A person kneeling down beside a garden bed smiling at the camera.

Following Garden Pathways Around the Globe

By Kirsty Wilson and Katie Testa, on

Our commitment to learning goes way beyond our garden gates … it’s a global reach, with internships and trainee programs that welcome aspiring gardeners and horticultural experts from all over the world to study and live on Longwood's grounds. Much of our variety in plants, garden design, and horticultural expertise comes from our exchange of knowledge with other public gardens, horticultural organizations, and skilled professionals from all over the world. One of these impressive horticultural professionals is Kirsty Wilson, Head of Gardens at Balmoral Castle and Birkhall for His Majesty King Charles III. Wilson, a 2016 Longwood International Trainee Program alumna, is also a recently published author with the release of her 2023 book, Planting with Nature: A Guide to Sustainable Gardening. Her story is one of curiosity for the beauty of nature, a love of garden design, and a career pathway that has led her all around the world.

Wilson learned of Longwood’s International Internship & Training Program while she was pursuing her degree in Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh—several of the curators there had completed one of Longwood’s international training programs—and it quickly became one of her career goals to join us in our work at Longwood. After receiving her degree, she worked as a production horticulturist for King Charles III when he was then Prince of Wales at his home, Highgrove Gardens in Gloucestershire, England. After two years, she was ready for a new challenge and received funding for air travel from the Finnis Scott Foundation to journey to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and join our program. Wilson lived and worked at Longwood Gardens for a year, between 2015 and 2016.

The cover of the book "Planting with Nature."

Published on June 20, 2023, Planting with Nature: A Guide to Sustainable Gardening exemplifies Wilson’s love of gardening and natural spaces. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

At Longwood, international trainees work and learn across different specializations, depending on their area of interest. The program allows every trainee to broaden their learning experience by rotating through different areas of the Gardens, including outdoor display, indoor display, natural lands, production, education, marketing, plant records, and research.

A group of people posing behind a bed of sunflowers.

Wilson (fourth to right) at Longwood Gardens in 2015 with other international trainees. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

International trainees live on Red Lion Row—on Longwood property—along with other interns and Professional Horticulture students. During Wilson’s year, there were international trainees and interns from Poland, Spain, South Korea, Japan, and the UK. 

This diverse mix of cultures allows program participants to network and build connections around the world. Since her time at Longwood, Wilson has been on two botanical expeditions to Yunnan, China and Hokkaido, Japan collecting seed, DNA, and herbarium specimens for conservation while working for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Wilson recalls, “whilst in Japan, I was able to visit gardens with a friend I had lived and worked with at Longwood. Still to this day I have friends around the world whom I met during my time at Longwood.”

A person in a red jacket standing next to a large rhododendron.

Wilson on her botanical expedition in Yunnan, China in 2019, pictured next to a Rhododendron sinogrande. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

As international trainees work and live here for one year, they witness every one of our five Longwood seasons. Working with Longwood’s horticulture experts on these intricate displays inspired Wilson’s love of garden design, project management, and designing public spaces. 

“I was particularly drawn to the 86-acre native Meadow Garden at Longwood, which combines horticulture with ecology to create an attractive yet environmentally sensitive landscape with a rich biodiversity,” Wilson says. “The meadow really fueled my love of nature, helping to conserve native plants, and photography. Working in the meadow—and my memorable commute to work through a woodland—was so enjoyable. I loved to observe the meadow change through the seasons, watching monarch butterflies feeding on the flowers and the fireflies that came out at night … my love for nature and desire to protect plants and the natural world was definitely influenced by my time spent working and photographing in Longwood’s native meadow.”

The Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens featuring goldenrod and natural pathways.

Longwood Gardens’ 86-acre Meadow Garden, a designed and managed natural landscape filled with native plants and a diverse array of flora and fauna. Photo by Ellen Oordt.

After her experience as an international trainee at Longwood, Wilson later went on to earn a Diploma in Garden Design at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, while working full-time. Since then, she has redesigned the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden, as well as designed an award-winning show garden, a rooftop garden, a rain garden, a hotel design, and many other projects. Wilson has also worked as a Glasshouse Supervisor at St. Andrews Botanic Garden and Herbaceous Supervisor at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

A person walking down a brick path with garden beds all around.

Wilson walks amongst dahlias in the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

Alongside her day job, Wilson has also developed a sideline in the media. Wilson is a presenter on BBC TV Beechgrove Garden (available on Britbox in the USA) and a panelist on BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time, both helping her communicate the world of plants and their importance to a wide range of audiences. In 2021, Wilson was awarded the Roy Lancaster Award by the Royal Horticulture Society—this is awarded to a person under 35 who has achieved an exceptional contribution to the practice, science, and promotion of horticulture. “Meeting my hero Roy Lancaster in person was a special day!” reflects Wilson.

Three people standing with their arms around each other and backs to the camera.

Wilson and friends stand in the Acacia Passage at Longwood. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

Wilson recently accepted a job as Head of Gardens at Balmoral Castle and Birkhall for HM King Charles III implementing new designs. “I’ll be working on my biggest horticultural project to date for someone who himself inspired me with his own meadow planting at Highgrove Gardens!” Wilson says. “I found it emotional leaving Longwood after it had been such a special place, but I have been lucky enough to visit once again since my time there. It will always be a special place in my heart where I learned a lot, had great experiences, and made lifelong friends from around the world. Today I smile and look back on those days at Longwood and how far my career has grown since then.”

People outdoors looking at drawings on easels.

Wilson shows her garden design to HM King Charles and the Queen at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photo provided by Kirsty Wilson.

Available in The Garden Shop or The Garden Shop online, Wilson’s first book, Planting with Nature: A Guide to Sustainable Gardening, is a practical, easy-to-use guide for anyone who wants to boost nature in their patch and make the world a little greener. Illustrated with specially commissioned drawings by Hazel France, Wilson’s Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh colleague and friend, it contains essential information on many topics, from planting nectar-rich borders, native hedgerows, trees, and wildflower meadows to creating rain gardens, green roofs, and ponds. Expert advice is also provided on sustainable gardening approaches to fruit and vegetable production, making compost, and the propagation of new plants. “By re-imagining how we plan and use our gardens, we can all do our bit to support local wildlife, improve our health, and help tackle the climate crisis,” Wilson says. “Positive steps, no matter how small, can really make a difference.”

Editor’s note: Know an international student or aspiring horticulturist who is interested in gaining insightful, hands-on experience working and living on the grounds of one of the world’s great gardens? Applications for the 2024 International Internship and Training Program are open now through May 1, 2024. We look forward to welcoming more bright young horticulturists to our Gardens and inspiring their journeys in the field.

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