Everyone always asks me what got me into gardening… and the answer is my grandparents!
My first bleary memories are of my grandparents’ vast greenhouses, their endless complex of sheds filled with garden tools and, of course, pots and borders lovingly planted with plants that captured my attention from that ever so young age!
Specific plants I remember from their garden are: rampant orange alstroemeria, a poor relative of today’s colourful, and more well behaved types! Zonal geraniums sat in fancy stone pots as well as much less fancy, chipped “crock” (terracotta) pots, my gran kept the plants from year to year too! Also, shasta daisies, in short and tall variety, and we used to cut some for mixed vases indoors too! And, during iris season, we used to spend time guessing what colours the blooms would be. Did you know the rhizomes of blue flowered ones are tinged purple??
I soon had a flower patch in my parents garden, and I remember going to plant out one of my first school-grown specimens, a trailing Zebrina (sometimes called tradescantia). Yes, its a houseplant, but that didn’t matter to me, I was eager to get my patch filled, the growing bug had bitten me!
Well, I went to plant it out and, in typical clumsiness which has plagued me ever since, promptly stood on the plant. This is a harsh memory for me, as I vividly remember running indoors crying!
So, I soon found other plants for the patch and was helping out my dad with his too. I was often busy sowing vegetable favourites such as radishes, beetroot, carrots and the like. I remember my dad used to stick each empty seed packet at the end of the row as a makeshift label.
Somehow, somewhere, I developed an interest in herbs. I think this stemmed from a purchase I made of Jekka McVicar’s complete herb book. I was fascinated by the fact you could use plants for things! I was obsessed by using them in cooking, one of my star turns was lavender biscuits you know! I also loved mixing up concoctions. This was something that had a bit of a renaissance for me when James Wong brought out his show. I clambered to mix up his recipes, I managed some of the hand creams, but my breath freshener mix went a bit wrong and all dried up!
I seem to remember beginning to read Amateur Gardening from a teenage stage, obviously hiding this from any school friends. Then, I somehow got involved in the school garden, and when hoeing and weeding it at lunchtimes, seemed to forget it was in full view of the lunch hall! Oh well…
Another thing I did “on the quiet” was joining the local WI market, which my Nan was gardening matriarch of. I think my member number was 13 and I sold a range of plants, and also my lavender biscuits. At one stage I was growing so much that I joined the market in the neighbouring town too!
Around the same time, I started collecting herb plants avidly and soon had something like twenty different mints and a sage in every colour of the rainbow! As I grew more and more, my parents garden seemed to shrink. The entrepreneur in me then placed a small advert in the back of a BBC Gardeners World magazine. Soon, a rather basic, but fun, Springfield Herb Nursery was born! Handling six or seven orders per month, I was also producing a typed and photocopied catalogue! Little did I know that this was a bit of a premonition of things to come.
Anyway, I neared the end of my years at school, not quite knowing what I wanted to do in any shape or form. I had achieved good GCSE marks in geography, art and English I think…although my memory is quite hazy now!
I seemed to gravitate towards Otley College, I think fuelled by an earlier week of work experience there. So I enrolled onto the National Diploma in Horticulture, a 2-year course, which seemed perfect for someone who hadn’t made their mind up and really didn’t fancy uni!
The course was, how shall I say, varied… and included everything from economics to sports turf… tractor driving to biology! Well, I couldn’t drive a tractor (I once reversed over some steel girders as I faffed around trying to find the brakes) and every time I was in sports turf class I got soaked by the hose!
But, what I did like was the “plant idents”. This was a session where 20 or so pieces of plant are lined up in vases and you must name them! This I could do…! Plants had always come naturally to me, I seemed to soak in their names without any hassle at all. I positively excelled at this, and it fed my thirst for learning about plants. I pored over books, fantasising about plants I might never see (although some I now have!!). I always marvel when I see meconopsis in real life, as I spent so many years only seeing it in books.
I also seemed to like garden design and landed some work experience and regular helping duties with a local garden designer, which included getting to visit some superb country homes as his “right-hand man”! But, as I neared the end of my course, I still had no idea what I really wanted to do, nor did I bother addressing it. Even in the final few weeks, I still had no plan!
Until… I noticed a competition in the local newspaper. It was to design a garden at well-known local firm Thompson & Morgan‘s headquarters…