Secateurs, shrubs and rock and roll

To be British is to know that gardening, like middle-age, eventually comes to us all. To some of us, it came early. I’ve had dirty fingernails for 13 years, since I bought my first flat. One south facing balcony, and as many pots, containers and random buckets as they could hold without the whole thing collapsing.
I’m on my third garden now, but still as tempted by the latest delicious auricula as the next gullible fool in the garden centre. The Chelsea Flower Show is the horticultural equivalent of Harrods, Harvey Nicks and Selfridges all rolled into one. I’m keeping away this year; there are only so many wrought iron butterflies a girl needs.
Despite appearances, I’m no fair-weather gardener. I’m seriously considering turning a chunk of my third of an acre over to fruit and produce, but digging up the ancient peonies, just coming into flower, would be cruel. And peonies hate being moved.
To traditionalists, we flowery-welly-wearers might look like shallow arrivistes who don’t know one end of a hoe from the other. But let me tell you, my generation of gardeners is responsible for keeping alive one of the few outdoor pursuits we Brits are good at. As well as contributing a hefty chunk of the estimated £16bn spent annually in garden centres and DIY stores, those who grew up in the early ’80s, when Britain enjoyed one of its regular flowerings of creativity in music, fashion, art and graphic design, are now setting the agenda.
Gardening isn’t so much the new rock’n’roll, as the old rock’n’roll in kneelers and a sunhat. It would be interesting to establish how many grand RHS judges know that Kim Wilde, exhibiting at Chelsea, was once a guitar-wielding pop star.
For a certain age-group, however, Kim will always be one of the “Kids in America”, circa 1981, with tousled blonde mullet and black and white stripey top. Now in her 40s, she’s swapped sound desk for secateurs, and her second career is thriving.
Matthew Wilson, curator of Harlow Carr in Harrogate, is another ex-rocker turned horticulturist. At 38, he has had a chequered career which included a stint in a band and a job on the Sun’s Bizarre pop column, before he turned to gardening.
Wayne Hemingway, 45, who founded the ground-breaking fashion company Red or Dead, now designs homes and gardens for housebuilders as well as building urban apartments and converting the post-industrial buildings of Northern England.
And Tim Richardson, respected gardening writer and broadcaster, was my university contemporary. I remember him as a leading light in a raucous comedy revue which featured Stewart Lee, the theatre director who brought Jerry Springer, The Opera to London.
When I came across his mugshot as the editor of a gardening magazine, it was as if I had encountered an old friend who had joined a religious cult.
If creative souls like this have saved gardening, then gardening has probably saved them. For it makes you wonder what some people would be doing for a living if they didn’t have horticulture to turn to. What is certain is that 20 years ago, they wouldn’t be making money out of turning over the soil and agonising over what to put in that shady bit under the window.
Twenty years ago, you got your bedding plants from the man with the greenhouse in the nearby village, and garden design was daring if it included crazy paving and a birdhouse.
Acre upon acre of decking, and gallon upon gallon of bright blue paint, has changed that. But when half the street has bought a water feature for £49.99 at B&Q, suddenly it looks as cutting edge as crazy paving. So it’s on to the next trend, and out with the old.
This is not gardening, it’s sacrilege, and a daft waste of money. But if we have to thank the crusading Charlie Dimmocks of this world for anything, it is for helping to democratise an activity that was previously the preserve of elderly folk and ladies with too much time on their hands. What the “new gardeners” do, however, is celebrate and respect that heritage, but at the same time push forward their own borders. Diarmuid Gavin, he of the leather motorbike jacket, recently presented the BBC series Gardens Through Time which celebrated the bicentenary of the RHS through tracing 200 years of British gardens.
Tim Richardson has published a history of 20th century gardening and lectures on Gertrude Jekyll. And Kim Wilde? Well, with her co-designer Richard Lucas, she’s just won the coveted “best courtyard garden in show” award at Chelsea, and a RHS Gold Medal.
They don’t hand those out like Brit Awards. Rock on with the auriculas!