Frances Tophill is one of the country’s best loved horticulturalists, whether being a mainstay on BBC Gardeners World, visiting fantastic gardens to meeting fascinating people to sharing her burgeoning allotment life with us. She also helps create fabulous gardens on ITVs “Love Your Garden” She’s worked alongside some of the great gardeners of our time in Alan Tichmarsh, Monty Don, Adam Frost to name a few. An author of several books the latest being “Re-Wilding your Garden” She is known for her love of all things nature and has an organic approach to her gardening and life. She is also a keen up-cycler and crafty re-cycler of all things from Cardigans to old Ladders.
Hi Frances, and welcome to Who’s on the Grapevine. How have you been during these troubling times we are living in?
Like everyone I have found it a very anxious time but with that have also found the enforced ‘break’ quite restorative and perspective-inducing. But what a rollercoaster, from thinking this is going to finally get the environment back on track, to seeing masks in all the hedgerows and hearing about huge increases in fast fashion purchases, environmentally, health-wise, mental health-wise and of course financially, it’s been a very tough time for us all.
Frances tell us a bit about your horticultural journey so far? I believe you studied at SRUC in Edinburgh.
At 19 I started an apprenticeship (NVQ II) at the Salutation Gardens in Kent, through Hadlow, then from there, at 22, I went on to SRUC and studied for my degree in Horticulture through the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Since then I’ve worked in all kinds of gardens, from botanical gardens in different countries, to ornamental gardens, historic gardens, community gardens for all kinds of vulnerable adults and children, private estates, farms, vineyards and market gardens. It has been busy! And involved lots of volunteering. But I don’t mind that, as long as I can learn something.
We are blessed in this country with many beautiful gardens, estates and areas to visit all around the country. Where would you recommend people to visit once if they get the chance? And why?
There are so many gardens to visit around the UK. I love so many of the Scottish gardens I cut my teeth on. Benmore, Edinburgh, Logan and Glasgow botanics, Cambo gardens, Inverewe gardens, Ardtornish estate and many more. Then there are the Kent and Sussex (and Surrey) gardens I grew up visiting like Sissinghurst, Penshurst Place, Walmer Castle, Parham, Hever Castle, Leeds Castle and many more. In the south west I loved going to places like Caerhayes, Helligan, Eden, Trebah, Knightshayes, Hestercombe (which was a must having trained in a Lutyens garden), Coleton Fishacre to name just a few. And then there are those amazing places like the Centre for Alternative Technology, which are doing amazing work to research ways in which we can all live more sustainably, really putting gardening at the forefront of relevant global research. To all this though, I have to say that my true passion is in wild places, so id take a woodland, beach, marsh or meadow over a cultivated garden. But that’s perhaps because when you are a gardener you look at gardens in a different way and never just take them for granted. Whereas in nature I can just switch off and take it in.
From your many books/articles and appearances on tv & radio we can tell you have a strong passion for all thing’s nature but who/what do credit with giving you your enthusiasm for all things gardening?
A mixture of people. I have always loved the outdoors. Our childhood holidays were spent in the mountains and rocks with my dad, a passionate climber, or lighting bonfires in the woods. My mum balanced the adventure out with an education in all things natural, telling us about the bird, insect and plant species we would see on our outings. My maternal grandmother was German and knew everything about fungus, so used to also take us mushrooming in autumn. I think the gardening soaked in from her too and the smell of tomato plants in her coastal garden. But The gardening seed didn’t really germinate in me until I started my apprenticeship, which I only did through lack of knowing what else to do and because I knew I wanted to work outdoors and do something creative. I know how lucky I was to stumble into it.
And who have you admired/respected most over the years for their contribution to the world of horticulture/ gardening?
One of my biggest heroes is my old lecturer Phil Lusby (now OBE). He has been a huge inspiration. He was instrumental in mapping and researching British native flora, and collecting the native seeds for Wakehurt’s millennium seed bank. As a teacher he was kind, knowledgeable beyond imagination, funny and generous in sharing his experiences. I don’t think any of us came away from the Botanics without having been inspired to be better gardeners, better conservationists and better people, because of Phil Lusby. Another shout out in those years also should go to Greg Kenicer, who not only taught us so much about plants and in particular Fabaceae (his field of expertise) but also the history, uses and conservation of plants belonging to this family, in threatened parts of the world. He has also since been a constant source of support and information in working to help identify species I have come across in my work, particularly in trying to identify rare species in Andromeda Botanic Gardens, in Barbados, but in many other instances. Some amazing women have also inspired me. The head gardener, at Dr Niels’ garden in Edinburgh, Claudia along with many other laid back, hands on, headstrong and tireless women who have given me the confidence to continue on my horticultural journey in my way without necessarily conforming to the norms we are taught.
Frances you are a fairly new recruit to social media platforms, what made you finally take the plunge and sign up?
I’ve been on Facebook since the age of 17 but basically never used it. I love taking photographs so after years of persuasion, I have ditched the facebook and moved to Instagram. It seems a really lovely community of really supportive grower. I have to say I am still tentative though. I fiercely value my privacy and time away from screens so I’m afraid Instagram is as far as I will go! I don’t even have Whatsapp, much to many people’s dismay. Technology and me just don’t mix I’m afraid. I am all about using my hands for building and creating and the virtual world is an intimidating place for people like me!
You have a growing collection of books you have written your latest one “Rewilding Your Garden” I know your quite keen for us to get back to a more naturalistic way to gardening re-using, re-cycling letting some weeds grow tell us more?
For so long I have taken in the established wisdom, which often implies there is only one way of doing something ‘right’. Recently have I started to question that. As gardeners we assume that we are doing something good and beneficial, whereas all too often we use huge amounts of chemicals, disturb the ground and often create more harm than good. The more I have stepped away and trusted nature to do something lovely, the happier I have been with the results, in terms of the visuals, and the easier it has been to achieve. I have no smaller yield if I let weeds grow alongside my veg (many of which are edible and make a great mulch on the ground if you lay them down instead of wood chip) and the insect populations have grown so much. I find that not digging, and growing perennials instead, is the best way of getting rid of the horsetail that plagues my allotment, all of which require no feed and very little water. I don’t think we can use the excuse of gardening being green anymore. I think we all need to change this and start rethinking the way we grow because the industry, like any other, and us gardeners can all play a part in protecting the planet.
Frances you have shared your Allotment journey with us via Gardeners World, but you have started with two very different plots, not just in location, but the soil, their layout and prevailing weather?
Yes. Bristol was hilly, clay, and wet. My Kent allotment is a windswept marsh on a very sandy, flat and impoverished soil where it’s wet all winter and dry as a bone in the summer. I don’t know which is easier! I shared the allotment in Bristol with Luke Murray, which made life a lot easier, though I have to say the Kent allotment has been a family effort too. The clay was tortuous in Bristol but I’ve never grown on a tougher site than my Kent allotment. The weeds, constant wind and soil that refuses to retain water make growing many things very tough. I have found that perennials there do much better than annuals, probably because the roots have more time to grow down into the water-table, so I am increasing my perennial vegetable collection.
You have worked with some of the biggest names in horticulture like Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Adam Frost do you sometimes pinch yourself that you find yourself working alongside such modern-day greats.
I wouldn’t say I pinch myself but it is definitely surreal at times. I never expected a career like this. I am very lucky to be able to work with some hugely knowledgeable and lovely people, both on screen (presenters and gardeners I get to visit) and the massively knowledgeable researchers behind making the programmes. I also feel equally lucky to have been able to work with some incredible people outside of TV work, particularly in the community gardens I have worked in. There are definitely days when you feel very lucky to have a job that involves meeting such wonderful people – and plants of course!
Now you appear in two great shows, Gardeners World and Love Your Garden but both similar but quite different. Tell us a bit on how you came to appear on both and your favroite aspects of each show. And please tell us there are some downsides to appearing on them (The Weather?!)
Both shows are so different. I love the team element of Love your garden. We have all worked together for 9 years now and it’s like a big happy and sometimes dysfunctional family! I also love the hard work element. When you’re not filming, you’re gardening, which is of course what we all love to do best! The rain, and the mud it brings is definitely a downside! But luckily we get a hot meal at the end of a very long day and that’s the best feeling in the world.
Gardeners world is a different pace and although the team changes regularly, you really get a chance to chat and get to know and learn from the people you are working with. You also get to travel around the country and meet some enormously inspiring people. I would say the downsides of the job would be the amount of time I spend on the motorway, overcoming my shyness, and spending weeks at a time away from home. But this year I have got to enjoy some time at home!
Frances your marooned on an (Lush Tropical) island in the middle of nowhere, but luckily you have with you, one book, one song and most importantly one packet of seeds. What are your choices for your Desert Island Veg/Plant?
Seed would definitely be Cassava. Its perennial, full of starchy energy and really tasty. A song…That’s really hard. Something I can dance to and something really long so I don’t get bored with it. Maybe Bob Dylan, Changing of the guards. It reminds me of family and friends. A book is also really tough. But something I can read over and over is the Northern Lights Trilogy by Philip Pullman.
If you had to choose what would be your favourite season of the year? And why?
Definitely spring. Simply because I love the colour green when the leaves come out.
Apart from your own excellent books, what is the best garden book you have ever read or book that you would turn to if there is something you are not sure on.
I always have a guide to mushrooms and fungi in the car because it’s something I always check and double check. Also the wild flower key by Frances Rose et al is indispensable for identifying wild plants.
We watched during lockdown how you moved into your first home and set about creating your first garden? How is the garden evolving lately? Do you hanker after more space or does it suit you just right for now, you are a busy lady after all?
I’m not quite sure where the idea that this was my first garden and home have come from but you’re not the first to ask so I should probably clarify! I’ve had some gardens that were shared among the flats, some shared with housemates and one that was basically un-gardenable, with the sea at the front and a cliff at the back! I’ve built and maintained lots of gardens for my work and obviously had my allotments but this was the first ‘normal’ garden I had designed and built for myself. I was so pleased with the results as it gave me a chance to create a space that was almost exclusively made of edible plants, yet was beautiful. I loved it for its green and for its texture and for its productivity. (in that tiny space with a mix of herbs, perennials, annual veg, trees and forest gardening, with squashes, cucumbers and beans growing up the walls trees and shrubs, I grew bigger, better, and far more produce than on my allotment) And for the first time, I didn’t have to compromise on my vision. It was a rented house and I have now moved out, but it was great to leave a nice garden for the new tenants. I don’t yet know where or what the next project will be but of course, it would be amazing to have a little more space if/when another garden comes along!
We have seen an extra boom in the interest in Gardening, Growing Veg and nature in general over the last few months and year. From the young to the old, but how do you think we can best keep the interest and people involved in gardening/nature and maybe encourage more to join us?
Ah the million-dollar question! I think gardens need to feel relevant. In the lockdown everyone was at home, and those of us lucky enough to have outdoor space, even if it was a postage stamp, suddenly felt that gardens were our lifeline. I heard so many amazing stories of communities turning their alleyways and streets into social distanced garden projects that brought people together and gave them a space to just get out of the house. For such a long time gardening has been reserved for people of a certain age, a certain skin colour and for people with the wealth to own land. The reality is that enjoyment of the outdoors is not restricted to this one group of people. It’s universal and part of being human. No matter what your background you can contribute something amazing to the community and to the horticultural world if given the chance to do so. I have worked for the last number of years with the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and it has been unstintingly inspiring to see some of the young people and teachers who are lighting the spark in the next generation of gardeners. The key things are ownership, relevance and trust. Many of us might never own a house or a garden, so there needs to be a rethinking of community spaces and a way in which spaces like allotment sights can be made available to many more people. The waiting lists are huge. So turning public spaces into wildlife havens, flower gardens, allotments and places that member of the community who have an interest in gardening, can have some ownership over; a little patch to be trusted to do what they like with. This will suddenly make gardening feel like it’s accessible to all of us. How can we get people to get into gardening, if having access to any kind of land is so illusive? I think that’s the key. As well as just encouraging people to try it. If you never try something you never know.
Do you think horticulture/nature studies should be included in the curriculum for younger children?
I definitely think that encouraging young people to be outside and enjoy nature is something that should be encouraged. I think that including horticulture on the curriculum is actually more important in the later years of education. I wish someone had told me it was an option then. There are all kinds of careers in horticulture, from the creative elements like designing, landscape architecture, garden photography and writing, to the scientific elements like plant pathology, conservation, global plant trade work, even pharmaceuticals, as well as maintenance, nursery work, landscaping and many more. So getting young people thinking about these kinds of careers will fill the gaps in industry and possibly have hugely positive impacts the world over. For very young children, I think perhaps the best thing is to give them the opportunity to do it, have fun with it, get messy and muddy, and if they want to, have the resources there to allow them to explore and learn about horticulture further.
Your known for your individual taste in clothes, happy to re-cycle, re-use etc which is a perfect match for allotment principals as well. But what do you consider you best piece of re cycling in your plot or garden?
Definitely some old glass doors I’ve turned into a cold frame. That has saved a lot of my plants this winter.
Frances, we all have plants that grows well for us and some that just never seems to happen what is your Plant Heaven and Plant Hell?
I never manage to get Coreopsis verticillata to come back year on year! They look amazing for a season and then that’s it. I won’t give up though. Beetroot, on the other hand, is something that grows so well on my allotment. I love it and do multiple sowing each season.
Frances, can you talk us thorough one of your favourite veg to grow. How you sow it for instance, along with any good advice through the growing stage, and finally your preferred way to enjoy feasting on your crop after all your hard work.
It’s not quite a veg but I love growing coriander. It’s so easy to grow from seed and germinates even in the cold. It looks beautiful, tastes amazing and the seeds when they’re green are like sweets you just can’t stop eating. I love anything in the carrot family, form fennel, dill, parsley, celery, caraway and so many more. It’s a lovely, useful family for any kitchen gardener.
Frances The Queen has just unearthed a time machine at Windsor Castle and she wants all the gardens there re-designed and she wants you Frances to oversee it! She has said you can borrow the time machine to choose 3 assistants from the past or present to help plan and do the work. So Frances who is on your Garden Dream Team to assist you? And why?
Tough one. Firstly a woman called Ruth Stout. She was such an innovator into unorthodox methods of gardening and decades ahead of her time (we still haven’t caught up) and she would be intimidating enough to even persuade the queen to let us cover the garden in hay and let nature do a lot of the work. Beth Chatto, for her incredible contribution to planting theory and right plant right place that makes so much practical sense, it’s amazing someone didn’t think of it before. And then we’d probably need someone flamboyant and neat to balance us out, so why not go for Andre le Notre, the designer of Versailles gardens, amongst others, and who would certainly be more than able to handle the palatial challenges!
Frances your newfound fame working for The Queen has led to a deluge of offers! But which one do you choose Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, SAS Who Dares Wins or Great British Bake Off?
I’d probably go for Strictly just because I have always wanted to learn to dance.
What are the greatest lengths or depths that you have been too in the name of gardening?
The horsetail on my allotment feels like the most epic task of my gardening life. I have dug and dug and dug and now I have stopped digging and just accepted it. It was disheartening to say the least, to have essentially a field of horsetail every time I turned my back, but I went back and kept on keeping on. I have since found that the herbs, that have grown tall to outcompete the horsetail and have not been dug very much at all, have done the best job of keeping the weed supressed. It’s a good learning curve and it’s good to know that all that digging is now no longer required.
You can follow Frances on Instagram @francestophill
Her books are available at all good book stores and online
She will be returning soon to our screens on BBC Gardeners’ World & ITVS Love Your Garden