ALAN TITCHMARSH

re­veals 5 steps to a glo­ri­ous gar­den

House Beautiful (UK) - - Front Page - WORDS KERRY FOWLER

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.’

Alan and his fam­ily moved into their wis­te­ria-cov­ered farm­house 14 years ago

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 has mown a grassy path through the wild flower meadow

On lo­ca­tion film­ing at Lyme Park in Cheshire

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