Gardening is not something to get on your high horse about

‘If you’re going to be at the centre of a scandal, being at the centre of gardening scandal is quite a good one,” says Kim Wilde, heavily pregnant with her second child. “It made me giggle.” At issue was Channel 4’s announcement earlier this year that its new gardening programme, Better Gardens, was to feature a pop star. Kim Wilde, daughter of Fifties heart-throb Marty Wilde, was better known for Eighties hits such as Kids in America.

But what did she know about double-digging?
Horticulturalists were horrified – Charlie Dimmock at least owned a nursery. Stefan Buczacki sounded off and the tabloids predictably had a field day. Meanwhile, harvesting onions (‘Red Comred’ and ‘Turbo’) at her home in Hertfordshire, Kim Wilde wondered whether she shouldn’t send a bunch to Mr Buczacki. “Someone said, ‘He’s suggesting you don’t know your onions,’ so I thought, why not?” She didn’t post the bulbs, in case you were wondering. But she does know her onions – and quite a lot else about gardening.

“When we had our first child, Harry, I was keen that my family should grow up knowing where their food came from,” she says. “I grew up in the country and my mother grew a few vegetables but I wanted more for my children. So when I met Hal, my husband, I thought, this is it, let’s get the masterplan into action.”

She already had the land, an acre surrounded by fields in Hertfordshire, the county of her childhood. “I had moved to London when I was 23 and stayed there throughout the busiest time of my career but I was really a country girl and felt out of place in London.” She bought her home, a converted barn, when she was 30 and spent most of her spare time on the interior.

“I used to be so jealous of my gardener, Ray,” she says. “I remember coming back from promotion tours, my eyes stuck with mascara and my feet aching, to find him in his element, having this fantastic time outside. I know he’s actually having a horrible time raking leaves at the moment, but the point was that he was able to spend all that time outside. Hard work, but so rewarding.”

With help from Ray and Hal, Kim set about designing the vegetable garden. Her knowledge was gleaned from books and television. “I knew enough to think, ‘We’ll do it in raised beds, we’ll manure it in the autumn, Rotavate it in and let it lie over the winter.’ “

The soil is heavy clay but this has been greatly improved by digging in piles of manure. “Most of the past two years has been spent removing stones and now you can run your fingers through the soil, it’s lovely.”

She now crops carrots, beetroot (which she pickles), parsnips, cabbage, courgettes, potatoes, raspberries and asparagus. She also made a formal herb garden, close by the vegetable plot, and planted an avenue of trees. “I’ve always thought that would be a wonderful thing to do.” The avenue of 16 hawthorns leads the eye from the French windows in the barn to the horizon. “I wanted a tree that would echo the hedgerows and we’ve chosen a scarlet one, so we have lovely, rich, pink blossom.”

The hawthorns are given a good haircut after they have flowered and the trunks are thickening up nicely. “I want them to look a bit standard-ish,” says Kim. “My plan was to give the garden a formal framework in order for it to go really mad, so we used the same sort of board that covers the barn for the raised beds.”

The avenue is underplanted with bulbs. She tries to plant a 500 each autumn. There are scilla, muscari, daffodils and tulips and in the spring she is looking forward to seeing her first massed plantings of white ‘Triumphator’ tulips, which she ordered from Kirkenhof, the Dutch bulb centre. In the summer, lilies and agapanthus will come up in pots.

She has also planted an orchard of apples (‘Discovery’, ‘Fiesta’, ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Bramley’), plums, cherries, pears and crab apples. “I went down to the garden centre and asked for a load of good, old varieties,” she says, summing up her approach to gardening. She is interested and enthusastic, is prepared to learn on the job, will ask for help and is not too bothered if she makes a mistake.

“I think it is wrong to be elitist about gardening. When I went down to the local allotments to ask for advice, no one gave me Latin names, they told me not to put manure on the carrots and to stagger the times you sow your beans, so that they will come up throughout the whole season.” Not that she is against Latin names, far from it. It is simply that she approves of the way that television has brought gardening to a wider audience. “Gardening is not something to get on your high horse about or be overwhelmed by. Either you enjoy it or you don’t.”

In fact Kim Wilde has studied horticulture. She did two separate week-long general courses at Capel Manor, the gardening college in Enfield, and began an intensive course that she had to give up, much to her disappointment, because she was pregant with Harry. “In all, I spent a good four months there being completely inspired by it.” And that was how the Better Gardens team found her.

“I said, ‘You do realise that I’m really in my infancy as a designer, but I can offer you enthusiasm and a desire to be involved, and if that’s good enough for you, that’s fine.’ When they said it was, I was staggered. But if you’re dropped in the water you learn to swim very quickly.”

In the series Kim Wilde leads a team of designers and experts who have three and half days to transform each garden. The the team started work at about eight in the morning and often did not leave until 10 or 11 at night. The families and their neighbours helped.

She says she has spoken to most of the families since, sent them plant lists and offered advice on how to maintain their gardens. “We’ve left them with the sense that the gardens are now their responsibility.”

So what do her friends think about this change of career? “To them, this is the real me,” says Kim. “A lot of my friends think it’s about time, too. I don’t know where it’s going to take me. The programme came out of the blue and I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know if it’s good or bad, or what impact it will have. All I know is that I’ve set myself on a path that will keep me in gardens and my nose in all the gardening books I’ve amassed. I had a whale of a time when I was singing and writing songs but there are other things replacing that now, and I never thought anything could.”

Better Gardens starts on Thursday, at 8pm on ITV