John started his long horticultural career in 1957 as an apprentice at Bellgarth Nurseries, Carlisle that specialised in growing Chrysanthemums, Gladioli, Dahlias and spring bulbs and whilst there he attended day release at Carlisle Technical College gaining the College Horticultural Prize. Between 1958 and 1959, he was a student at the Yorkshire College of Agriculture, Askham Bryan, York where he gained a First Class Certificate in Horticulture. In 1959 he joined Carlisle Corporation Parks Department gaining experience in the propagation of trees and shrubs and in the glasshouse nursery growing pot plants and bedding plants.

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John Main. Photo courtesy of The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society

In 1962, he started what would be his long association with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh becoming a student gardener studying whilst working in the Garden gaining the Edinburgh Diploma in Horticulture [DHE] in 1965. In 1964, he became engaged to Marisa Melville a member of staff in the Herbarium.  In 1965 John was appointed supervisor in the Herbaceous Section at RBGE under the expert tutelage of the late Alfred Evans. His time in Edinburgh also triggered what would be a long-term interest in Alpine Plants including cultivating in his own private garden alpine plants to peak perfection that were awarded Forrest and Farrer Medals the premier awards at Scottish Rock Garden and Alpine Garden Society Shows. For many years, he was the Joint Seed Manager of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, preparing seed for distribution to members, and in addition, he was a long-term member of the Scottish Rock Garden Club Expedition Committee.

He gained the prestigious National Diploma in Horticulture [RHS] in 1969. Leaving Edinburgh in 1974, he then moved to become Superintendent at the Northern Horticultural Societies’ Garden at Harlow Carr, Harrogate before becoming Curator of the Royal Horticultural Societies Garden at Wisley in 1980 before returning to RBGE as Curator in 1988 and retiring in 2000 as Head of Horticulture.

During his time at RBGE, serving under four different Regius Keepers, John was responsible not only for the garden at Inverleith but also for the regional gardens of Benmore, Dawyck and Logan. At Inverleith, he appointed two new deputies and appointed three new Curators at each of the regional gardens.

Key developments during his tenure at RBGE included at Inverleith, the renovation of the Rock Garden Stream, the Heather Garden and the creation of the Chinese Hillside with sponsorship initially from Dawson International and latterly from Pringle. In the Public Display Glasshouses the renovation of the Fernery and Arid Land Houses. He was also instrumental in the development of new Nursery Glasshouses and Propagation facilities and new Tropical and Temperate propagation facilities.  At Benmore, Dawyck and Logan with new Curators in post and with many new plant introductions from the temperate regions of the world there was a gradual but significant expansion and enhancement of the plant collections at each garden.

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John Main on Yu Shan – Taiwan 1993. Photo courtesy of Marisa Main.

During his career John participated in the Alpine Garden’s Society expedition to Sikkim in 1983 and in 1993 the RBGE expedition to Taiwan – plant collection acronym ETE- and with David Paterson visited China – plant collection acronym P & M – in 1994. Many plants collected by John on these trips can still be seen in the garden today.

Garden outreach during this time also included, horticultural displays and exhibits at the Glasgow Garden Festival, the World Orchid Conference in Glasgow and the display of Vireya Rhododendrons at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  Building on this expertise RBGE was invited by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1999 to create a British garden at the International Horticultural Exposition in Kunming China. This Garden served to strengthen ties with the Kunming Institute of Botany and pave the way for the development of a new Botanic Garden at Lijiang

John was a passionate and knowledgeable plantsman and out with RBGE he found time to be President of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society between 1992- 1996, a Council member of Borde Hill Garden, Sussex, member of the RHS Joint Rock Garden Committee and a Council Member of the National Council Conservation Plants in Gardens now Plant Heritage.

John passed away on the February 26 aged 83 and is survived by Marisa, sons Iain and Graeme and their families. The funeral service will be held at Guildford Crematorium, on Thursday, April 4, at 2.15 pm with donations in his memory to Perennial being greatly appreciated.