Tony Kirkham is the Head of Arboretum, Gardens and Horticulture Services in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London. He was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2020 and has authored six books including, most recently, Remarkable Trees. Tony’s latest work has seen the creation of Tree Families, a beautifully boxed card game for 2-5 players based on Happy Families.
Tell us a about a day for you working at Kew as Head of Arboretum – what does that entail?
Every day is very different with so many different aspects of the job. A typical day could be selecting a species to grow in the collections, choosing the tree in the Arboretum Nursery and positioning this young tree in its final planting position. Knowing what to plant and how the tree grows and to what size is key to determining where it goes, which is very important as planting a tree is a long-term investment and getting everything right is important for its longevity. I could then be looking at composting operations which produce the mulches that we use to maintain healthy trees in the gardens. When trees are looking tired or stressed, we need to reinvigorate them and by constantly looking at trees across the arboretum, monitoring how they grow helps us to identify their needs.
Congratulations on your recent MBE from the Queen, can you tell us a little more about how you were recognised?
My MBE was for services to Kew and Arboriculture, so recognising two very important parts of my life. I have spent all my life working with trees and in arboriculture (this is the management of trees from selection, production, planting and maintenance of all woody plants) and almost 43 years working with trees at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. My wife Sally and two children, Jennifer and Robert accompanied me to the Palace where I received it from HRH Prince William, and it was an amazing day.
We all love seeing the seasonal changes of trees can you tell me your favourite season and why?
I love all four seasons, but my favourites are Spring and Autumn when there is so much happening in the tree world. In spring I enjoy seeing all the trees waking up, getting dressed and flowering and in autumn all the trees preparing for a long, well earned rest. Plenty of colour in both seasons, but I suppose my absolute favourite if I could only have one would be autumn.
Leading on from this is there a tree which you admire the most?
There are many, but the Chinese tulip tree, Liriodendron Chinese would have to be my favourite, as it is a rare tree, I have seen it growing in the wild on one of my many visits to China and collected seed from which we have several trees growing well in the arboretum now. It has a beautiful leaf and flower.
Where is your favourite (outside of Kew) public space to admire trees?
There are many places that I visit both in the UK and overseas. In the UK any of the parks in London such as Regents, Green and Hyde have some amazing trees, but I would be driving across to the Valley Gardens at Windsor where there is free access and an incredible tree collection representing every corner of the globe. Overseas I would be heading for California to see the redwoods. I have visited them several times, but you never get tired of them.
Do you have any tips or advice for people trying to decide where and what trees to plant in their gardens?
Do your research!!!! Check the overall size, shape and habit of the tree when mature and that it will fit the space, without the need for pruning later in life. Also decide what the ornamental attributes you would like from the tree and find a suitable species or cultivar that will provide what you want. Visit a garden like Kew or RHS Wisley and see it growing and that it meets your needs.
Trees have had an incredible impact on wildlife and our climate, have you noticed changes to that during your career?
Over 40 years I have noticed that we can now grow trees outdoors without protection from winter cold, so our climate is shifting, but the main thing is that seasons are merging together with excessive weather patterns with record high or low temperatures and heavy rainfall or snow etc. This is a challenge for trees and will also be a challenge for the biodiversity that live in trees, woodlands and gardens.