The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Farewell, Thorny Problems
After 20 years of answering readers’ questions, it’s time to say thank you and au revoir
And so farewell to Thorny Problems. On March 3 2001, I eased off my wellies and muddy gloves, sat down at my kitchen table in front of a scarily brand-new laptop to tap out answers to my first Telegraph readers’ questions, received by email (in common usage, at that time, for barely five years).
Sonia Copeland (no location given, which became the norm) wanted to track down seeds of a (then) buzz plant, dusky purple Cerinthe purpurascens, while Rhona Clark in Torquay became the first of scores of readers, over the following two decades, needing help with an overgrown Clematis montana. So began an adventure for this very ordinary, flawed gardener to share her experience and know-how with goodness knows how many others. In 20 years, Thorny Problems gave me a unique and changing picture of Telegraph readers’ gardens, gardening habits and insecurities.
In the early noughties, gardening was on fire. Ignited by television programmes, by brightened-up garden centres purveying juggernaut-loads of (largely) imported plants where customers could flash their pre-crash cash, and by a rejuvenated RHS expanding its operations online.
Environmental concerns grew and organic and vegetable gardening became the new Big Things. I made my position clear to readers early on: that I didn’t (and still don’t) garden organically but I compost, mulch, use chemicals rarely and sparingly, and in a targeted way, and do everything possible to welcome wildlife into my garden and my beloved pond.
This seemed to chime well with most, if not all, of my readers.
Thorny Problems, originally a few column inches, expanded to a page, with a weekly colour action shot of yours truly to which many readers understandably objected (“We don’t need a huge (expletive deleted) picture of you every week, why can’t you answer more questions instead?”).
As well as copious emails from the new silver surfers, there was a weighty, chatty post bag, containing anything and everything – “live” insects, phials of murky pond water, a solitary (squashed-in-transit) strawberry…
Readers from all walks of life told me more about their gardening selves than they probably intended, many becoming regulars, addressing me as a friend, which I loved. Two names were unforgettable: was Baroness Gardner of Parkes real, or was she having me on? (she is, she wasn’t). Nor, clearly, was another correspondent, who signed her letters Miranda Beaufort (Duchess). And I wonder whether a certain Brigadier (Ret’d, CBE) is still blowing up his field with explosives to solve a mole problem. Maybe not.
Two Telegraph books of the columns (Thorny Problems in 2011 and More Thorny Problems in 2014), materialised, as well as my light-hearted practical take on the basics, Gardening in Pyjamas. It was all a bit high octane and left precious little room in my life for much else. Occasional welcome breaks in the routine took the form of garden tours for Telegraph readers, in the UK and Europe, that I hosted from 2014.
Looking back through my files: roses, hydrangeas, slugs and snails, vine weevils and perennial weeds were the subject of reader angst more times than I can bear to count. In winter 2012, masses of the nation’s lollipop bay trees were nobbled by a severe frost, and I had to implore readers to please, please stop emailing me about them.
By then, things were beginning to change, anyway. Unsurprisingly, the internet and the media have had the biggest impact on the way we garden. The majority of horticultural conundrums can, after all, be googled.
The forthcoming information doesn’t always hit the spot, however, since it takes no account of individual circumstances – soil type and moisture levels, microclimates, wind, light, agility and age (of gardener).
Over the past few years, I gained the impression that Thorny Problems readers have googled first, come up with possible solutions, then emailed me as a last resort. This has meant that I (often) had to ask the questioner for more information so I could give a more tailored reply, hopefully useful to others. Dissatisfied googlers imperceptibly managed to change, too, the tone of Thorny Problems: instead of a cheery “Hello Helen”, blunt questions began to drop in my in-box: “Can you and your team tell me….?” Team? What team?
Recently I got quite shirty and reminded readers to at least say “please”. What started as a simple letters page had subtly changed.
And now there are apps such as PlantSnap and Candide that provide admirable handholding services for the time-poor spreadsheet generation, and YouTube, the best of the output providing helpful step-bysteps on some of the basics.
The march of time has its pluses and minuses of course. While both Brexit and Covid are causing traumas within the nursery trade and the fear of unstoppable imported plant pests and diseases is very real, social media, in particular Instagram, has enabled lockeddown gardeners to share their joys, worries and their humour.
Garden style and aspirations have undergone change on my watch, largely personality-led – but then it had been going that way for 20 or so years before: in the 1980s we were beguiled by the undeniably posh Rosemary Verey’s books and magazine articles illustrating her skill with pastel flowers and silver foliage. We got through the Ground Force years resisting, most of us, the fashion for instant gardens, and also to daub every scrap of garden hardware “Titchmarsh blue”. Filmmaker Derek Jarman, and in a different way, Beth Chatto, introduced us to gravel gardening and we hung on every word written by the late Christopher Lloyd as he tinkered with big leaves and “hot” coloured flowers, ripping out his Great Dixter roses and going all tropical (to the horror of an increasingly old old-guard).
“Garden rooms”, a term hitherto applied to enclosed places of tranquillity within swanky gardens, now, in small gardens, became sociable playgrounds: think outdoor kitchens, trampolines, and the horrors of artificial grass rather than smart urns, reflective water, and clipped yew.
Meanwhile, a loosening of the stays amongst planty people led to a passion for bee-friendly wildflower and pictorial meadows. This wilder style of gardening continues to grow in popularity: for me and for most others reading this, during the last difficult year, enjoyment of gardens and the wider outdoors have together been our salvation. Long may that continue for all of us.
And life after Thorny Problems? I confess I will enjoy gardening without the weekly need to sift through endless emails, dear readers. I hope to continue to write occasional features here and elsewhere, and garden tours, of which I am the host or guest speaker, are pencilled in for later this year and 2022.
I will inevitably continue to share my experience and knowledge in as hands-on a way as possible as soon as circumstances allow, giving talks (but fighting off the dreadful Zoom), offering personal in-garden consultations and, very probably, teaching small groups from my home and garden. Au revoir mes amis.
Readers from all walks told me more about their gardening selves than they probably intended