reveals 5 steps to a glorious garden
When Alan Titchmarsh and his wife Alison lived in their first home, a tiny two-bed terraced house in Berkshire, they dreamed that one day they’d be able to afford a grand oak table – and a house to do justice to its proportions.
Four decades on, and with two daughters, Polly, 34, and Camilla, 32, two sons-in-law and four grandchildren as regular visitors, they spend most mealtimes at a splendid handcrafted Thompson of Kilburn rippling oak table in their Georgian farmhouse kitchen in Hampshire. From here, as in every room, the family can enjoy views out over a garden burgeoning with the results of Alan’s lifetime passion for plants and the great outdoors.
The gardener has enjoyed a long and industrious career, which started with him selling cacti for sixpence at church bazaars. He left school at 15 to work in the Ilkley Parks Department: ‘It was an eye-opener; I realised I could do something I wanted to do in life’. After studying horticulture at Kew Gardens he moved into garden journalism and TV with the transformational Ground Force and inspirational Gardeners’ World, produced a trug full of gardening books, a shelf full of lively novels, and became a hardy perennial at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. And through it all, he’s maintained that a person’s patch of land should always reflect who they are.
‘Make your garden to suit you,’ says Alan, 67 this year. ‘Create something that will really make a difference to your life. Gardening is great therapy; it improves your lot. It’s always been about mindfulness, even before the phrase was coined. You go out, look at what’s growing, sniff a rose, slow down.’
Not that there was much time for mindfulness when the family moved into their farmhouse 14 years ago. ‘We thought it only needed cosmetic work,’ says Alan, who’d fallen in love with the Hampshire Downs while working just up the road on
Gardeners’ World, ‘but we ended up filling 48 skips! There was woodworm, deathwatch beetle; it was a nightmare. I watched them take away half the value of the house. And then we gradually put it all back together – rewiring, re-plumbing – breathing an enormous sigh of relief when it was finished.’
For a man who prefers organic transformations – his advice is to watch your garden
through a year, see where plants thrive, where you want to sit for your gin and tonic, where snowdrops spring up and the sun sets – stamping his mark on the grounds round his house was much more pleasurable.
‘Georgian houses have big windows and here they all look out over the garden,’ he says. ‘When we arrived it was just grass and old fruit trees, no borders. I made a grass path down to two lovely yew trees and put a bench at the end. That’s the view from our sitting room; it created a sort of formal axis.
‘And now we have lawns and topiary around the house and then about three acres of copse and wild flower meadow with paths mown through it. We also have a place on the Isle of Wight, which has a seaside garden that slopes to the north and looks across the Solent. It’s milder, so I can grow plants there that won’t last through the winter at home.
‘The older I get the more I enjoy walking along the paths through the meadow, with its bright, light wild flowers,’ says Alan. ‘We cut it back and take the hay off in September, and start again with cowslips in April. I planted some wonderful snakeshead fritillaries here last year too, and then we have vetches in summer and finish off in September with a wash of marjoram so it’s almost all pink.
‘It’s a wonderful thing to watch the changes through the seasons. We also have a big mound in the corner of the meadow, which our grandchildren call The Mountain. They love to roll down it. The meadow is perfect for them, and perfect for Easter egg hunts!’
He patently loves his role as grandfather and seeing his family enjoy the pleasures of nature. When he was a child, a trip into the Yorkshire countryside was an adventure and an education. ‘My dad was a plumber and my sister and I used to be bundled into the back of his van at the weekend and taken for a run out on the Dales. We used to love visiting places with a history, such as Castle Howard and Parcevall Hall,’ says Alan, whose latest role is as presenter for the new Channel 5 series Our National Trust. In it the charity opens the doors and grand old gates of its historic homes and gardens to television for the first time.
‘As an inveterate stately home visitor and coast walker, I feel this is a great way of showing off the riches of the National Trust,’ he says. ‘We visit every sort of property, from Quarry Bank Mill in Manchester, which still runs as a working cotton mill, to the more
obvious ones such as Lyme Park, where Mr Darcy came out of the water in his wet shirt!
‘We did a programme at Attingham Park, which has a lovely library. I’m a bibliophile and put in a library in our converted barn at home. It’s where I write my novels and recharge.’
For a man with a unique perspective on how our gardens have grown over the past six decades, he’s thrilled to see how passionate we are about them. ‘A big change is the range of plants available now – before the 1960s it was thought deciduous plants could only be dug up and transplanted between November and March. When it was discovered you could transplant container-grown stock at any time of year, it was a revelation.
‘Garden centres came along and we could buy plants at any time; buy them in flower and plant them in flower. Colour TV showed people the beauty of gardens, opened them up to design, instructed them. Ground Force arrived with its makeovers, not to replace things as they’d been but to say you can do it. There was a craze for instant gardening, and although a lot decry it, it opened people’s eyes as to what they could grow.’
Now, with his house in order, his family blooming and his garden a pleasure, Alan never gives up encouraging people to find something special from their own plots. ‘My life’s work is to say: “You can do it.” Yes, it is magical but it’s not that mysterious,’ he explains. ‘Simple rewards. I love mowing, walking up and down, creating nice lines; it’s therapeutic. Part of my brain concentrates on keeping it straight, the rest can muse on all kinds of things, a plot for a novel… it’s my thinking and breathing space.’
His pristine lawn is edged with terracotta pots housing lollipop topiary yew trees
Laburnam in flower frames the view of the bench in the Winter Garden
Alan says his home is ‘like a Georgian dolls’ house’
In spring the borders leading to Alan’s greenhouse are filled with swathes of white Tulipa ‘White Triumphator’
Alan and his family moved into their wisteria-covered farmhouse 14 years ago
Alan has mown a grassy path through the wild flower meadow
On location filming at Lyme Park in Cheshire