For fun in the shrubbery with Miranda’s mum, plantswoman Dee Hart Dyke,
Passionate plantswoman DEE HART DYKE is fronting a new TV series on gardens, narrated by daughter Miranda (cue rampant climber innuendos…)
Best known for being the real-life mother of actress-comedian Miranda Hart, Dee Hart Dyke is set to become a TV star in her own right, with a three-part Channel 4 series inspired by her passion for gardening. Britain’s Secret Gardens is being screened to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the National Garden Scheme (ngs.org.uk), which opens more than 3,000 plots to the public to raise funds for charity. Narrated by none other than Miranda – whose eponymous sitcom was a BBC hit from 2009-2015 – the series sees 77-year-old Dee take a (naturally, humorous) look at some of these gardens, from the weird and wonderful to the majestic.
Here, Dee opens up about talking to her plants, being caricatured by her famously funny daughter and how her own Hampshire haven was a blessing when she almost lost her beloved husband in the Falklands War.
We live in an age of anxiety and it’s becoming clear that gardening is tremendously helpful. The exercise and fresh air are obvious benefits, and the fact that you are totally absorbed in what you are doing; you are, quite literally, grounded, so you can’t think about this or that. Working with the seasons, you learn patience; to wait for the excitement of things shooting up when they should. And you’re away from the unhealthy demands of modern technology and this constant communication we live with now. I’ve yet to meet an unhappy gardener!
I tried from an early age to get my two daughters [Miranda, 44, and Alice, 41] into gardening. I could see straight away that the seed was not going to bear fruit, though they are very proud and appreciative of my garden. You can’t force your passions on your young – you have to let them find what they love. My mother gave me a packet of seeds and a bit of border to plant them in when I was eight. The excitement of seeing the shoots coming up grabbed hold of me and I was hooked, so I’ve had time to learn a great deal. Many people don’t come to gardening until middle age – but it’s never too late! You can get tremendous joy from even a few plants on your windowsill – as I am always telling Miranda.
I remember being in the garden the day my husband David’s ship was sunk. [Royal Navy Captain David Hart Dyke was commanding officer of the HMS Coventry, which was attacked by the Argentines in the Falklands War, with a loss of 19 crew.] It was 25 May 1982, the most beautiful day, and I felt so happy among my borders; I thought, ‘I’m sure this means nothing bad will happen.’ That evening I heard the news. Although he suffered terrible burns, David did come back safely in the end, but there was an awful 18-hour period between hearing that the boat had sunk and knowing he was safe. The Falklands was the first war where you had it all on television, so it was impossible to shield the girls [who were nine and six] from it.
Being at home in the peacefulness of our garden was very healing for David and it helped him to recover. He doesn’t know much about gardening – and I don’t allow him to touch my borders – but he is very good at the everyday tasks I would never get round to, like putting creosote on fences. We balance each other perfectly. He said that when his ship was sinking, and he thought he might not make it, his first thought was, ‘Who will mow the lawn? How will Dee manage?’ I was very amused by that: practical to the end!
I remember being in the garden the day my husband’s ship was sunk
The idea for Britain’s Secret Gardens was Miranda’s. She’s always found gardening language funny and thought I would be good on television. Everything I say she turns into some wonderful innuendo: she loves terms like ‘pricking on’, ‘bedding out’ and ‘rampant climbers’. It’s all very off-the- cuff. When she was 15 she used to do these amusing sketches in the village hall, and one of them was of me going round the garden with a friend. She had us in stitches. The series was definitely born out of her sense of humour.
Every garden has a story to tell. So the main point of the show was to get the owners talking. The only celebrity owner was [comedian and novelist] Julian Clary, who lives in Noël Coward’s old home in Kent. I accompanied him on the piano in ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington’, which was great fun, though a difficult piece to play.
Gardening is a great leveller. You can have two gardeners from completely different worlds, with different jobs, who would be unlikely to meet in other circumstances, but the minute they get talking, they feel completely at ease with each other; it’s extraordinary and lovely. It has been a wonderfully fortunate experience, at my stage in life, to meet all these owners. I feel so lucky – and grateful to Miranda – that I have a project like this in my 70s.
I wasn’t nervous about appearing on telly. When it’s something that’s your passion, it’s easy. Occasionally, I think, ‘How on earth will I come across?’ But mainly I just hope I do the gardens justice. We visited 30 of them – in Kent, London and the Midlands – while filming. I find it hard to name a favourite, as I loved every single one. The ones on Thames barges, which were so unexpected, and a tiny Italian garden in Kent that a woman with Parkinson’s had planted in honour of her mother particularly stand out.
– especially the birdsong – is absolutely amazing. The visiting badgers are less welcome. Luckily, we don’t have moles or many foxes.
I struggle to name a favourite plant, but I am very fond of a dictamnus. It’s a beautiful perennial that flowers for an exceptionally long time and then has seedheads with a delicious, lemony smell. I love whatever is out at a particular time. Later in the year, I am keen on the salvia family, with their beautiful jewel-like colours.
I would love to have a big vegetable garden, but that is a full-time job in itself and I can’t neglect my plants. You do have to choose. I grow the basics, such as broad beans and runner beans and lots of rhubarb, and I hope to grow more in time. I am pleased that my nine-year-old grandson, my younger daughter Alice’s son, seems quite interested. We sowed carrots and lettuces and beans together, and they have all come up. They live next door and he has his own little football pitch in the field that he mows himself. Often love of gardening skips a generation, so let’s hope!
It’s in the human DNA to garden. People have been working with soil and growing things for countless thousands of years. It’s such a natural thing compared to swiping a screen. Gardening is solitary by its nature – you can think calmly as you work. I worry that today’s young can’t remain focused for long enough – or cultivate the patience – for gardening. There’s this constant panic of ‘Am I out of touch?’ My rule is: no phones in the garden. I have an old Nokia in my car to ring someone if I am going to be late – that’s it.
The only time I have ever taken a break from gardening was when we lived in Washington DC for two years. David was made naval attaché there, but our garden was full of poison ivy. We visited lots of beautiful gardens and had a lovely time in other ways. I was happy to get back, though. We’d bought our current house just before we went [in 1984] and I’m thankful for it every day. There’s a bank up by the pool where lots of things flower and where you can see right across the village – it’s the most perfect spot.
We are great game players as a family: any poor person who comes to visit is forced into
a round of charades. When we get together we’re often to be found in the garden; we sometimes have hammocks strung between apple trees in the orchard. There has always been lots of humour in our house. We are terribly close – David and I to both of the girls, and the two of them to each other. David has a very good, dry sense of humour, which may be where Miranda gets hers from.
I am a great believer in a garden evolving and not being instantly wonderful. You should have a project every year that you can watch unfold. You never want anything to be set in stone. And the less glamorous bits, like mulching, dead-heading and preparing the soil, are so important.
The main thing is never to be a bore about your garden. I would never say to anyone, ‘Would you like to see the garden?’ I will always wait for them to ask.
Britain’s Secret Gardens is coming soon to More 4. Episodes will be available for catch-up on All 4
Dee joining forces with Miranda on Britain’s Secret Gardens and, left, in her own garden in Hampshire
Dee at the press night of Annie, top, with daughters Alice and Miranda (as Miss Hannigan) and husband David, and the family in 1982, above. Opposite: with Miranda and Patricia Hodge in a Stand up to Cancer celebrity Gogglebox special