By Cole Moreton For Weekend Magazine
22:30 17 Mar 2023, updated 22:30 17 Mar 2023
Alan Titchmarsh is talking very slowly and carefully. ‘I do think everybody should garden more. It’s so important.’
No doubt that’s true, but I didn’t actually ask the much-loved horticulturist about gardening – and he knows it.
Alan happens to be a personal friend of King Charles and the question was actually about the stormy relationship our monarch has with his son Harry.
His answer is cleverer than it sounds – not just stonewalling, but also hinting at how getting out in the open air, fingers in the soil, raising plants and flowers, can be good for mental health, which might well help the troubled prince.
Alan seems about to leave it there, but after a moment he can’t help empathising with his mate the King. ‘I think it’s very sad for him. I feel for any parent who has difficulties with their children, especially when their children are grown up.’
Alan Titchmarsh’s new programme Love Your Garden For Less – a special episode of his popular ITV series Love Your Garden – will show us how to find pleasure in the back yard during a cost-of-living crisis
Alan and his wife of nearly 50 years, Alison, have two adult daughters, Polly and Camilla, who are close in age to the princes. There’s another pause, before he goes all in with his support for Charles. ‘I feel for him. He deserves better.’
Many would agree that a father deserves better than to be attacked publicly by his son in a bestselling book, whatever has passed between them.
Some blame the Californian therapy culture Harry has absorbed since marrying Meghan, and Alan makes a joke. ‘If it was that good you wouldn’t need to keep going back, would you? Like slug pellets: if they’re that good, why do you have to keep using ’em?’
That’s typical Yorkshire common sense and jollity from Mr Titchmarsh, whose new programme Love Your Garden For Less – a special episode of his popular ITV series Love Your Garden – will show us how to find pleasure in the back yard during a cost-of-living crisis.
He’s chosen four classic garden features that can be created in a relatively affordable way: a path, a patio garden, a wildlife pond and a flower bed.
‘I love the opening scene,’ he says, holding up his phone to show me a video clip from the garden at his Grade II-listed home in Alton, Hampshire.
‘We filmed it in July. There are two borders, full of pink and white flowers – mallow, lavatera – which came from packets of seeds that cost me eight quid. I just wanted to make the point: look what you can do for next to nothing,’ he says with pleasure.
‘Sow them in March and they’ll be lovely in July.’
The average cost of a full garden makeover is thought to be at least £7,000, but Alan’s co-presenters Katie Rushworth and David Domoney say they will help two families do it for half the price.
That still seems a lot, unless you have an estimated wealth of £7 million like Alan, who’s made his money through gardening books, novels and a Classic FM radio show as well as television.
Alan (right) is a friend of the King, and when asked about his stormy relationship with Harry, he said he felt ‘very sad for him’
He’s sincere about wanting to help people, though. ‘The show is about small projects that people can do, stopping them being intimidated. We sort of take them by the hand.’
When this thing about Charles talking to plants came up, I said, ‘We all do it. Why is this weird?’
Alan has enjoyed a late flowering with a series of recent programmes including Love Your Home & Garden and Love Your Weekend. ‘We make gardens for people who may be on very hard times. We did one for a soldier in Wales who was an Afghan veteran, he’d lost a leg. He had PTSD as well as three small children.
‘His garden was on various levels, so he couldn’t get into it with a wheelchair. We made this garden that had access all over the place, so his kids could enjoy it as well as him.
‘There was a place he could sit quietly surrounded by flowers. He came out to see what we’d done, this big burly soldier, and he just went. Tears. He said, “This has changed my life.”’
Alan has enjoyed a late flowering with a series of recent programmes including Love Your Home & Garden and Love Your Weekend
Alan gets a little tearful himself talking about another garden they created for a couple who were both in wheelchairs and had children. ‘The loveliest thing was I read an email a few weeks later from somebody who lived in the same street and she said, “Whenever I used to walk past that garden, all I heard was silence. Now all I hear is laughter.” I thought, “Oh wow, how wonderful. Job done.”’
Why I’ve boycotted avocados
He may know how to create a beautiful border, but Alan’s got his gardening bugbears too. ‘I have a rant occasionally about rewilding,’ he says.
‘You suddenly get these big pushes saying, ‘Let your garden become a wilderness.’ No, don’t! Rewilding needs management, otherwise you’ll just end up with a bramble patch. A friend of mine did some research, and there was a greater diversity of insect life in his garden than there was in his wildflower meadow.
‘If you don’t mow your lawn, where are the blackbirds going to pull their worms out? Where are the woodpeckers going to fish for ants?’
And don’t get him started about avocados. ‘Rainforest is being felled to grow them,’ he argues.
‘It takes I don’t know how many litres of water for one fruit, and then they’re ferried to us, burning fossil fuel. Why is that a responsible thing to do? I don’t eat avocados. That’s my little gesture.’
That’s great if you can get a makeover team in, but what can ordinary gardens do for people during these times of hardship? ‘It doesn’t matter how big the space is. Put a chair in the corner, a few pots with flowers in, go out there and have your cup of coffee or your evening glass. Lovely.’
He’s got an answer for the vegetable crisis we’re going through now too. ‘I think it’s supply. I’m no politician but now Brexit has come along and we’ve cut a lot of ties, we have brilliant farmland and need to be more self-sufficient. We certainly shouldn’t be importing things we can grow here.’ Like what?
‘Isle of Wight tomatoes are available a good ten months of the year, and we get very cross when we go into our shops and see them from somewhere else. We say, “Where are the English ones that won’t have been ferried in?” The more people ask for local stuff, the more it will be grown.’
Alan left school in Ilkley at 15 to work as a gardener, went to train at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew then became a household name with programmes such as Gardeners’ World and Ground Force. They brought him into contact with the Prince of Wales, as he was then.
‘I feel very proud of the way he has carried himself. He’s achieved such a lot with The Prince’s Trust and The Prince’s Countryside Fund. As he says, “I could just go skiing in Klosters or sit on a yacht somewhere.”’
They first got to know each other in the mid-80s when the prince was being ridiculed for a certain gardening habit and Alan leapt to his defence. ‘I remember, when this thing about him talking to plants came up, saying, “We all do. Anybody who grows plants, you do talk to them, usually to threaten them! Why is this weird?”’
A lot of people claim to be friends with royalty, so how genuine is this friendship? ‘I was very wary of saying, “I am a friend of the Prince of Wales.” Then he was kind enough to call me a friend. I still don’t like doing it because it sounds as though I’m latching on to his coat tails, but he is a friend. And he’s been very kind to us as a couple.’
How so? ‘Thoughtful, considerate. My wife’s not been well – she’s fine now – and flowers came with a letter, handwritten. Wonderful.’
The average cost of a full garden makeover is thought to be at least £7,000, but Alan’s co-presenters Katie Rushworth and David Domoney say they will help two families do it for half the price
So what are the chances of an invitation to the coronation? ‘No, that’s a state thing and there are only 2,000 seats, so I’m quite sure we won’t be at the coronation.’
He does, however, stake a special claim to fame when it comes to the King. ‘I was the last member of the general public to shake his hand as Prince of Wales.’
Alan spent the evening before the Queen passed away among guests at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, part of The Prince’s Foundation. ‘He was on good form,’ Alan recalls.
It’s very nice that some people think you might once have been fanciable, but you can’t take it seriously
‘I happened to be standing by the door, so I was the last person he said goodnight to as he went. It was a powerful moment. He went to bed as Prince of Wales and the following day he became King.’
Alan says his friend was ready for the throne. ‘He had been for a while, but it’s an awkward position for any child, knowing you will only come to the job for which you were born when your parent is no longer with us. In spite of the differences in temperament between mother and son, there was an enormous amount of respect there,’ says Alan.
‘He’s been learning from his mother for 50 years. He’s bright. And I think now is his chance to do what he can.’
Alan is still a good-looking man at the age of 73, dapper in a Crombie coat with swept-back silver hair, and I wonder how he coped with being seen as hunky Alan the hot gardener back in the day?
‘Every man likes to think he’s fanciable, but I’m a realist. I’m not cool. It’s very nice some people think you might once have been, but you can’t take it seriously. Therein danger lies. You get too full of yourself and start saying, “You do realise I’m actually a heartthrob.” Give over. I can’t be doing with it. Alison raises an eyebrow at all that sort of talk.’
She keeps his feet on the ground, as do his daughters. ‘I use them as sounding boards. If I’m not sure about an offer, I run it past the girls. And they often say, “Oh Dad, no!”’
Would that include reality shows like I’m A Celebrity…? ‘I don’t have to go to them for that, because I won’t do it,’ he says quickly.
‘I was offered that this year. Maybe I’m frightened I’d be voted off too soon. I like being on the box interviewing people or showing them something I love, rather than just talking about myself. The fluff in my navel is no more interesting or fluffy than anybody else’s.’
How about Strictly? ‘I’ve been asked about six times,’ says Alan. ‘I married a choreographer who also taught dance and she says my knees won’t take the lifts, so that’s one reason not to. Dancing is fun but I don’t need to do it in front of millions of people.’
The attention would be too much. ‘I have a private life, which is very important to me. I don’t just exist on TV or when someone asks for a selfie, which they did as I walked here.’
We are in a hotel near the Classic FM studio in London’s Leicester Square. ‘The problem with selfies is they slow you down if you’re in a hurry, but I don’t mind. We always say, “They bought our house.”’
He has talked recently about a really painful experience with gallstones, which were removed. So how is his health?
Alan said will make gardens for people who may be on very hard times, including a soldier in Wales who was an Afghan veteran (Pictured: The veteran’s garden)
‘I’m fine. For someone of 73, going on 74, I’m incredibly fit. I don’t jog because I’ve had both my knees operated on, but I can get up quite quickly.’ Alan leaps to his feet and begins to do squat jumps to demonstrate, turning heads. ‘I’m fit and well.’
As he sits down, only slightly breathless, I ask what it’s like being a grandfather. ‘Oh, it’s lovely. One of my daughters has two boys, the other has two girls. They are now 11, nine, nine and seven. It’s just the most glorious time. They are a delight.’
They are slowly realising his fame, just as their mothers did at the same age. ‘About a year ago the eldest came up and said, “Grandpa, you’re Alan Titchmarsh aren’t you?”’ He was talking about the public figure, the one on telly and in magazines. I said, “Yeah.” What do you say? It did make me laugh. Clearly his classmates had said something.’
And how did his grandson react to this revelation? ‘It was no great shakes to him, he turned around and went away.’
- Love Your Garden For Less will air later this month on ITV1 and ITVX.