This was the decade of garden makeovers, leylandii hedge wars and robot mowers. National treasure Alan Titchmarsh MBE explains his role in bringing gardening to the people… and his decking legacy to Liz Potter
“The 1990s was a boom time in gardening. There was a recession going on, and instead of moving house and getting a bigger mortgage, people would stay put and improve what they’d already got. For inspiration, there was Changing Rooms on the telly showing what to do with the inside of our homes, and Ground Force showing us what to do with the outside. And, for the first time ever, sales of gardening books outsold cookery books.
In much the same way that Coco Chanel is credited as having introduced the ‘Little Black Dress’, so I am recognised as the Man who Painted Everything Barleywood Blue in the 1990s.
“Painting fences blue was very much of its time – before that, they were all orange or brown. It’s tempting with hindsight to wonder ‘why would you do that?’ but it was all part of the process of stretching people’s imaginations – exploring the possibilities of what a garden could be, and helping them to see their space more creatively.
“I’m also credited as the Man who Decked Britain, which is also probably true. Ground Force began in 1997, when sales of decking at B&Q were just £9,000 per annum. By the following year, they had soared to £8million. I wish I’d taken out shares. In fact there are lots of good things about decking: it’s relatively easy to put up, it has a limited life so it’s not going to despoil the landscape forever, and if you slip over on it you’re more like to bruise yourself than break a hip. It offered a modern look and a certain flexibility of design.
Blue ceramic pots and trellis were all the rage in the 1990s too. (Nowadays of course fences aren’t painted Barleywood Blue – it’s all Farrow & Ball.)
“I was presenting Gardeners World and Ground Force at the same time during the Nineties. Gardeners’ World went into more depth, while Ground Force was more a way of introducing people to gardening. It was designed to appeal to those who were put off by Latin plant names – the lingua franca of gardening, which can be rather daunting. We found that you could demystify gardening in the same way but with a different style of presentation. On Ground Force with Tommy Walsh and Charlie Dimmock I could share banter and badinage and yet the info was still sound and reliable. The presentation just had a bit more pizzazz. I liked the fact that the show helped to popularise gardening, spreading the net to draw new people in.
“After my apprenticeship in the 1960s, I spent three years at Kew studying for a Diploma in Horticulture, then stayed on for two years as a Supervisor of staff training. Since then I’ve been driven by wanting to make gardening much more accessible to other people. I knew I could do that by being personable, knowledgeable and sharing good practice. This all came together in the 1990s – making gardening less exclusive and elitist is something I’m really passionate about.
“The whole move towards organic, sustainable growing was just coming to the fore in the 1990s. Geoff Hamilton was a big proponent of peat-free compost on Gardeners’ World. He died suddenly in late summer in 1996; I wasn’t supposed to take over from him until the following Easter, so it was all a big shock. I remember presenting a feature about using ericaceous compost and having viewers write in saying ‘How dare you! Don’t you know Geoff Hamilton was peat-free?’ I had to write back and explain that ericaceous just meant that it was lime-free.
“Of course it was very hard to get seedlings growing reliably with peat-free compost back then, but I was definitely hoeing that furrow in the 1990s. Wildlife gardening was another thing I was really interested in, having joined the Wharfedale Naturalists’ Society when I was eight (I’m still a member). But with all these organic ideas, getting them into the public consciousness has been a steady drip, drip, drip of information. Even in the 1990s I could see we would have to move away from chemicals eventually, so, why not teach ourselves how to garden without them?
“It was also a period when show garden designs were becoming more adventurous at Chelsea. In the 1980s we knew what to expect from each designer, but in the 1990s everyone was pushing the boat out and aiming for broader appeal. Gardens were still aspirational, but you could take away a few of the ideas. Some of the gardens were so expensive, with ideas that were so off piste, that I got a little bit irritated. But generally in design terms the 1990s had an energy and an excitement that was lacking before, and some of the ideas were quite vibrant. I particularly remember Diarmuid Gavin’s work, with his shark fins and his egg-shaped buildings.
“What’s the next big trend in gardening? I think we’re heading headlong into a more wild and naturalistic style of gardening. I do hope the rewilding trend doesn’t come to mean ‘leave everything to its own devices’. Wildlife and natural areas can still look attractive and cared for. Besides, there will always be people who prefer a bit of bedding. What’s really good is that we have such wide range of options available nowadays, that we’re spoiled for choice.”
This feature originally apeared in The Garden June 2022