned orchard in the overgrown grounds of the bungalow at
Highfields Caldecote. We dug a big tunnel one summer holiday
mining for coal in the back yard and we illuminated it with candles.
Another time, and probably more than once, we constructed a dirt
track to ride around on our bikes and Cousin George would join
us for races.
"We had joy; we had fun; we had our seasons in the sun."
Philip's brother Robert recalls, "As we grew older, there
were other collaborative efforts -- notably the village newspaper,
which Philip persuaded me to develop out of my idea of a magazine.
He and Cousin George used to help me to copy them out by hand.
But the great significance of all this was that here was Philip
Swindells' first forum for horticultural journalism. He was the
gardening correspondent writing gardening notes under the pen
name of "Compost".
"We worked together for a while at Highfields Nursery.
He was never the most practical of men and indeed seemed to become
less and less so as the years went by. I don't know how much
of this was achieved consciously and how much of it just developed,
but by doing so, he gave himself the utmost time to devote to
his writing. I have seen this trait in university lecturers and
professors. It is probably the only way to dedicate oneself to
the more academic life; and in the realms of horticulture, this
is what Philip did."
At Philip's funeral, Robert recalled, "I was best man
at Philip's wedding. I made a speech then. It was pathetic. I
had read the book about what sort of things to say but stupidly
hadn't bargained for the fact that Philip had read the book too,
and typically, when he spoke first, used all the ideas for the
best man's speech as well. Mine was rubbish after that.
I remember it well. Perhaps some of you here do too. I hope this
time I can do a bit better.
Philip married Hazel (nee White) 30 September 1972. Their
children are Thomas (May 1974), Bernadette ("Bernie",
August 1975), James (September 1976), Sean (adopted, born September
1978) and Frank (May 1982).
The family in 2007 >
Even when hopsitalized, Philip
still read about plants.
Philip's brother Robert relates, "In later years we collaborated
on the Historic Garden magazine and again on the reprint of the
Conard Waterlilies book and even just last year we were discussing
the possibilities of collaboration on his upcoming websites.
"During the last 18 months I have had the good fortune
to be able to visit Philip at the Casa de Franky in Seville.
I can well understand how much he enjoyed the life of a sort
of retirement there. Not that he ever had any intensions of retiring
from writing. But despite the difficult circumstances, he would
dedicate himself to his various internet projects. He loved the
environment and the relaxed Mediterranean culture and made great
efforts to investigate it and get to grips with the everyday
At Philip's funeral, Bernie remembers her father as, "a
good, honest and fair man with a passion for life, horticulture
and most importantly for his family. He had high moral standing
and dreams that would inspire.
"Whilst we were growing up Dad always worked a lot. Although
busy, he always found the time to kiss us goodnight, to play
the 'Incredible Hulk' or to pull us into line.
"Dad taught us to live our lives in any direction that
made us happy and to be the best that we could be.
"My Dad has changed the minds and lives of hundreds of
thousands of people throughout the world through his many books,
magazines, radio and TV shows or through public speaking, lectures
"He will always be in my heart and thoughts, advising
me on what I should do, telling me what guy is right for me and
encouraging me to be and do anything my heart tells me to be
or to do.
"Dad's life was cut far too short and it saddens me that
he won't be around to give me away when I get married, to be
a grandfather to my children in the future and to teach them
all of the things he taught me and my brothers.
"He will be sadly missed by not only his family and friends
but also by many people around the world whose lives he has touched
and will continue to touch in the future through his books.
"Dad was conscientious and precise, stern but understanding.
He loved the simple things the most and always enjoyed sharing
and listening to other people's passion for gardening. He always
gave advice freely without any strings attached and was always
interested in the people around him.
"Dad's real passion was writing. I couldn't believe that
someone could write as much as Dad; a short email was ten pages
"Although my Dad was not a wealthy man, he leaves behind
a wealth of knowledge and his information will be available for
generations to come. The respect he has earned from the thousands
of people he has touched can never be bought and the love we
all have for him will never die.
"I would like to celebrate the life of my Dad by reminding
everyone about him. He was a man of wisdom, a man of knowledge,
a man who inspired a man with a passion for gardening and most
importantly, a man who will never be forgotten."
Robert concluded, "May Philip's soul rest in peace and
enjoy the gardens of heaven."
On 11 June 2007, Hazel wrote:
Just thought I would tell you about today.
I have scattered Dad's ashes today in the Botanic Gardens,
Cambridge this morning. I have taken photos and Dad is around
a chestnut tree and many other trees. I have taken photos of
the plant labels for you all. It is lovely Dad is very near the
lake and streamside and very close to Trumpington Road so he
will hear the traffic going by.
I have a lovely book with lovely pictures in -- it tells you
the story of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. I took along with
me Dad's test paper that he got 100 per cent with when he was
about 16 years of age, and they photocopied it along with Dad's
story on the Kit Knotts site.
I then went around the Gardens and looked down on the
lake and trees all around and sat on a seat; I was alone . .
. The Gardens have to be spot on when opening to the public at
10 am and I had to be finished by that time.
I went along to the Church which is not far to walk down the
one-way streets and lit a candle for Dad near the altar and near
some flowers. I said a prayer for you all.
All take care.
Hazel and Philip in August of 2005
Philip Swindells' rigorous horticultural training began at
the renowned University of Cambridge (known for preparing Charles
Darwin for his notable work in the nineteenth century) Botanic
Garden, UK. Here he quickly learned under the tutelage of Norman
Villis who stated, "One can tell at once if a person has
what it takes to achieve great things; Philip was one of those.
He had enthusiasm, knowledge, and the most important of all,
Following valuable learning experiences at Cambridge, Philip
became a student of commercial horticulture at Perry's Hardy
Plant Farm, Enfield. Cambridge Botanic Garden Supervisor Bob
Young recommended Philip for this appointment. At that time (the
early 1960s), this was the largest aquatic plant and herbaceous
plant producer in Europe. Later he became production manager
for Highfield Nursery, Cambridge. There he oversaw the growing
of herbaceous plants, trees, shrubs, and herbs.
During 1977 to 1980, Philip gained practical, full-time management
experience as the commercial and garden manager of the famous
Scottish rhododendron garden at Castle Kennedy, Stranraer, home
of the Earl and Countess of Stair. His responsibilities included
the development of a plant center and plant production unit.
He moved to Harrogate, Yorkshire, as the innovative curator
(1980-88) of what is now the Royal Horticultural Society's Harlow
Carr Gardens. It ranked as the largest horticultural and botanical
collection in northern England. Philip directed the garden operations
in addition to conducting experimental, educational and public
programs with a staff of 37 people. He coordinated a student
intern program and was involved with both access and teaching
issues for disabled people.
Following this, in 1988, Philip became Director of Wycliffe
Hall Botanical Gardens, Durham. He was responsible for the early
development of this garden. Here he established the UK's National
Collection of Hyacinthus orientalis. He named the collection
Alan Snapp, then the only commercial grower of hyacinths in
the UK, offered to propagate plants for the collection, since
he had significant expertise and propagation facilities. Philip
wanted to transport over fifty varieties, potted and in full
bloom, to Alan. First, he cut off the flowers. On arrival, Alan
asked why the blossoms were missing. "One hundred fifty
miles in a car holding 100 hyacinth blooms might be too much
for anybody," he explained. Upon meeting, the two of them
were astonished that they had grown up in the same locality and
shared mutual acquaintances.
While at Wycliffe, the International Waterlily and Water Garden
Society appointed Philip as the world's first Nymphaea
and Nelumbo registrar. He also served as editor of the
society's Water Garden Journal.
Philip developed close rapport with Dutch bulb industry leaders
Fredric Doerflinger (directed Dutch bulb information service
to the UK) and Frans Roozen of the Royal Netherlands Bulb Growers
Association. Meanwhile he developed valuable contacts around
the world. Skilfully he collected varieties lost to the rest
However, he resigned after 18 months when he became aware
of serious financial irregularities within the trust. Philip
reported these misdeeds to the authorities, resulting in closure
of the project. Next Ripley Castle in Yorkshire engaged Philip
to direct their gardens. Here he established another remarkable
bulb collection and continued the mutually beneficial bulb relationship
Wanting wider ranging work, he established a talented horticultural
consultancy practice, Philip Swindells Limited, based in Harrogate,
North Yorkshire. He operated his incredible and well-respected
business until 2002, having undertaken challenging, worthwhile,
Philip worked at Glamis Castle, Angus (ancestral home of the
late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother), as advisor to the estate
for the gardens and for the proposals for the Queen Mother's
Centenary Garden. He also arranged the international naming of
the tulip 'Elizabeth of Glamis' for the Queen Mother's 100th
birthday (coordinating with the Dutch bulb industry).
At Wynyard Hall, Cleveland, Philip organized a complete restoration
of the 100-hectare (274-acre) garden and parkland of the former
Lord Londonderry for Sir John and Lady Hall. He searched throughout
Europe for major plant sources for the elaborate project.
For six years at Coughton Court, Warwickshire, he diligently
oversaw development of the intensive 14-hectare (34.6-acre) garden
for the Throckmorton family and The National Trust. Philip also
designed a magnificent landscape scheme of the surrounding area
for Stratford-upon-Avon District Council to protect the ancient
heritage site and garden. Displaying immense appreciation for
his splendid work, the trustees named part of this historic garden
"Philip's Garden" in his honour! In 2006, the World
Federation of Rose Societies granted this marvellous garden the
coveted Award of Garden Excellence.
Philip directed the historically accurate restoration, recording
and interpretation of Thorp Perrow Arboretum, Bedale, and Yorkshire.
Following Philip's work, this privately owned, major tree collection
opened to the public. His team managed the arboretum for two
years until the owner appointed a curator.
Other notable UK clients:
Castle Hill - Earl and Countess of Arran
Teasses House - Sir Fraser and Lady Morrison
Groombridge Place - Andrew de Candolle
Wentworth Castle Gardens - Barnsley Metropolitan Council
Croxteth Park - Liverpool City Council
Hinchingbrooke Hall - Cambridge County Council
(All except the latter are major gardens open to the public).
Under a Commonwealth of Independent States (an association
of former Soviet states) programme at St .Petersburg Botanical
Gardens, Russia, Philip detailed comprehensive recommendations
for the implementation of a modern management and public access
plan for the distinguished botanical gardens.
The International Flower Bulb Centre (IFBC), Hillegom, The
Netherlands engaged Philip to operate a European programme for
practical technical research for using flower bulbs in the landscape,
including the overseeing of trials and planting projects. For
twenty years, he edited the IFBC's European Bulb Bulletin for
the landscape industry.
Although Philip managed no major US projects, he did assist
with programs in a number of gardens, especially favoring historic
gardens. For a short time, he had a satellite office in Nokesville,
Virginia, managed by a cousin. The problem was that he had to
head up the projects. Although he had considerable experience
in the U.S., Philip decided to concentrate on the Middle East
where various truly interesting and very rewarding projects presented
In Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Philip designed the new
palace gardens for His Highness Sheik Sultan bin Mohammed al
Working directly with the Sheik, he oversaw installation of
the National Botanical Gardens, Sharjah, and a 100-hectare (274-acre)
garden carved out of the desert. The BBC in the UK made a television
programme about the three-year installation programme when it
opened. His team also organized the "Botanic Gardens in
Dry Lands" international conference at the inauguration
of the gardens.
Additionally, he directed the National Park and Airport landscaping
reorganization and development with the Sharjah Municipality
horticultural and landscape team.
In Dubai City, United Arab Emirates, he designed landscape
proposals for the new 25-year irrigation development programme.
Upon approval of his plans, Philip provided all the input for
plant material and nursery management for the Dubai Municipality.
He developed planting schemes for the Emir's new 7-hectare
(17.3-acre) garden at his official residence in Doha, Qatar.
At the Botanical Gardens of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem,
Israel, Philip planned the development and planting of the water
gardens and the European section of the botanical gardens. He
was also responsible for designating the sourcing of plant material
Philip assisted in the establishment of a nursery near the
Lebanese border to service botanical gardens and foreign plant
distributors. This, Hazorea Aquatics, has become the largest
aquatics export nursery outside the US.
Philip's work obliged him to travel extensively, sometimes
advising in areas outside those noted, and spoke at conferences
across six continents. Specific countries include Canada, Canary
Islands, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Reunion
Island, Russia, and the United States. He also worked in a voluntary
capacity on a Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD)-funded
project to develop a botanical garden and horticulture project
in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, and advised on a similar project for
Philip authored more than 50 full-length horticultural books,
mostly water gardener- and home gardener-orientated. Publishers
include Ward Lock, Random House, Readers' Digest, Salem House,
and Timber Press. Being in great demand globally, a number of
them are available into 24 diverse languages, principally Italian,
Spanish, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Russian and Chinese.
Best-sellers include The Master Book Of The Water Garden,
Waterlilies, Complete Book of Bulbs, RHS Water Gardening, Herb
Gardening, Cottage Gardening, Fuchsias for Home and Garden, Bulbs
For All Seasons, Container Gardening, and Primulas.
Philip also edited various encyclopedias and journals. He
contributed to many of them, including all major encyclopedias
of The Royal Horticultural Society.
For three Philip years hosted a popular television gardening
programme in Scotland on Border TV. He appeared frequently on
national and regional television, and from time to time in North
He fronted his acclaimed weekly radio gardening show from
BBC Radio Leeds for twenty years. For eight years, he hosted
a gardening magazine programme with BBC North Night Network.
This won the UK's Best Regional Gardening Show title. Philip
appeared on various radio shows in the United States and Canada.
In the Middle East, he was a guest-expert on English-language
radio and television.
In recent years, Philip divided his time mostly between Europe
and Australia, focusing on water gardening for internet users.
He operated GardenMessenger Yahoo, PondMessenger and SeedMessenger.
While continuing to produce traditional hard copy for various
media, he also edited the International Water Gardener, including
its regional websites.
International and National Show Experience
Philip produced the gold-medal-winning international garden
exhibit for the Gateshead National Garden Festival representing
gardens from UK, South Africa, Ecuador and the Soviet Union.
At the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, he produced
a garden for the Australian Wine Bureau of London. The imaginative
garden displayed strong aboriginal themes, including aboriginal
art and dreamtime.
Working as part of a team, Philip helped to create a gold-medal-winning
water garden for Perry's Hardy Plant Farm at the Chelsea Flower
Show when he was a young student.
Philip created the gold-medal-winning tropical plants exhibit
for the Gateshead Summer Show in 2001.
Over the years, Philip contributed to many horticultural shows
and exhibits and often judged national and international flower
and garden shows. Philip officiated as a senior judge at the
1990 International Garden Festival, Gateshead, UK.
Philip's natural aptitude for gardening attracted the attention
of many, resulting in prestigious fellowship and scholarship
awards for decades after completing studies at Cambridge. These
Churchill Fellow - Studied conservation and education
in the botanical gardens of Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden
Nuffield Scholarship - Studied horticultural training
in the US Department of Agriculture's Extension Service, universities
and botanic gardens on the East and West Coasts, Missouri, Colorado
Mary Helliar Scholarship (International Plant Propagators'
Society) - Studied in-vitro aquatic plant reproduction in Czechoslovakia.
Soviet Academy of Sciences Fellowship - Studied botanical
gardens and their public role (under communist doctrine) in Russia
(Moscow and Leningrad), Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
Over the years, Philip acquired formal qualifications including:
FIHort. Fellow of the Institute of Horticulture
LCGLI. Licenciate City and Guilds of London Institute
FLS. Fellow Linnean Society of London
MISTC. Member, Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators
AMITD. Associate Member, Institute of Training and Development
Along with these qualifications, he held various positions
Committee Member, International Association of Botanic Gardens
Editor, Bulletin of the International Association of Botanic
Gardens (European/Mediterranean Division)
Yorkshire Chairman and National Council Member, National (UK)
Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens
Founder Member, Botanic Gardens Conservation International
Founding Member and Columnist for Water Gardeners International
Editor, Historic Garden magazine (UK)
Editor, International Waterlily and Water Garden Society Journal
North of England Chairman and Council Member, Institute of
National Committee Member, Federation to Promote Horticulture
for the Disabled (UK)
UK Garden Writers Guild, Garden Writer of the Year 1985
Garden Writers Association of America, Quill & Trowel
Award for Radio 1986
Department of Trade and Industry, SMART Award 1989
International Water Gardening Society, Hall of Fame Award
UK Garden Writers Guild, Award for Best Local Radio Gardening
Philip also received an array of other UK and US writing awards.
Books by Philip Swindells