Obituary: Bernard Thomas Barrett, horticulturist

Bernard Thomas Barrett. Picture: Contributed
Bernard Thomas Barrett. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

BORN: 16 March, 1921, in London. Died: 8 April, 2014, in Leeds, aged 93.

Ben, in all of his various roles, carried them out in a quiet, carefully reasoned, organised manner without ostentation. And whatever the role, horticultural research, advice, teaching, consultancy or publicity for his chosen profession, each was executed to the highest standard. His ability to discuss gardening and horticultural problems at all levels was one of his great strengths and was held in very high regard by his peers.

Born in London’s Paddington, Ben was educated at Berkhamstead School and Slough Grammar School and began his long and distinguished career in horticulture with the renowned seedsmen, Sutton and Sons before, moving to Little Paddock at Ascot, a private estate belonging to Lt Col James Horlick where, according to Ben, the garden staff were “encouraged to drink a cup of the eponymous beverage before going to bed”.

Later, a move to Lord Aberconway’s garden at Bodnant, Wales, with its extensive collections, much of which was grown from seeds collected in the wild by the great plant collectors of the 20th century, proved to have a profound and lasting influence on his life.

As well as cementing his love of plants, at the age of 19 he met his future wife, Laura on the promenade at Llandudno in 1940.

In 1941 he joined the Royal Air Force and saw active service in North Africa, Italy and East Africa, and was Mentioned is Despatches.

Typical of many so honoured, Ben was very reluctant to expand on his war service and the incident which led to this award.

He was among the first of the returning servicemen to be invited to join the three-year Course of Instruction at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, at the completion of which he was awarded the Diploma of Horticulture with Distinction in 1948.

He then embarked on a long and successful career as an adviser with the East of Scotland College of Agriculture. Further studies followed, gaining him in 1950 a National Diploma in Horticulture, an award only achieved by those who passed the difficult written and practical examinations judged by a panel of senior British horticulturists under the aegis of the Royal Horticultural Society.

During this period, among his many advisory duties, he liaised with the leading growers of the day on crop production problems, especially plant nutrition, including Robert Scarlett, Sweethope, East Lothian arguably the leading exponent of intensive vegetable production in Scotland.

Scarlett, an energetic entrepreneur, never missed an opportunity to publicise horticulture. Ben was one of the first to recognise and advocate the advantages of soilless composts – and some of their drawbacks – conducting extensive, meticulously recorded trials for which he was awarded an MSc (Edinburgh) for his thesis Studies on Growth Media for Container-grown Plants. He was a member of the International Peat Society.

He was always a highly popular speaker and lecturer with fine voice and communication skills, and in 1948 he began a long association with BBC Radio and broadcast regularly until 1978. As presenter for the Scottish Gardener his popular, erudite presentation skills were enjoyed by thousands weekly.

In 1974, his expertise was further recognised when he was appointed head of publications and visual aids, East of Scotland College of Agriculture, and information officer for the Council of Scottish Agricultural Colleges.

A gifted writer, he contributed regular articles to The Scotsman and other publications on a wide variety of gardening topics, becoming a member of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists. He was also sought after as a reviewer of books and periodicals.

All this time, his abiding interest in plants, particularly alpines, led to his long tenure as member, member of the Council and, finally, president of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society. In 1980 he was the recipient of the Society’s highest award, the Scottish Horticultural Medal for his outstanding services to Scottish horticulture.

Keen painter, music lover, gardener and family man, Ben remained active until his death.

Ben, whose wife, Laura, died in 2002, is survived by his sons Peter and Steven, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. Steven Robert Barrett