One Magazine’s Jake Tucker meets horticulturalist and BBC Gardener’s World presenter, Frances Tophill, ahead of her appearance at this year’s Toby Buckland Garden Festival to find out more about the new perennial movement, working with the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and her top tips for taking care of a Devon garden.
Q: What first got you into the gardening world?
I came to gardening quite late. Having had two failed attempts at the ages of 6 and 7 when I tried to ‘help’ my mum and got in trouble, I never even thought about it again until I saw the job for an apprentice gardener at the age of 19, applied, turned up for the interview, had a walk around the garden and immediately knew it was what I wanted to do. I luckily got the job and haven’t looked back since.
Q: After you completed your degree in horticulture in Edinburgh, you moved down to Devon where you volunteered at Dawlish Gardens Trust – an ornamental grass nursery which provides opportunities for adults with learning difficulties. Tell us more!
I’ve always loved the South West. My sister and I did a holiday down that way and I fell in love with the beaches, the cliffs and just found everyone was so friendly. It seemed like an exciting new venture. I volunteered at Dawlish Garden Trust, which was a completely new direction for me, as I’d never worked with a client group like that. After a few months of volunteering and loving my time there, my boss offered me paid work and I stayed there for some years alongside my television work. It was a magical place to be with the kindest and funniest people I’ve ever worked alongside. From there I also got a second job at Hilcrest Branch, which was a social enterprise doing ground maintenance work with people struggling with their mental health.
Q: We’re hearing (and seeing) a lot about the new perennial movement in the UK which is said to transform urban gardens – one example of which I’ve seen on a recent trip to New York’s High Line. What are your thoughts on this new movement and what place do you think it has in the English garden?
The use of perennials has been such a revolution to horticulture since the late 1800s, but it’s been amazing to see how the idea of using perennials has gained traction over the last 20 years. Nowadays the prairie planting fashion is in full swing and used so widely, as you say, all over the world. I love it. I think it’s beautiful and great for wildlife and is really sustainable. It reduces the need for digging and offers colour for most of the year. It can also be quite a low maintenance solution for those of us with less time. I think this is a trend that will go on and on.
Q: The world of gardening has always been quite a traditional space. But we’re starting to notice an influx of young gardeners and lots of new ideas that challenge some of the more traditional ideas. How do you feel about how young people are changing this space?
There is so much new talent in horticulture nowadays and I think it’s not only really good news but also incredibly exciting. The horticultural world needs a shake-up; it needs a breath of new life. I think that for some time these underground movements and projects have been going on under the surface, but the horticultural establishment and the horticultural media has only ever given them a small nod. Now people are realising that gardeners and gardens are going to be a large part of the future. They offer something in the way of a solution to problems we face with climate change and taking a strain off the agricultural industry. They offer community and togetherness where it has been lost as people become more involved in their work-lives and screen time. And really – crucially – horticulture offers wellbeing and a sense of restored calm, which is something everyone is becoming increasingly aware of; not just for those who face struggles with their mental health, but for all of us.
Q: One campaign which has helped bring younger people into this space is the RHS Campaign for School Gardening which you’re involved in. Can you tell us more about this?
It really is such a joy to be involved with. I asked if I could get involved with their work because I felt that I would have loved to have had a go at horticulture myself before the age of 19. Although it’s not only down to schools to offer this, many people don’t have gardening knowledge or even a garden in which to teach their children, so I really wanted to be part of a team that encourages and supports teachers, teaching assistants and volunteers in schools so that they can make outdoor learning and gardening a part of everyday life for children of all ages and abilities. Every year we visit schools and get inspired by the dedication and enthusiasm of these amazing young people and their teachers. And every year we hold an award for the best young gardener, the best gardening team and the best gardening teacher or volunteer. Judging those entries is always an inspiring and very emotional undertaking.
Q: Readers will be able to find you at Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival at Powderham Castle on 3rd – 4th May. What will you be talking about this year?
I will be talking about planting the right plant in the right place. It’s an old concept but I will be aiming to debunk the botany and make it easier for people to recognise plant adaptations and pick the right plants for their gardens. I’m very much looking forward to it!
Q: Finally, what’s your top three tips for taking care of a humble Devon garden?
Firstly, make sure you don’t pick a garden that the sea blows into. That’s what I did when I moved to Devon, and it became quite a challenge to grow!
Second, make sure you plant things that you know you’ll have time to maintain. There’s nothing more discouraging than realising things have run away and you’ve lost control. If you keep things manageable then you’ll never lose morale.
Finally, choose things that will give you something interesting to look at, smell, feel and eat for as much of the year as possible. If you only have limited space make sure every plant has flowers, and autumn colour and seed heads for you to look at and the birds to enjoy. Or at least make sure the plant is edible or useful in some way. That way you get a full sensory experience all year round with minimal effort.
Book your tickets to see Frances at Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival online at www.tobygardenfest.co.uk