“During Easter weekend our display of irises attracted 5,300 visitors to the Palm House over four days. That’s really good,” says Kjell Bergman with a careful smile, although it is apparent that he gets real pleasure from seeing so many people enjoy the palace that has been his responsibility for 30 years.
“It’s a very beautiful building. I’ve always felt that. Some people say that it is two experiences in one: the glass house and the plants. And as an added bonus you can see outside, so you remain in contact with the park.”
This autumn Kjell will be 64, but he has no special plans to take things easy.
“The way I feel now I will be happy to carry on for a few years more. I enjoy my work so much, and of course I can organise my day the way I want. Not everyone has that freedom,” says Kjell, who cycles to work from his home in Krokslätt at half past six each morning.
MOSTLY RHODODENDRONS AT HOME
And if anyone happens to wonder what a gardener’s own garden looks like, the answer is that he has been fighting a one-sided battle with the local elk, deer, hares and forest snails for many years.
“I used to have lots of perennials, but now it’s mostly rhododendrons.”
As a teenager at home in Västerås he originally planned to become a construction engineer, but realised early on that it was not the right choice. He gave up studying to be a draughtsman and took a gardening course, followed by a specialist course in horticulture in Norrköping. And when it turned out that the love of his life – who he met on holiday in Greece – lived in Gothenburg, Kjell packed up his things and soon had a fiancée, house and job in Sweden’s second city.
“That was in 1978, and I began working as a gardener out in the park. But it was a permanent job right from the start and now I’ve been here the longest of anyone.”
SOME PEOPLE VISIT ALMOST DAILY
In an industry where many people are seasonal workers, or are tempted to move on to tackle exciting new garden projects, Kjell has found his challenges within the glazed walls of the Palm House.
“It’s a living environment after all. Some things thrive very well here,” says Kjell in a way that makes you wonder whether he is talking about himself or the plants.
But it’s clear that both plants and visitors thrive with this gardener. Some of the regulars make almost daily visits to the Palm House and watch its seasonal changes with great interest. Some know Kjell by name, while others work up the courage to ask cautious questions about a plant or a tree.
“It would feel strange not to help out if someone asks. It’s part of the job – part of the service you might say.”
DO YOU TALK TO THE PLANTS AS WELL?
“No, although people have of course researched it. It doesn’t work…”
When pressed on the question of favourites, Kjell admits that he does have an eye for the camellias, but is also drawn to a cheeky tree with shoots that remind one of a punk’s Mohican hairstyle.
“It’s called Sansevieria, comes from Africa and is related to mother-in-law’s tongue. I’m very fond of it.”
The exotic and atmospheric setting of the Palm House has made it popular with fashion photographers since it opened in 1878. It has provided the perfect backdrop for films and TV shows, and many people have sought comfort and joy here.
“There have been funeral ceremonies and many weddings. My eldest daughter, Sofia, was married here in 2009. It was a really nice day in late September,” recalls Kjell, who is pleased to say that many young people seem to appreciate the special atmosphere of the Palm House.
“I like it when I see people bring their coffee and just sit here. As more and more visitors come it has become quieter here in some way. It’s part of the feel of the place – it makes you lower your voice a little.”