Small Talk with Ireland’s Master Gardener Billy Alexander
This week's conversation is with Billy Alexander of Kells Bay Gardens in Kerry, who recently won gold at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show for his fern display
15 June 2023
At Growtrade, we’re running a new interview series titled ‘Small Talk’, where we talk to various influential members of Ireland’s horticulture trade. This week’s conversation is with Billy Alexander of Kells Bay Gardens in Kerry, who only recently won gold at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show for his fern display.
How did you get your start in horticulture?
As a child I always worked in my garden at home. My grandfather was my biggest influence, I used to stay with my grandparents and follow him around his 1-acre garden. As a teenager I did gardening jobs during the summer. I was nearly 40 when I first got into the commercial side of horticulture by importing a container of tree ferns from Victoria, Australia. There has been no looking back since.
What was one of the proudest moments in your career to date?
That’s an easy one! Just two weeks ago I got my 3rd RHS gold medal at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show and then on top of that to be awarded the Best Exhibit in the Great Pavilion at this year’s event was incredible. It is the highest accolade one can achieve in horticulture, so it was a very special feeling
What was one of the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career to date?
I took up horticulture in 2000 as a hobby business importing tree ferns. This then expanded to containers from Chile, South Africa, Brazil and China. Then in 2006 I purchased Kells Bay Gardens after two years of trying. The next five years were the most difficult as I tried to survive the recession (and the terrible winter of 2010!) without the business being up and running. I’m delighted to have come through this and in recent years to have received awards for my tree fern collection.
Give us an example of a recent success you had in your work.
I have just completed the installation of a new horticultural facility in the gardens at Kells Bay. Before this I was renting out a glasshouse that took one hour to travel to and from. Now we have all our plants available for sale in the Gardens for the first time which already has reaped benefits from both guests staying with us and visitors to the gardens.
What are the greatest challenges facing the industry today?
Like all other industries, the increasing costs of running a business is widespread. Obviously as costs go up, there has to be some increase in the sales price of our plants, but we hope that this will level off soon.
What are the greatest opportunities facing the industry today?
A difficult question to answer generally…. as a niche plant nursery specialising in the rare and unusual I continuously am looking for new lines of exotic plants that I know my customer base (primarily plant collectors) will be delighted to purchase. Having the opportunity to travel further afield to discover new specimens to add to the collection is wonderful and I find I am always learning more with each trip.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their career in horticulture?
To embrace it. For me it is so rewarding working with plants. I chose to go into a niche area of plants without previous experience in the trade, and luckily for me it worked. But looking back I would suggest doing a course, working in an established nursery for a couple of years to gain invaluable experience that is required.
What are your hopes for the future of Irish horticulture?
I would be a perennial optimist! But Irish horticulture is in very good health in my opinion. Since the upsurge in plant sales during Covid-19 there is more interest in many different aspects of gardening, especially in suburban areas. Having spent the past couple of weeks exhibiting at Chelsea and Bloom meeting so many gardeners, I am confident of the industry continuing to be strong in the next couple of years.
Kells Bay House and Gardens in Cahersiveeen, Co. Kerry is open to the public 9:30 – 6pm daily all year-round. Billy Alexander will be replicating his gold medal winning Chelsea display in the gardens for visitors to enjoy, along with perusing the 17-acre site. For more information visit www.kellsbay.ie
Small Talk is produced in association with Gardenworld Nurseries – passionate about plants. For more visit gardenworld.ie