Mike Burks is gardening for health and the planet – Dorset Island Discs

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It’s 35 years since Mike and Louise Burks opened Castle Gardens – now their Christmas displays are a staple of the region’s festive calendar

Mike Burks, managing director of The Gardens Group

Mike Burks is managing director of The Gardens Group, and with his wife Louise has spent the past three decades running three multi-award-winning garden centres, three restaurants and a farm shop in Dorset and Somerset. During the 2020 lockdowns, Mike, as chairman of the Garden Centre Association (GCA), played an essential part in co-ordinating the industry’s emergency response. His biggest success was persuading the government that garden centres should be treated as essential retailers for the health of the nation.
Both Mike and Louise graduated with honours degrees in horticulture from the University of Bath. They founded The Gardens Group in 1987, opening Castle Gardens in Sherborne, The group has since expanded with the opening of Brimsmore Gardens in Yeovil in 1992 and Poundbury Gardens near Dorchester in 2006.
One of the biggest challenges for modern garden centres, Mike believes, is their stance on environmental issues – peat, plastics, water, pesticides and carbon emissions: ‘Garden centres should be guiding customers to a peat-free world, for example.’
He also believes the wide use of ‘multi-purpose’ compost is a big issue ‘Whether it is woodchip, coir or worse, peat, the ingredients in multipurpose are scarce and should not be wasted on the veg patch. Other, more plentiful, materials are available.’

The Christmas displays at Castle Gardens have an environmentally-aware approach

Those Christmas displays
A visit to Castle Gardens at Christmas is a December ritual for many families.
Mike and Louise’s garden centres are renowned for their Christmas displays, and they have won the top national award in the GCA’s annual Christmas competition on numerous occasions.
The displays now have a purposefully environmentally-conscious focus: they have been built using re-purposed and recycled materials. The decorations and gifts have been deliberately sourced from small-scale makers and fair-trade businesses.
Recycled candles, plastic-free toys, soft toys made from recycled plastic and recyclable gift wrap are all available throughout the displays.
Decorations made of glass, wax, paper and cardboard have replaced plastic.
They are chosen for their quality so that they will be brought out year after year and hopefully be passed down through families.

Cadillac Walk
Mink DeVille
I come from a big family, and we are all still very close. We had to work hard at home – a small farm in North Devon which turned into an organic market garden – but it was good fun. We didn’t have a television for many years, so the record player was in fairly constant use. My older brothers and sisters especially would bring home records from a wide range of genres from John Denver and Neil Sedaka through to The Stranglers. But Cadillac Walk always reminds me of family times at home.

Reasons to be Cheerful
Ian Dury and The Blockheads
University was another time in my life when I found a lot of new music, through people from all over the UK – many of whom we’re still in touch with. It’s also where my wife Louise and I met.
Ian Dury was a genius, a poet really, but he was also a controversial figure at the time. Louise went to buy his album New Boots and Panties as a Christmas present for me, only to be told loudly by the assistant in a packed record store that they didn’t stock it because it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act!

Lollipop, Lollipop
The Chordettes
Moving to Sherborne to set up Castle Gardens lead to my involvement with Sherborne Rugby Club, which swiftly dominated life when we weren’t working! We have met a whole load of great people, some of them foolish enough to be persuaded by me to get involved in revues and pantomimes. This was a huge amount of fun and stretched my music collection even further (as fondly remembered by our kids who recall short clips of obscure tracks that I was selecting for these rugby events). From our panto The Wizzer D’ovos, based loosely (and I do mean very loosely) on The Wizard of Oz.
I have chosen Lollipop, Lollipop just because it makes me laugh every time I hear it, instantly taking me back to a song-and-dance routine performed by a large sweaty Lion, an even larger and sweatier Toto the dog, a Germanic Tin Man and an unusual Scarecrow.
Dorothy and some witches were around too but that is a whole other story…

Sweet Georgia Brown
Stephane Grappelli
My mum and dad were very fond of music, but especially jazz. I remember going to a concert at the Bournemouth International Centre with them in the late 80s or early 1990s to see Stephane Grappelli. I was amazed that it was a packed house with a huge audience.
An elderly man in his 80s shuffled onto stage in slippers – on his own, without any announcement – and just started playing his violin. Just stunning. He was accompanied after a while by two young guitarists who, after an hour, took a break while Stephane played the piano, followed by another hour of violin. So many to choose from but Sweet Georgia Brown is a personal favourite which has other stories attached!

Lake Charles
Nellie Lutcher
Louise’s parents also loved jazz and we went to see many live shows with them in various places. They were fans of Lianne Carroll, a brilliant British pianist, but they also introduced me to lots of older jazz from the last century. Listening to Nellie Lutcher’s Lake Charles always brings back good memories.

No Longer There
The Cat Empire
Our children William and Sophie love music and enjoy some of the things that we have played for them over the years, but they also keep us up to date with new, contemporary bands.
They are both fans of an Australian band called The Cat Empire and we have been to see them live on a number of occasions. The first time William went to see them was when he was still at the Gryphon school and he asked us one morning if we’d like to go with him and a couple of friends to see The Cat Empire play at the O2 in Bristol that evening. We agreed – but were then told when he got back from school that he had sold our tickets, but could we give him and his mates a lift anyway!
Their song No Longer There was one I used at the three-day annual Garden Centre Association conference when I was chairman in January 2020. The song is a lament on climate change and, as the conference was on sustainability and the environment, it was the perfect theme tune. Not their jolliest song by any means but it takes me back immediately.

What You Doing in My Cave?
Spencer Jones
As a family and with friends we’ve been many times to the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve come across several superb ones in tiny venues – and some terrible acts too!
Many of the former have gone on to be very successful, including Mischief Theatre and The Play That Goes Wrong.
Also, though, we have seen some great stand-up comedy. Spencer Jones’ humour is just bizarre, and he also makes up little songs which are ridiculous, especially What you Doing in My Cave. I’m not sure it was even properly published as he used to copy the CDs and wrap them in A4 sheets of handwritten paper!

Jackson
Johnny Cash and June Carter
In recent times I’ve been given some Sonos speakers and been introduced to Spotify, which has meant that I have been able to resurrect some old favourites as well as find lots of new stuff I wasn’t really aware of before.
One great find has been JJ Cale. Of course I recognise the name, but I somehow missed out on some wonderful music. However, linking back to when I lived at home in Devon, I’ve been listening to lots of Johnny Cash and after watching Walk The Line with the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix I also became aware of June Carter and her amazing voice.

Reg and fortune hunting
As to my luxury item I think I would like to take our talking reindeer Reg. He is an essential part of our Christmas display at the garden centres. Reg is, at best, downbeat shall we say, and his dour view of life would cause me to be always cheerful in response.
And my book would need to be A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting by Sophie Irwin; our daughter’s first book, it was a Sunday Times best seller.

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