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Meet the team: Catherine and Jay, Gardens department

We met with Catherine and Jay, two members of our gardens team, to have a chat about what they do here at Paignton Zoo. Catherine is the Deputy Curator of Botanics here, and Jay is a Senior Estate Operative.

If you’d like to hear the full conversation, listen to our podcast: So you want to work in a zoo? Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and all other major podcasting platforms.

So, Catherine, what made you want to go into horticulture?

I always loved being out in the garden as a kid, and I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with a huge garden that I loved growing vegetables in. I left school when I was 16, not quite sure what I wanted to do next. I managed to get a place at Bicton College to study an entry-level course in horticulture. It was about half way through that course that I really thought that this could be a great career!

After getting a job here as head gardener initially, I did a foundation degree in horticulture and garden management. I was never the most academic of people, and being dyslexic means that formal education can be quite a challenge for me. Sitting in a lecture hall, taking notes, reading latin plant names… it was all a massive learning curve for me.

Jay – you took a bit of a different route. How did you get to where you are now?

It all stems back to wanting to work with nature. I started working with animals in the mid-80s, and zoo-keeping was a 26-year career for me. The transition from working with animals to working with plants wasn’t a massive one. I’d been gardening at home for a while and at work to a degree – I used to collect food for the big browsing animals, and I still do this now in my new(-ish) role! Since becoming an estate operative, I’ve completed a level 3 qualification in horticulture.

What does a normal day look like for your team?

Catherine: We start at 7:30am and then we’re chopping and changing all day. There’s a certain rhythm to how we do things: there’s some jobs that we can only achieve before visitors come in, like mowing. So this morning, Jay was mowing in the lion paddock, which we always want to do before visitors come in as we have to take the lion off-show to mow, so we need to let him out again by the time guests are here.

Jay: No two days are the same! We work in all weather conditions and all seasons. Paignton Zoo is a big garden with lots of different plants – we’re not just outdoors, either, we’ve got indoor tropical houses and that means that we have plants from lots of different kinds of habitat from all over the world. I think the variety really appeals to us all!

You do a lot of bigger picture planning, too. How do you go about planning how things will grow in the future?

Catherine: I think it’s very much based on experience, but it’s also really important to put in the research. Thank god for the internet – you can do a Google image search for what a tree will look like when it’s mature, which makes it a lot easier.

We’ve gone through a phase recently of needing to remove lots of trees from the site because of various diseases, Ash Dieback being the most significant. Now I’m looking at the landscape and thinking about how we can ensure the canopy is back in the future. We’ve been fortunate that in the 17 years I’ve worked here, we’ve planted a lot of trees, but we need to continue to do that because the threat of disease is so unprecedented.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

Jay: I like formative pruning myself – the aesthetics of trees and shrubs. But, really, I like all the jobs I do – I don’t like to do just one thing.

Catherine: I think planting, and particularly planting a tree, because you know when you plant that tree you’re setting something in course that will go far beyond your own years.

How does your role link to wider conservation?

Catherine: We work with a number of threatened species. We actually successfully pollinated a titan arum, also known as a corpse flower, a few years ago. We posted pollen from the titan around the country, and we were posted pollen too so we could pollinate ours. The titan arum produces a large flower which starts to bloom in the early evening. It’s fully open by about 8:30pm, so you have to stay in the zoo after hours and then cut a small hole in the side of the flower. Then you get a paint brush to collect the pollen and paint it onto the female part of the flower. We actually got hundreds of seeds from ours that we sent all around Europe to other zoos and gardens.

What advice do you have for young people looking at starting their career?

Jay: I could only advise them to follow their passions. I wouldn’t make many changes in what I’ve done – I’m very proud of my career, but if I could change anything, I’d put in a bit more effort in school to give me a head start on the knowledge side of things.

Catherine: Take every opportunity that you can and look out for opportunities, too. When I was at college, I saw a tiny notice on a noticeboard to work in Israel for 6 months, so I did an internship out there which taught me a lot. Follow every opportunity you get – you never know where it’ll lead!