Have a seat with...

Sue Biggs

Until her very recent retirement, Sue Biggs CBE was the longest serving Director General for the Royal Horticultural Society in the charity’s long, illustrious history.

In today’s edition of Have a Seat With, we take a look back at Sue’s wonderful tenure at the RHS, the many innovations and improvements made under her leadership, and the joy of being back at Chelsea this year. Switch the kettle on and have a read!

Sue Biggs and champion tree

Hello, Sue. Firstly, a huge thank you for taking the time to speak with us today—we know your life has experienced some rather big changes in recent weeks!

After 12 wonderfully successful years of leading the RHS, as the longest-serving Director General in the charity’s history, you decided to step down from the role in June. I guess the first question is—are you looking forward to retirement, or are you going to miss your day-to-day involvement at the RHS?

In some ways the idea of retirement is exciting: no alarms, time to travel and read, to learn to paint and improve my Italian. But I will certainly miss the RHS and everyone involved. I was lucky to work with some fabulous people, both internally and through our shows, work with government and the industry.

One of the mission statements you laid out upon your appointment, back in 2010, was to make the RHS “attractive to everyone – from the novice gardener to expert horticulturists”.  How do you think the perception of the RHS has evolved in the last decade, and how have you tackled that all-important issue of inclusivity?

I hope that over the last decade or so we’ve managed to encourage more people to love the RHS. Our membership has certainly grown during this time, from 350,000 to 625,000, and I hope we’re seen as a welcoming and friendly group of people for anyone who loves plants, rather than a rather exclusive gardening club for experts only.

So I think we’ve been reasonably successful on the inclusion of non-expert gardeners, on a younger audience and on promoting women into the garden design world in particular. We have had some success on expanding the appeal of horticulture to those from different communities, but I still hope that further strides can be made to ensure that the world of horticulture and the RHS is reflective of the whole of the UK.

Sue Biggs and Ozichi Brewster

Looking back on your tenure, you must be incredibly proud of your achievements. From the redevelopment of the scientific research centre Lindley Library; your work spearheading the Get Growing campaign for schools; and the driving force behind RHS Bridgewater in Salford to name but a few.  What would you say has been your legacy from your time at the RHS? For what innovation or accomplishment would you most like to be remembered?

That’s very kind of you to say but none of this would have been possible without my super talented and super positive teams at the RHS, or the wonderfully generous help of so many supporters. I am very proud that our membership has grown and our members and visitors are more representative of our country’s population, but I’m also proud we dared to dream and achieved the opening of our new garden in Salford, RHS Bridgewater, and the UK’s first exclusive horticultural science research centre at RHS Wisley, the Home of Gardening Science.

After navigating the society through the Coronavirus pandemic, one of its most difficult periods, in what ways were you forced to adapt the way in which the RHS operates? With the lifeblood of the charity reliant on annual shows and people visiting your numerous locations, it must’ve been immensely challenging.

The last two years were operationally very challenging, to keep staff motivated and taking swift decisions to keep the Society strong, despite the cancellation of our shows. However, Covid helped in some ways as we were able to keep the gardens open most of the time, meaning more people reconnected with the power of nature.

"We have had some success on expanding the appeal of horticulture to those from different communities, but I still hope that further strides can be made to ensure that the world of horticulture and the RHS is reflective of the whole of the UK."

Much of your work at the RHS has been focused on the issues of sustainability and the preservation of future generations—something embodied by the creation of RHS Bridgewater. How much do you think the pandemic helped change people’s view on the idea of sustainability? Do you think people now see their gardens as a means to grow food, as much as they are beautiful places to inhabit?

Yes I do, I think Covid has given people the time and space to reconnect with plants whether for food or beauty. Sustainability has to be at the front of everyone’s minds if they want to have gardens and plants for the future.

How much did you enjoy being back at a more conventional Chelsea Flower Show this year—if there is such a thing—after 2021’s Autumn show and the virtual event the year before?

Out of this world! Loved every minute of it, and it was doubly wonderful that the Queen could come.

Sue Biggs summer

"Sustainability has to be at the front of everyone’s minds if they want to have gardens and plants for the future."

During your time at the RHS, your life must've been extraordinarily hectic. What do you like to do in your downtime; how do you like to relax? 

My garden is my place of relaxation, I love it. Plus dog walking, swimming, reading, going to Italy. All wonderful ways to relax! 

What is your favourite garden you’ve visited? I’ll let you pick one RHS garden, and one from anywhere else in the world!

I can’t choose one garden from the RHS as that’s like choosing your favourite child!  From anywhere else’s has to be Great Dixter, I absolutely love the colour, charm and beauty of that garden, where Fergus has carried on so brilliantly from Christopher Lloyd.

What’s next on the horizon for you, Sue?

Let’s see!

Thank you, Sue, and congratulations on a wonderful career at the RHS.

Read more from the series...

Matthew Wilson marcus Barnettlee burkhill

The Sitting Spiritually 'Have a Seat With' series takes a look behind the scenes at how we switch off from the bustling modern-day lifestyle. We speak to people of all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles around the country as we seek to explore the different ways of relaxing and just taking a moment.

Posted on July 12th 2022


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