Meet Britain’s most influential gardeners by Tim Richardson
Published in 2012
Who, among the great and the good of horticulture, truly shape the way we garden?
1 – Alan Titchmarsh
Alan Titchmarsh is indisputably still the friendly “face of British gardening”, despite recent forays into chat shows and other subject areas. Ask anyone in Britain to name a gardener and the great Titchmarsh (widely mispronounced “Titmarsh”) will usually be invoked. Such a profile gives the broadcaster unparalleled influence in this sector – which is, of course, why B&Q hired him as their public face in 2010.
2 – Sue Biggs
The Royal Horticultural Society is still in some turmoil. Although it has the highest number of members in its history, it continues to grapple with an identity crisis (is it a charity or a business?). Sue Biggs, the latest director-general, took up her position in August 2010 following the sudden departure of the previous incumbent. Biggs’s friendly manner has gone down well, but concerns remain about over-commercialisation within the charity and the direction it may take following the recent £18 million sale of its Lawrence Hall in London
3 & 4 – Martyn Phillips and Terry Duddy
The chief execs of B&Q (Martyn Phillips) and Homebase (Terry Duddy) take third and fourth place in the list, since their businesses vie with each other: both currently have about 330 UK outlets. Garden centres may remain more popular with gardeners, but in overall turnover and market share the two DIY superstores outstrip them by a considerable margin. The decisions of their buyers can have a marked impact on the nation’s gardens. B&Q is the bigger player, with 14.8 per cent of overall market share, but Homebase may have made a better strategic choice by using Jamie Oliver as its public face, since it is the under-40s who tend to use DIY superstores for garden purchases as opposed to garden centres.
5 – Monty Don
Back for a second stint as main presenter of the BBC’s Gardeners’ World, the “posh”, smouldering, leather-jerkinned Monty Don bucks the historic trend towards a more gumboot-and-braces approach to television gardening. More than simply the “housewives’ choice”, Don has gained a wide fan base, extending his reach with several globe-trotting series about gardens around the world plus, of course, a string of bestselling tie-in books.
6 – Mark Fane
The online nursery Crocus has become the supplier of choice for most of the leading designers at Chelsea and other high-profile shows, and is therefore acknowledged within the industry as the horticultural powerhouse behind a high proportion of gold-medal-winning gardens. Co-director Mark Fane – already widely respected – has consolidated his influence recently by taking up voluntary positions at both the RHS (as a council member) and the Garden Museum (as chairman).
7 – Alison Kirkham
Television remains the single most powerful force in the world of gardens in the UK. As commissioning editor for “factual features and formats” at the BBC, responsibility lies with Kirkham when it comes to deciding who, as the presenters of Gardeners’ World, will be the faces of British gardening, and the strategic direction of the flagship show. Recent controversial decisions made by the BBC include the unceremonious “retirement” of lead presenter Toby Buckland in 2010 and the simultaneous loss of rising star and “face of the allotment generation” Alys Fowler.
8 – Simon Jenkins
Chairman of the National Trust since 2008, Jenkins has overseen – in tandem with director-general Fiona Reynolds – a root-and-branch overhaul of the organisation. The decision to scrap the well-established system of gardens advisers, who hitherto had great power over decisions made in NT gardens, and to replace them with consultants whose advice is non-obligatory, is bound to have an impact. Jenkins, with Reynolds, has also been busy remoulding the NT as a campaigning body in the light of mooted changes to the planning system, using his extensive influence in the media as an ex-editor of The Times.
9 – Christopher Woodward
The director of the Garden Museum took up his post in 2006 and quickly turned around an institution which was considered to be ailing and in need of inspiration. Woodward has instituted a culture of curated exhibitions and, even more importantly, a rolling programme of events (talks, discussions, study days) which have made the museum into a true hub of the gardens world. Woodward is also a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which distributes money to public parks and landscape projects.
10 – Christine Walkden
“Down-to-earth” and “no-nonsense” gardening advice remains at a premium in print and on television, and Christine Walkden is currently the prime purveyor of this sought-after information. She boasts a strong and loyal following thanks to two series about her own garden and now as resident gardening expert on the BBC’s The One Show. Walkden’s style is in the tradition of Geoff Hamilton and Percy Thrower: we tend to trust what she says.
11 – HRH Prince of Wales
Ridiculed in the 1980s for his early adoption of organic principles, it is now clear that the Prince of Wales was simply way ahead of the game. The Prince has recently consolidated his interest in sustainability via community gardening with the Start initiative, launched in 2010 (startuk.org). At his own garden at Highgrove, the Prince has employed leading designers including Rosemary Verey and Sir Roy Strong to create a garden, though it is in a process of continuous renewal.
12 – Piet Oudolf
The influential Dutch plantsman, leading light in the “New Perennials” movement of naturalistic planting design, Piet Oudolf has been largely responsible for the vogue for grasses and for the trend for form rather than colour. Britain has long been a home-from-home for him, as well as the launchpad for his rise to stardom in the United States, thanks to his work at the High Line in New York and Chicago’s Millennium Park. In this country his major projects can be seen at Scampston Hall and at Trentham (where he collaborated with both Tom Stuart-Smith and Dominic Cole, listed below). Oudolf has just won the commission for the Olympic Park legacy planting.
13 – Dominic Cole
Not a household name among gardeners, Dominc Cole is more of a behind-the-scenes operator, quietly exerting influence during the past decade as chair of both the National Trust’s gardens advisory panel and of the Garden History Society (GHS). Cole is credited as the saviour of the GHS after it got into financial difficulties and has campaigned for higher pay for garden staff within the National Trust. Formidably well-connected, Cole’s “day job” is as one of the most experienced historic gardens consultants in Britain.
14 – Penelope Hobhouse
The current reigning “grande dame” of the British gardening scene, with a formidable reputation, Hobhouse is talked of in near-reverential terms by many Shires gardeners, not to mention her legions of fans across the Atlantic. Author of numerous acclaimed books on garden design and history, if “Penny” is moved to speak out, then the gardening world will always sit up straight and listen attentively.
15 – Carol Klein
Currently the female face of British gardening courtesy of her second-in-command role on the BBC’s Gardeners’ World, many had hoped the passionate and creative Northerner would be given the top job in the most recent changeover. Fans were instead appeased last year with Klein’s own well received cottage-garden series. Never one to shy away from a fight, it may be that Klein will become more outspoken as her career develops.
16 – Juliet Roberts
Gardens Illustrated remains Britain’s most influential garden publication in terms of the formation of taste in planting and design (a mantle formerly held by Country Life). Over the past seven years, editor Juliet Roberts has steered the magazine through turbulent periods including several changes in ownership (as of last year, the magazine is no longer part of the BBC) and also relocation from London to Bristol. Despite this, circulation has risen and the magazine has not “dumbed down” by decreasing coverage of, for example, foreign gardens.
17 – Robin Lane-Fox
The Financial Times’s garden columnist is also a fellow in ancient history at New College, Oxford. Lane-Fox crossed swords in print with the late, great Christopher Lloyd on several occasions, and is now widely considered his successor by a loyal following. Lane-Fox writes with candour on topics such as mole extermination and is not afraid to display his considerable intellectual “hinterland”.
18 – John Watkins
The head of gardens at English Heritage controls few important gardens, when compared with the National Trust, but as an organisation EH has been more dynamic in recent years, with major – if controversial – restorations at Kenilworth Castle and Chiswick House. EH also controls the listing process, whereby gardens of historic significance are listed Grade I, II* or II, a description which in theory offers some protection in the face of unsympathetic planning applications. Watkins also co-authored the standard work on the management of historic gardens.
19 – Sir Roy Strong
The most prominent garden historian in Britain, the ex-V & A Museum director is respected for his wide-ranging knowledge of the arts; in this regard, he has done much to augment the credibility of garden history as an academic discipline. Twice president of the Garden History Society, Sir Roy’s books on Renaissance gardens remain standard works, while his own exuberantly decorated garden, The Laskett, engenders violent divisions of opinion (surely a good thing).
20 – DG Hessayon
Ever-present on the gardening bestseller list, the publicity-shy (but not actually shy) Dr David Gerald Hessayon has been going strong with the reassuringly old-fashioned “Expert” series since 1958. With tens of millions of copies in the series sold, at least one slim volume by this author is likely to be present on the shelves of nearly all of Britain’s gardeners, offering impeccable and uncontroversial advice.
21 – Mark Diacono
The fastest-rising star in the gardens world in 2011, Diacono first came to prominence as the horticultural maestro behind Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage operation. With a string of acclaimed fruit and veg books (for which he also took the photographs) and a growing television presence, the genial Diacono’s star is surely set to ascend farther in 2012.
22 – Tom Stuart-Smith
The most influential, taste-forming garden designer in Britain today. Stuart-Smith’s planting style seeks to intensify or distil the elements of nature itself – and he has won Best in Show for his gardens at Chelsea more times than any other contemporary designer. Eminently acceptable company at any dinner table, he was also chosen by the Queen to design a new garden at Windsor Castle.
23 – Jamie Oliver
Like several other television chefs, Jamie Oliver has recently started to diversify into gardening, a fact not unrelated to his new role as the face of Homebase. As he says: “One of the most beautiful things in life is to plant something, grow it and pick it.” While it’s not clear precisely how much gardening this globetrotter does himself, there is now a substantial horticultural section on his website. Stand by for brand Jamie to expand further in 2012.
24 – Richard Reynolds
The original “guerrilla gardener”, based in a tower block in London’s benighted Elephant and Castle, Richard Reynolds has built up a substantial international following over the past decade. His night-time escapades, “illegally” gardening derelict and unloved segments of cities around the world (he recently hit Warsaw), has proved an inspiration to a new generation of gardeners.
25 – Roy Lancaster
Truly a horticultural national treasure, Lancaster is loved and admired by thousands of gardeners for the depth and breadth of his knowledge of plants, borne of many foreign expeditions and a lifetime in horticulture, all beguilingly wrapped up with his authentic geniality. Lancaster has been outspoken in his advocacy of shrubs in recent decades, and his is a voice which will always be attended to with respect and affection.
26 – George Plumptre
The garden writer (formerly of The Times) is now chief executive of the National Gardens Scheme, the charity best known for its “Yellow Book”. This annual directory lists 3,700 (mainly private) gardens selected as good enough to open to the public, raising some £2.5 million each year. Plumptre is thus the “voice” of thousands of the country’s best gardeners in 2012, the NGS’s 85th anniversary year.
27 – Crüg Farm Plants – Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones
Proprietors of the most influential nursery in the United Kingdom, the Wynn-Joneses are celebrated for their practice of travelling the world (most recently Korea and Japan) in search of new plants to bring home, raise and then offer for sale. Stocks are of course limited, which only adds to the allure. They describe their nursery as a “mecca” for plants enthusiasts – and for once the epithet is justified.
28 – Anne Wareham
The Bad Tempered Gardener (the title of her 2011 book) is the scourge of all that is dull and mediocre in gardening and garden design. Also the prime mover behind thinkingardens.co.uk, Wareham caused a storm last year with an attack on Sir Roy Strong’s garden, The Laskett. Wareham leads by example with her experimental garden in Wales, The Veddw.
29 – The ‘Sheffield School’ – James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett
Not on the radar yet for most gardeners, this pair of university academics is set to soar up the influence list in 2012 courtesy of the naturalistic plantings they have designed for the Olympic Park in east London. The Sheffield School’s signature plantings of massed perennial and annual plants are a world away from the standard municipal or corporate style usually seen at this scale, and may well come to exert an influence on public parks nationally.
30 – Tim Richardson
He’d never include himself, but our author exerts considerable influence of his own: columnist; critic; author of 10 books; director of Chelsea Fringe – the event of 2012; trustee of the Garden History Society; member of the National Trust Gardens panel; and creator of a new garden history course at the University of Oxford.