Rachel de Thame talks to Northern Soul about her passion for plants
It’s typical Manchester weather, the kind that sneaks through open doorways and under large awnings and marquees.
I’m huddled in an audience that comprises umbrellas on the flanks and drenched, steaming people in the centre. An occasional gust of wind pops in to listen to Rachel de Thame. You all know de Thame; even a stag party wandering through a damp St Ann’s Square, clutching their guilt like their hangovers, stop, point, confer, make digging actions, nod and hobble on, suitcases banging their shins.
For those of you who don’t garden, de Thame has been on our televisions since the late 90s, from BBC Gardeners’ World to ITV’s Countrywise. There have been some cruel and negative misconceptions about her horticulture credentials because when she hit our screens she was the best dressed, best looking and best turned out gardener on TV, and that was seen as a bad thing by some. I wonder whether the benchmark was set by capturing Bob Flowerdew on a bad hair day.
De Thame broke the mould of what TV gardeners look like – she’s an ex-model and actress turned gardener – but this fact is often trotted out, like a family’s black sheep uncle at Christmas. Let’s face facts: Monty Don is an ex-jewellery maker and I once worked stuffing pies in a factory. What you once were isn’t who you are now. We all change, we’re not all still doing a newspaper round. And let’s face some proper facts rather than the usual sexist tripe trotted out about de Thame: she has been on our TV screens since 1999, she has presented every major RHS show there is, fronted the BBC2 shows Small Town Gardens and Gardening With Experts, she is a regular columnist for The Sunday Times and has written for The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Gardeners’ World Magazine, Amateur Gardening Magazine and New Eden Magazine. On top of what is already a busy career she won a silver medal at The RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the LK Bennett garden. That’s Chelsea. The hardest, most gruelling RHS show there is. On top of all that she has four kids, a husband and two gardens to look after and is not afraid of speaking her mind. That makes her a positive role model in any field.
The large, damp crowds squashed in under the water-logged marquee are testament to this as they listen to her talk about hanging baskets. Something becomes clear as she struggles to get plants into the wire baskets – the plants are too large, this should have been done in April and she knows it and says it. She doesn’t try to brush it off, instead an effortless humour comes to the fore. A piece of plastic she is using keeps getting lost on the workbench, the audience join in shouting ‘It’s behind you’ and she is self-deprecating through it all.
The audience and I quickly warm to her down-to-earth nature and honesty. She compares dead-heading flowers to dead-heading her children: the times you turn your back for one minute on the little darlings and they suck up all the dirt in the northern hemisphere as you desperately try to scrub it off with a half-dried out wet wipe while stood in the middle of a market with crowds pushing to get past you, and tutting. You know those days. After four kids, de Thame does too.
De Thame is here on the first day of Dig the City, Manchester’s urban gardening festival held earlier this month, to give talks in a marquee open to the elements, and judge the gardens. As the now dry crowd tramp back out of the marquee into the rain I sit down and talk to de Thame about the importance of greening cities and admitting that as gardeners we often get it wrong. So, why does she believe that greening Manchester and other cities across the UK is vital?
“I think it’s hugely important because the majority of us live in cities. It affects our day-to-day well-being on so many levels. Obviously there’s the visual impact of seeing things that are beautiful and responding to that but I think it just reconnects you very briefly, and it’s that point I made in the talk.” (de Thame spoke for 30 minutes about hanging baskets and, in an entertaining slideshow, highlighted hanging baskets across the UK from sumptuous multi-layered baskets to baskets the dog has sat on)
She sits back as she reminisces. “Just for me sitting on that station platform seeing that little bit of something growing was enough to change my mood. I’m very tuned into it but I think perhaps most people are on a subliminal level. Looking around me where I am sitting now [St Ann’s Square has been transformed into a green oasis of tropical water features, zen gardening, floral pots, vegetable planters and sumptuous foliage], seeing the pots and seeing the trees and so on is just very, very important and fortunately in this country we are getting better and better at that and recognising the need and importance of having greenery in an urban situation.”
These comments are testimony to de Thame’s positive nature because at this point the heavens opened and we could barely hear each other over the rain. And there’s no denying that de Thame has promoted the impact of greening spaces in an urban environment. In 2012 she was the floral designer for the Royal Barge. The barge conveyed the Queen and other senior members of the Royal Family on another wet day during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and de Thame’s floral designs were seen by millions across the globe. So if she can pretty up a barge what would she recommend people to grow who have limited outdoor and sometimes ugly space?
“I say always look for things that earn their keep and it means you have to be more selective as a gardener. You can’t just walk in and be seduced by the first half dozen plants and come back and think, ‘What on earth am I going to do with them?’ You do have to give it more thought. I will always say, grow a tree if you’ve got space at all. Look for something that would work in a small space. Don’t forget shrubs, particularly pittosporum for example. I think it is the perfect city shrub because you have the foliage year round, you have interesting, very beautiful foliage from the paler variegated types to the darker plummy ones. They stay within bounds, they’re nice and compact, so that sort of thing I will say is a perfect plant. I don’t think there’s any I would say, ‘Don’t do’. Just be selective about it and also multi-layering. So, underplanting with bulbs, trying to make sure through the season you haven’t got bits that aren’t looking good.”
Given that she had a rose named after her at the 2002 RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, does she have a favourite flower?
“I really can’t answer because it’s that classic thing of what you are looking at and working with at that moment being the most beautiful thing you can think of. Just that perfect little daisy, and when I see a snowdrop and it’s the first thing I’ve seen that year, that’s the most beautiful thing that I’m in love with. I do love roses, it’s well known, I’m not in denial about it. I would find it difficult to have a garden without roses in it. I’ve just been filming irises, that was an amazing experience.”
As de Thame sits with me, her passion for growing becomes more and more obvious. It’s an infectious joy, but is it hard to maintain that passion in her busy working life?
“I don’t think I need to be kept passionate about gardening. I think it’s just there. I think the fact that you never cease to learn something new, you’re always discovering new plants, you’re always getting different information from somebody else who’s an expert in a specific type on plant and finding out a new way, that you haven’t thought of, of growing them or a new combination you’ve seen and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that’. That’s brilliant. It’s just a huge subject. I find no matter what my mood is and I get home, the first thing I do, always, is go around the garden and I just reconnect. I just love it. I really do love it.”
De Thame wants to know if I garden. I tell her that I’m from Pig Row and I’m shocked to discover that she knows who we are and is keen to talk about wartime gardening. She’s very excited by it all, the passion shines from her as the Dig the City PR, Jennifer Middleton, chips in that she is related to the Mr Middleton. Both de Thame and I are in awe. I wonder whether I should ask if Middleton if she gardens. Would it ruin the moment? Instead I do it in a roundabout way, asking de Thame what she wants people who have never gardened to discover about gardening.
“I think, that’s it not a chore. I think there are people, just a result of the way people’s parents have gardened or haven’t gardened, who think of it as tidying up the yard and that plants are a nuisance and that they’re time-consuming and you should have as little as possible and tarmac as much as you can. I think I would just like to encourage them to try a few things and see if they don’t fall in love with gardening as well. I think it infiltrates you. It’s a very hard person who isn’t seduced by plants, given the opportunity and the encouragement and the knowledge.”
We both look at Middleton and she tells us that she does garden. The joy spreads out from the marquee into the rain of Manchester; for a moment the sun shines, the rain stops and the wind abates. It seems like the right moment to broach the subject of cock-ups in gardening.
Television gardeners often brush over mistakes, playing to images of abundance rather than the errors that many of us make. With fingers crossed I ask, what has been your greatest cock-up as a gardener? She smiles, as if a weight has been lifted off her shoulders, and blurts out: “Oh loads! Loads! I’ll tell you what I’m most guilty of, it’s that I can’t say no to plants when I’m out and about. So I have a graveyard of things that I haven’t yet got the right place for, I haven’t got time to deal with, I’ve simply bought the wrong thing or the wrong size or too many. I’m getting better partly because I’m raising more of my own plants now rather than buying so much in. I am certainly as guilty as the next person of just having that moment of, ‘I’ve got to have it!'”
I’m relieved that de Thame has a graveyard for plants. We’ve had that problem at Pig Row and overcame it the same way by growing our own plants. Now for a question often bandied around by seed-growers, that growing your own results in hardier plants. Are Northern plants harder because we grow them here?
“I’m not sure in terms of hardiness,” says de Thame. “It makes a difference in many other ways, in terms of cost primarily. It’s much more fun. I feel a sense of pride when I look at it and think, ‘Um, you were a seed and I raised you’. Also, I love the fact that I can share the excess that I’ve got and I don’t feel so bad if they get lost in the graveyard because I know I’ve got plenty that I’ve raised.
“For example, I have become obsessed with dahlias, that’s my big thing at the moment, can’t get enough of them. Four years ago now I sowed some Bishop’s Children, which are all now big plants. I now have, just from that packet of seed, 50-60 plants. They’re just the most beautiful plants, the foliage is just the most beautiful, the flowers colours are just beautiful, I can’t recommend them highly enough.”
I experience a sudden kinship with de Thame. At Pig Row, we too planted our Bishop’s Children four years ago and find them vital in the wartime garden for attracting pollinators. Bishop’s Children are open, single flower dahlias, rather than pom poms (which I detest). But we’ve gone a step further this year and mixed them with zinnias.
De Thame is amused by my own sudden outburst of plant excitement and tells me, “yes, I’ve got them with zinnias too”. Oh, the giddy excitement that we have done something right in our garden! We all know dahlias can be demanding but, like de Thame, we love the cycle that comes with them. She smiles as she affirms this. “That whole thing of lifting the dahlias each year, which I do. I did try not doing that and then we had one particularly bad winter and I lost everything and had to start all over again. So now I lift them.” Another cock-up, but as gardeners don’t we learn from cock-ups?
Rachel de Thame is far from the gardener I expected to meet, and she makes fun of the criticism that is often levelled at her. “I am a responsive gardener, touchy-feely gardener, texture is very important to me, scent is very important to me. It’s the multi-sensory experience for me because it gets to you on every level. I’m also quite an evangelical gardener. I mean I want to persuade, to encourage people to garden as well. Also, I’m not a fair weather gardener, I know sometimes people think, ‘oh, she’s wearing her make-up and her pink coat or whatever it is’ but I do get out in all weathers.”
And that is the thought I leave with – the idea that we should never judge a gardener because of the way they look and what they did initially as a career. There are many of you today gardening in marigold gloves, in silly straw hats and with skirts tucked into knickers (when I was a child my best friend’s Mum did this when she weeded to stop them getting caught in the plants; at the time I was horrified, today I see the practicality of it because you can also use the skirt as pouch for the pulled up weeds). And no matter what your day job is, your garden is a place of paradise, regardless of whether it is a two acre plot or a windowbox. Your garden gives you hope, it makes you passionate, it keeps you grounded. Rachel de Thame may be a television gardener but she has her hands and feet firmly in her own garden just like the rest of us.
To read Andrew’s review of Dig the City, click here
Life on Pig Row is the story of Andrew and Carol Oldham’s lives as they raise Little D. It all takes place 1,330 feet above sea level in a small hamlet on top of the Pennines surrounded by the Yorkshire Moors. Pig Row is the tale of their move from a semi-urban life at Drovers to a more self-sufficientish lifestyle in their cottage set within a quarter of an acre. It’s not quite The Good Life but it’s getting there. Come take the road less travelled with Pig Row, you’ll find it makes all the difference.
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.