Keith Weed, the aptly-named new president of Royal Horticultural Society, spoke to Country Life’s gardens editor Tiffany Daneff about his love of plants, his new role — and showed her around his own garden.
It’s a broiling day in mid August when even the ducks on the pond look hot. Keith Weed, the newly appointed president of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), is out in the garden that surrounds his 15th-century timber-frame farmhouse in Surrey.
‘You’ll find him in the border,’ says his wife, Kate, an artist, who is accompanied by two border terriers, Biscuit and Bear, named — Keith tells me later — by their children, two sons and a daughter, all of whom are now grown up.
Sure enough, we discover the president crouched inside the suitably impressive herbaceous border between the cosmos and the crocosmia, obligingly clutching a vast bunch of freshly picked flowers for the Country Life photographer Dan Gould.
He certainly has the right garden for the job and, photograph taken, is touchingly enthusiastic to show off its various parts: the abstract topiary garden, the walled garden with espaliered fruits that he has trained himself, the raised vegetable beds with curled kale and onions and a large herb bed with lovage — ‘people never guess what the leaves are when I put them in a salad’ — not to mention the two beds that Kate has filched in order to grow dahlias. (She has 250 tubers, he reports.)
They are both keen growers, but they also employ a gardener — ‘essential when I was working full time’. In the greenhouse, the beefsteak and cherry tomatoes are ripe for the picking. The grapes hanging from the vines above Keith’s head, usually harvested for wine, are suffering a bad bout of mildew after the heat. ‘I was going to cut them all off before you came!’ he jokes.
This is an unusual appointment for the RHS, which tends to offer the role to one of its own, Sir Nicholas Bacon and Elizabeth Banks, the past two incumbents, being cases in point. Although Keith is a hands-on gardener — he even constructed a plywood template in order to accurately shear his yew topiary — and a member and fellow of the RHS, living around the corner from RHS Wisley in Surrey, his background is in the corporate world.
Now 59, he retired from Unilever in May 2019. He had been employed there for 36 years, having worked his way up from office trainee to board member. It was at that point he decided to assemble a portfolio of roles that would best put his expertise to use: ‘I was not interested in retiring and sitting in a deckchair.’ These include being on the board of Grange Park Opera at nearby West Horsley Place, sitting on the sustainability committees for WPP (the global advertising group) and for Sainsbury’s, as well as being