Philip Swindells

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 presentation.

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 countries.

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
(Family Matters segment includes quoted and edited family stories told at Philip's funeral) 

Youthful Days

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."

Adult Years

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.

Mature Years

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 language."  


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 and conferences.

"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 long.

"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:

Hi Everyone,

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.

Love, MUM


Hazel and Philip in August of 2005

Philip's Career

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, intense application."

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 "Bulborum".

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 of Europe.

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 with Alan.

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, major projects.


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 themselves.

Middle East

In Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, Philip designed the new palace gardens for His Highness Sheik Sultan bin Mohammed al Qasimi.

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 from Europe.

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 Guatemala.



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.

Other Media

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 America.

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 include:

Churchill Fellow - Studied conservation and education in the botanical gardens of Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

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 and Hawaii.

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 including:

Committee Member, International Association of Botanic Gardens (European/Mediterranean Division)

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 Journal

Editor, Historic Garden magazine (UK)

Editor, International Waterlily and Water Garden Society Journal

North of England Chairman and Council Member, Institute of Horticulture.

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 1994

UK Garden Writers Guild, Award for Best Local Radio Gardening Programme 1995

Philip also received an array of other UK and US writing awards.  

Books by Philip Swindells

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