Spotlight on John Grimshaw

by Marianne Long
Published: Last Updated on

Director at The Yorkshire Arboretum

John Grimshaw

Q What is your background?

My gardening career started as a small boy in Sheffield, and developed when we moved to the Thames Valley where I grew up. I got a degree in Botany from Oxford, then spent several years studying elephants and forest vegetation on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, leading to my doctorate. I’ve been in professional horticulture ever since, working for a seed company in the Netherlands and managing the gardens at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire before coming to the Yorkshire Arboretum in 2012. My home and garden is in Settrington.

Q When did you get involved with the Arboretum and Ray Wood?

I joined the arboretum as its first director in August 2012, so I’ve been here for just ten years.

Q What is the history of the Arboretum?

The arboretum occupies 120 acres of former parkland just west of Castle Howard, with the collection planted from 1979 among the existing trees, some of which date to the 1700s. It was designed by James Russell, working with George Howard to create a new landscape stocked with interesting trees from all over the world. Since the 1990s it’s been run by an independent charitable trust, with the motto Inspiration, Education, Conservation, reflecting its ambitions to inspire and educate visitors, as well as conserving the collection trees and the native flora and fauna of the site. We currently have about 7500 trees or shrubs here, representing 2300 different kinds.

Q How is the Arboretum funded?

We have to find all our own funding. Admissions and memberships, tree sponsorships, grants, donations and legacies all support us, but with running costs of £1000 per day the budget is always very tight.

Q How has the Arboretum changed in the last 10 years?

We’ve been busy! Day-to-day we’re always editing the collection, sometimes removing trees but always planting more, and just keeping up with the mowing is a huge job. In the past few years, we’ve created large areas of wild flower meadows, installed hard paths round much of the site, dredged the lake, created a new woodland garden, built a new operations centre and the beautiful Peter Sowerby Building, and we’re just finishing our Red Squirrel Enclosure.

Q The Yorkshire Arboretum has recently established the country’s first Tree Health Centre; what is the purpose of the centre and what does it offer?

Trees around the world are threatened by an explosion of pests and diseases—we are seeing the effects of Ash Dieback all around us in Ryedale, where we may lose some 50% of our tree cover from this one disease alone. This, and the issues caused by climate change, mean that we have to think very hard about how we can look after our trees for a green and pleasant future. So the Tree Health Centre promotes knowledge of how we can keep our treescapes and woodlands vibrant, through courses, classes and outreach. Even just knowing how to plant a tree correctly will make a huge difference!

Q How are you planning for a future of increased temperatures and the changing climate?

The heat and drought of this summer has been a wake-up call for many, as they see how so many trees are suffering as a result. We need to think now about planting for the future – the current palette of common trees will not thrive in a future Mediterranean-style climate. We’ve been planting Mediterranean species on our sandy soils, including olive trees and cork oaks, while our hickory and pecan trees have shot up this year, demonstrating their love of a warmer climate. Diversity of planting is the key, so no one species dominates and becomes vulnerable to either disease or adverse weather in future.

Q Do you have a favourite place within the grounds of the Arboretum?

That’s a hard one, but probably the new woodland garden and the area around the lake, though I’m always very fond of the Arboretum Café’s terrace!

Q How does the work of volunteers benefit the Arboretum?

How many volunteers do you have? We couldn’t operate without our 80 wonderful volunteers, who are a really valued part of our arboretum community. Their loyal support makes it possible to keep the arboretum and its collection in good order and moving forward, assist our education programme and help ‘inside’ as well.

Q What can visitors expect when they come to the Arboretum? Do you offer other activities?

What most people really love about the arboretum is its peace and quiet, enjoying their walks under the trees and across the meadows. We’ve always known what a lot of people discovered during the Covid lockdowns—that green spaces are good for the soul—or wellbeing as it’s called today. For those looking for other activities we have a whole range of events for everyone through the year. During October half term we’re offering sessions for kids on growing acorns, which I think will be really fun. See for information.

Q Any exciting plans for the future?

Our big new development, which is really exciting, is the creation of our new Red Squirrel Enclosure, built in-house by volunteers and staff. We’ll be getting some Red Squirrels this autumn and look forward to introducing them to visitors once they’ve settled in.

Quick Questions

Q Owl or Lark? Lark.
Q What did you want to be when you grew up? A gardener.
Q Favourite type of tree and why? Beech – it’s a beautiful noble tree at all times of year, but I really love the pale green of its expanding leaves in May.
Q Favourite season? September.
Q Who would you have at a dinner party and why? James Russell, creator of the Yorkshire Arboretum. I’d want to ask him a lot of questions!
Q If you could live anywhere, where would it be? Poverty Gulch Farm on the western slope of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Q Proudest moment? Being made an honorary elder of the Maasai community of Lerang’wa, Tanzania.
Q Who is your inspiration? I’ve been inspired by many people, but in the world of trees it would be Henry John Elwes of Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire, a naturalist, traveller and forester who wrote the magnificent Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906-13).
Q I couldn’t get through the weekend without….? A nice glass of wine is always welcome.

The Yorkshire Arboretum and Arboretum Café
Open daily 10am – 4pm from 1 February to 30 November.
Last entry is at 4pm – the car park will locked at 5pm.

t: 01653 648598 |

Marianne Long
Latest posts by Marianne Long (see all)

Related Posts

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Cookies Read More