Lucille Savin

Head Gardener

The first woman to take on the role of Head Gardener at Merton, Lucille Savin has completely transformed the College grounds since joining in 2002. Over nearly two decades, her talented and innovative plantswomanship has left a mark on the College that will carry on for many years to come.

After her A-levels, Lucille was uncertain as to which career path to take. Reflecting on the fact that she had always felt grounded by nature, and realising that what she enjoyed most was simply pottering in her garden and watching wildlife, she decided to sign up for a degree in Horticulture at Writtle College, now Writtle University College, in Essex.

Lucille’s college work placement was at Oxford University Parks, under their assiduous Superintendent, Walter Sawyer, who was devoted to the plant collection and whom she found a joy to work with. She was involved in a breadth of work - propagation, landscaping, and the maintenance and development of the Parks, as well as numerous colleges and departments.

After completing her degree in 1997, Lucille returned to Oxford University Parks to head up the plant nursery, before a Park Foreman job came up. She was offered a Trainee Foreman position, was soon promoted to Foreman, and spent more than four years overseeing projects ranging from constructing rock gardens in the centre of Oxford Botanic Garden to laying dinosaur footprints across the Museum of Natural History’s lawn.

In October 2001, Lucille left Oxford to become Assistant Head Gardener at Daylesford House, a Georgian country house in Gloucestershire, relishing the opportunity to work in such stunning surroundings. The contrast in garden expenditure broadened her horizons; however, Lucille’s passion is nurturing, so she was looking out for a role that would give her more freedom to develop gardens from the ground up.

She took the step to Head Gardener in October 2002 when she joined Merton, having impressed Dr Edward Olleson, Garden Master at Merton from 1974 to 2004. Her first thought was that the College’s gardens all felt alike; giving areas within the gardens their own identity and a reason for people to visit each part seemed paramount. She implemented changes gradually, often trying something out on a small scale in order to sense the response. A wildflower meadow helped to soften Grove, whilst the sheer scale of the Real Tennis Court walls leant themselves to more architectural planting. To enhance the educational role Merton plays, she introduced plant labelling throughout the grounds.

Lucille’s role allows her to bring a fresh, contemporary feel to Merton’s historic buildings and to highlight seasonality; she ensures that she keeps her team up to date with the latest horticultural practices and regulations. The current steer to ‘go green’ means that some older practices which had been discarded are now coming back into vogue. Feeling connected to the University and hearing about the many research projects it is involved with makes Lucille and her team proud to work for Merton.

In 2015, Merton’s gardeners won Gold in the Oxford in Bloom competition for an outstanding display by the Universities and Colleges. By doing so, they also helped Oxford win Gold in the national City in Bloom competition, meaning that Oxford and Merton represented the Thames and Chiltern region in the national Britain in Bloom competition. To top it off, in 2017 Lucille was picked as one of Britain's most exciting Head Gardeners when she was one of 14 featured in a book highlighting the breadth of what being a Head Gardener entails by Ambra Edwards (St Hilda's, 1976).

Increasingly, the gardens’ tranquillity is seen as being crucial to students’ wellbeing, especially before exams. “New waves of students continue to provide ideas to bounce off; life never stays still at Merton, and who knows what’s around the corner,” Lucille says. Whether one craves space to relax or somewhere intimate, she hopes that everyone at Merton can have their own favourite spot in the gardens.

Merton & Me

Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch, what was your first impression?

A feeling of belonging.

Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?

Being labelled “dogged”. I was crushed by this at the time, but suggesting ideas doesn't always sit well with what is familiar to people. It has sometimes taken perseverance to achieve how the gardens look today.

Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.

My hobby for years was white water kayaking, and I paddled the tricky White Nile in Uganda. Paddling took me around the world, in awe of plants in their natural habitat.

What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?

Urging staff to carry out tasks outside of their comfort zone used to make me feel guilty. I now realise it develops all of us as individuals and many have come back to thank me for the experience they gained at Merton.

Describe Merton in three words.

Devoted; steadfast; fascinating.

A short tour of Merton's gardens