Kim Wilde, 1980s rock icon, has delighted onlookers by turning to horticulture and winning a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. She shares her passion for flowers, colour and composition with Sheila Purcell.
I was in an industry where we all looked at ourselves and were self-obsessed,’ says Kim Wilde. ‘One of the things I love about gardening is that the focus has switched away from how I look and on to the plants—which, like children, don’t even know how beautiful they are.’
Kim, daughter of 1950s rock-’n’-roll star Marty Wilde, shot to fame in 1981 with her hit single Kids in America. Her records sold millions throughout the 1980s but in the mid-1990s she walked away from the music business. The pouting blonde rock chick transformed herself into a budding horticulturalist and went on to win one of the gardening world’s top accolades—a gold medal at the 2005 Chelsea Flower Show. ‘That was the stuff of dreams and definitely one of the best moments of my life,’ she says with a reminiscent smile. ‘Richard Lucas (her codesigner) and I still can’t quite believe it happened. But the whole experience of being there, of talking to “plants people"? and others who feel the same way about gardens, was wonderful.’
The seeds of Kim’s passion for growing things were sown in childhood. ‘I was brought up in Hertfordshire, living close to some inspired gardens,’ she recalls, ‘and to me they were magical places. I remember the electric blue of delphiniums and being amazed by a giant hogweed in a neighbour’s garden.’
When, in 1990, she bought a hilltop barn, full of straw and chicken droppings, near her parents’ Hertfordshire home, the plot was a windswept field. ‘I concentrated on the interior over the next few years and the garden only started coming to life when I married Hal Fowler (a producer, actor, singer and teacher) in 1996. We went outside with one of Rosemary Verey’s gardening books. I didn’t understand the Latin names but loved the pictures. It was full of extremely sophisticated and ambitious plans, probably not the easiest book for a first-time gardener but hugely influential. My garden was adapted from her ideas but I soon saw that replicating them was beyond my experience.’
Pregnant with her first child, Kim enrolled for specialist courses at Capel Manor Horticultural College and was enthralled by what she learned about plants and garden design. ‘A light switched on in my head and I realised this was a subject I absolutely loved. Before I became a singer I’d been at art college and had a passion for colour and composition. I was already a fan of Geoff Hamilton and the way he talked about plants, and I was inspired by the new wave of gardeners.’
Kim carved a three-quarter-acre garden from her unpromising material, creating a more formal area close to the house with the use of traditional materials such as York stone and granite setts. An avenue inspired by Rosemary Verey’s famous Cotswold garden is planted with box balls, interspersed with roses and nepeta. Naturally, the design includes Kim’s favourites, such as lavender, box, ornamental grasses, architectural plants such as globe thistles and wild flowers. There are winding paths through burgeoning shrubs, sweet-smelling herbs and raised vegetable beds. The layout grows informal as a mown path leads through a wildmeadow area thick with oxeye daisies. Beyond are two acres of newly planted woodland which Kim hopes will become a wild area where her children can roam free. She has fond memories of her own childhood walks, ‘through lovely woods full of the scent of leaf mould’.
As her plants flourished, so did her second, unplanned, career as a garden designer and TV presenter. She appeared on shows such as the BBC’s Garden Invaders and This Morning and won awards for co-designing gardens at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show, BBC Gardener’s World Live Exhibition and, of course, Chelsea 2005. Her bright ideas for nurturing an early interest in the great outdoors were published in her first book, Gardening for Children (Collins, £14.99). Her second, First-Time Gardener (Collins, £17.99), out last month, is aimed at absolute beginners. ‘I wanted to write about my own experience as a first-time gardener, so that readers would feel more empowered, instead of being completely overwhelmed,’ she explains. ‘In fact I sometimes feel I’m still a bit of a first-time gardener myself—there’s so much left to learn.’
Sources of inspiration include Beth Chatto’s renowned gravel garden, Hidcote and the timeless gardens she visited in Japan during her globe-trotting pop star years. However, the idea for her Chelsea Gold design sprang from a romantic trip with Hal soon after they first met: both were appearing in the musical Tommy at the time. ‘He drove me overnight to the Lake District and we arrived at dawn. Although I’d travelled so much, I’d never been there before and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was—I was enchanted.’
She had met and worked with plantsman Richard Lucas during her work on designs for Holker Hall Garden Festival. ‘We immediately had a great rapport and when he told me he was a Lake District fan too, we talked about creating a garden on that theme.’ The result was their prize-winning Cumbrian Fellside Garden.
These days, at 45 Kim appears to be positively blooming. And while she thrives on country living, her glory days in the pop world are far from over. She has returned to the stage in a series of 1980s revival shows, produced new singles and plans more recordings. ‘I still love to sing, I just don’t do so much of it,’ she says. ‘Your voice matures, so mine is probably at its peak now and much stronger.’ She doesn’t sing to her plants but, like most passionate gardeners, Kim admits to fond, almost maternal, feelings towards them. ‘I’m thrilled when they do wonderfully and sympathetic when they’re not doing so well.’
As she talks about her beloved garden, it’s clear that the joy it brings is part and parcel of the happiness she has found in her marriage to Hal and raising Harry, eight, and six-year-old Rose.
‘My vision,’ she says, ‘was of a beautiful place that my children could walk into and have all their senses delighted: somewhere full of butterflies and dragonflies, a little bit of water, plots where they could try growing their own vegetables and a meadow. It’s lovely to feel I’ve begun that process.’