Gardening television star Frances Tophill tells Simon Foulds how anyone can turn their garden into an extension of themselves – irrespective if they have green fingers or not.
Frances Tophill, known for her gardening prowess in ITV1’s Love Your Garden and BBC’s Gardeners’ World is also the author of five gardening books.
She has never been one to let life get in her way and became a gardening television star quite by accident.
Her gardening career started shortly after finishing school. It was while working in the confines of a supermarket store that Frances realised she wanted a job that would not only allow her to talk to customers but would also not limit her movements to an indoor environment.
An advert on a supermarket noticeboard looking for apprentices to work in a local nursery seemed like the answer. After getting the job, Frances realised this vocation was perfect for her and this led to her studying horticulture at university.
A belief in herself, along with hard work and being in the right place at the right time has ensured Frances is now living her ‘dream job’.
While at university a friend sent her an email asking for gardeners to apply to join Alan Titchmarsh on ITV1’s Love Your Garden. Though Frances had never been on television, the belief she had in herself and her passion for gardening ensured that after a trip to London to audition for the television show, she had a job working for ITV.
As viewers can attest Frances is a natural – both in front of the cameras – and while getting her hands dirty in the garden.
Not everyone is blessed with green fingers. Frances laughs when I tell her this, in reply saying, “ What I love about gardening is that it is very forgiving. Plants die, and even I have plants that do not flourish, but you know what, plant more seedlings and plants, and next year you watch them grow. Trial and error is part and parcel of gardening and you only learn in the garden from getting your hands dirty and from making gardening mistakes.”
So how do you go about preparing your garden on a budget and turning it into an oasis, I ask?
“It is simply,” she says, “Just start sowing seeds or plant seedlings and nurture them. You can also change the look and feel of your garden by digging, leveling the ground, creating mounds, and even building stone walls yourself using stones you find naturally in the ground in your garden. This can lead to a lovely flourishing natural oasis bristling with natural plant life. Have a gardening plan and work that plan.
“So at the end of the day, you have achieved something constructive in your garden.”
“What is great about gardening,” she adds, “is that it can be a family activity, so get the children involved because not only does it get you outside, it is a great way to bond.”
Frances works a lot with children and finds that if they are struggling at school, gardening can actually be a really big confidence booster.
“They start communicating with others about what they are achieving in the garden, and they find it a magical place because they see the plants grow from the seeds that they planted. It is a place where they can continue to create magic and realise that they can also eat the vegetables they planted and have grown themselves.
Frances’s work with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Campaign for School Gardening enables her to promote gardening to young people.
“I love being creative in the garden,” Frances states, “so everything I do is pretty creative. But not everyone is creative preferring to follow the instructions on how and where to plant seeds. If you are a creative person, I say go spread your creativity in the garden, but if you are not then there is nothing wrong with simply following the instructions on the packet and then watching your garden grow. Gardening is not just for creative people, it is also there for those who are content to plant the same flowers and vegetables in the same places and then watch them flourish.
“Both types of gardeners are still feeling the dirt on their hands and becoming one with nature.”
Joy of gardening
Frances says she loves being outside, even in the rain and cold, as she is not the kind of person who likes to be cooped up indoors for any length of time.
“I like to keep busy and be active, and what I like about gardening is it is a place where you can work alone or work as a part of a team – and is a place where you can have conversations with family and friends as you work.
“Prior to finding my ‘green fingers’ I worked in a supermarket, and it was a very strict environment where you could not even talk to customers.
“Gardening on the other hand enables you to think, listen to music or the radio, as well as have a laugh with others. Gardening gives you the space to be yourself even if you work in community gardens.”
Another key benefit of gardening says Frances is its positive impact on a person’s mental well-being.
“First, it gets your hands in the soil so you are connecting with the earth. We live in a world that is predominately screen-based and many people are disconnected from real earthly elements. So for them to re-connect with something that is tangible and solid can really be helpful for people who are struggling mentally.
“Also, there are the cyclical elements of gardening. Seasons change and as you plant seasonal vegetables you know in the not-so-distant future you will be eating the fruits of your labour. Which is good for the soul.”
So what do you do if you live in a city and do not have access to a garden? Pretty simple is the reply – bring the garden inside utilising pot plants.
First, choose plants that are suitable for the indoors.
“Not all plants are suitable to be grown indoors so if, for instance, you are planting an indoor herb garden I would plant coriander, basil and lemon grass, as opposed to Mediterranean herbs like bay leaf, thyme or rosemary.
“And growing a box of herbs is not that difficult. Anyway, planting plants that you use in the kitchen or flowers that make you happy will brighten up your day.”
“Key to gardening, irrespective if it is outdoors, or in, is to just start. That is the only way you are going to learn.
“Gardening is very forgiving. Sometimes you do kill plants, we all do. Even I still have plants that have died. It does not matter if you have green fingers or not.
“The garden is the place where you can make mistakes, and then you get a second chance as seasons change. So plant a garden and learn as you grow and your plants grow.”
If you have the space, Frances recommends planting a tree. Because trees attract all kinds of animals and insects. Another feature if you can is adding a wild pond to your rewilding equation.
“However, if you believe in actively rewilding your back garden then just let everything grow – so you will get brambles and nettles – and rather than pulling the whole lot out, just pull out the bits of he plants that you do not want.”
Some have the misconception that by gardening – and growing all types of flowers and vegetables – you are playing a key sustainable role in improving the overall environment.
I am afraid that is not the case, as Frances elaborates, “It is critical that before buying certain flowers and plants you ascertain their origin. Because they could have been flown halfway around the world before arriving in the UK, and therefore cannot be viewed as a sustainable feature in your garden. That plants carbon footprint far exceeds the sustainable value you believe it has. So ask your garden centre where it originates before purchasing it.
“Another key factor is to stop using chemicals in your garden be it a pesticide or a chemical cream. There are far more natural ways and means of eradicating weeds and insects (detrimental to your plants). Rather use natural products and even household waste. Used tea bags and ground coffee help to keep bugs away from your plants, and is you add your used ground coffee to water you can even create fertiliser.
Not all gardening reduces your footprint as mentioned earlier, but you can reduce your carbon footprint through gardening.
“One of the ways of reducing your carbon footprint is planting indigenous tree and plants. Another way is embracing moss in your garden,” Frances explains.
“Moss is great at retaining moisture for your garden and acts like a sponge, because it quickly absorbs the water, before slowly releasing it into the surrounding soil and air. Moss also ensures cleaner air quality in gardens where it grows which is good news for those working in the garden.”
“Know where your plants originate, look for indigenous plants and trees suitable to the area where you live. Do not be afraid to start gardening, get your hands dirty and express yourself through your garden. The pros far outweigh the cons and at the end of the day you will get so much satisfaction by being at one with nature – irrespective if it is gardening outdoors or in,” concludes Frances.
If you would like to expand your gardening knowledge, Frances is also the author of five gardening books:
• The First-Time Gardener
• The Container Gardener
• Container Gardener’s Handbook
• Rewild Your Garden: Create a haven for birds, bees, and butterflies
• The Modern Gardener: A practical guide for creating a beautiful and creative garden.