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John Sales

1933 - 2022
Head of Gardens, The National Trust, for three decades
John Sales with the Kew Guild President's ribbon.

John Sales, who died on 29 December 2022, aged 89, started work in nurseries near Swanley in Kent, growing cut flowers and salad crops, firstly commercially and then for the Kent Horticultural Institute, where he also attended day release classes. Two years of service in the RAF were spent reasonably agreeably in Malta, and his horticultural interest was sustained by a correspondence course.

In 1953 John went back to Swanley for a one-year National Certificate Course in general horticulture. He did well and stayed on for a course in Commercial Glasshouse Crops. His mentors were Roy Gunton, later Head of Horticulture at Oaklands, and Kewite George Brown, who subsequently returned to Kew as Assistant Curator and was for many years editor of the Kew Guild Journal.

After a few weeks at Hampton Court and a six month session as an Improver at Kew he applied for a course at Kew, starting in 1956. He was in distinguished company: his colleagues on the course included Alan Hart, Tom Risely, Allan Paterson, Hans Overeynder, Tom Muller and Ben Jacobson. John enjoyed spells in Tropical Pits, the Decorative Dept, T Range and the Temperate House Pits. Sir George Taylor was then Director and Bill Campbell was Curator.

In 1957 he won his National Diploma in Horticulture and he received prizes for his work as Secretary to The Mutual Improvement Society. He left Kew in the spring of 1958 and worked for a few months in Ealing Parks, Parks Department before becoming Assistant Lecturer in Horticulture at the Essex Institute of Agriculture (now Writtle College) under Austin Healey. He was there for 12 years.

John was responsible for introducing one of the first Ordinary National Diploma sandwich courses in Amenity Horticulture. His long interest in historic gardens led to him taking a role as Horticulturalist with The National Trust. After three years he was appointed to succeed Graham Thomas as Chief Gardens Advisor.

His input has been very comprehensive, not least due to his travels throughout Britain as well as to conferences in most west European countries, and also to Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. 

In the late 1970s he edited a series of books on the Gardens of Britain and wrote West Country Gardens (Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Avon). He served on the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG), now Plant Heritage, and served on the Council of The Garden History Society for years. He was a governor of Pershore College, Warwickshire, and was a member of the RHS Gardens Committee. His expertise was used in many national arenas, including judging at the Chelsea and Hampton Court shows.

As well as being an ardent professional John was a keen home gardener in his 2.5 acre garden near Cirencester. He appeared with Roy Lancaster in Channel 4’s Garden Club. He was a keen photographer so able to deeply enrich his lectures at many universities and colleges and those to The Garden History Society and Institute of Horticulture. In 1990 he was awarded a Medal of Honour by The International Gardens Institute. In 1991 the RHS awarded him their highest award, a Victoria Medal of Honour.

John was someone who not only learned a lot but passed so much on to others.