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This Sussex Life: "The biggest challenge for me is keeping things alive"

Jaci Driscoll

Jaci helps students at the campus allotment

Flower boots, or perhaps "daisy roots", at the allotment

In all weathers Jaci Driscoll, plant specialist for Sussex Estates and Facilities, can be found on the University of Sussex campus tending to the flowerbeds.

This is my passion. I live it, breathe it, sleep it. Other than spending time with my partner, Emma, this is my life. I even come here on a Sunday because I love it so much. I’m responsible for all the plants on campus. My SEF colleagues look after the grass. I’m glad I don’t do that. Grass is not exciting,

I grew up in council flats without gardens and got into gardening 25 years ago, but then spent another ten years working in an office job [as a licensing officer for Brighton & Hove Council], longing to be outside.

My first garden was an allotment at Patcham. I studied horticulture at the Stanmer Park campus of Plumpton College  – I’ve got qualifications in permaculture, City& Guilds, use of chemicals  – and I worked in a garden centre before coming to the Sussex campus five years ago.

Echium, that’s my favourite plant. It’s a biennial and it’s like a rocket that can grow to about 12ft tall. It has flowers all the way up the stem and each one of them has a bee attached. I’ve currently got three growing in the bed by the Meeting House and am really pleased that they have survived the winter. I plant them every year, but only one has survived before.

I hate plants in straight lines, evenly spacedI try to make it look like it they have just appeared, although all gardening is contrived really. I gave up my allotment when I came here and have got some of my own plants dotted around. I’m always creating beds, but it’s a lot for me to do. I’ve no idea how many miles I walk in a day  – and I’ve only got little legs.

The biggest challenge for me is keeping things alive. There are no taps on the outsides of buildings so we can’t water the plants. I went to weed the garden at Pevensey and hardly anything has survived over the winter. But all the stuff that was in the planters at the front of Sussex House I have transferred to there: a rowan and a holly, and God knows how many daffodils.

I’m looking into “dry gardening”, which was pioneered by a garden designer called Beth Chatto. You choose drought-tolerant plants, such as grasses and grey things. Things with hairy leaves are the easiest ones. You put them in the planters, water it and mulch it, and then you just leave it.

I’m also looking into whether we could join the Incredible Edible Networkwhich is where we grow food foeveryone to help themselves. I’m talking to a group in Bristol to see how we can do it here, maybe growing plants in containers that people can just pick and eat. Everyone should have access to something that’s fresh and good for them.

My favourite place on campus is the allotment behind Park Village. I’m there on Wednesdays to help the students’ allotment society. They are interested in all sorts of things with the allotment. They can do carpentry if they want to. About half a dozen are always there, and then there are another 40 who drift in and out. On a nice sunny day you get a lot of people, or sometimes they go to the beach instead. I’m really proud that one of the students, who’s doing an English degree, has spent so much time on the allotment and loved it that she’s going to study permaculture when she finishes.

I don’t think about anything when I’m gardening. It’s a complete mindfulness exercise. All the rubbish in the world just drifts away. You can just concentrate on being with the plants and cutting them at the right point. I do talk to them, and I apologise if I tread on one. I’m always saying ‘Oh, sorry darling.’

This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 15 March 2019