In 1988, the British pop star Kim Wilde went on tour with Michael Jackson, performing to more than two million people around Europe. Already famous around the world for hits such as Kids in America, her most successful single release that year was You Came. “You came and changed the way I feel…” went the lyrics. “You came and turned my life around.”
Eight years later, the words seemed to come true when Wilde met her husband, the actor Hal Fowler, became pregnant, took a break from singing and retrained as a landscape gardener. Though she is regularly back on stage – most recently with a well-received acoustic set at Zero Gravity in Dubai earlier this month – her second career has been, in its own way, just as stellar as her first.
“It began as a sort of therapy,” she tells me, speaking from her garden in Hertfordshire, England. “As a famous person, it’s lovely to have a focus on something that’s not you. You get used to being observed, but plants don’t do that to you. I literally used to come home and go straight out into the garden still with all my make-up on and some of my stage clothes, and absolutely ruin them as I decided to start one small job and ended up spending four hours in the garden. There was a real basic need to reconnect with the earth.”
Starting in her own garden, “a blank canvas” at the time, Wilde began to grow some plants based on ideas from gardening books. “That’s when it really came alive for me,” she says. “Anyone can have a go at growing vegetables, but I’m always looking for composition in things. I went to art school, so I appreciate colour and form and texture. For me, it was a natural progression to move into designing with plants.”
While pregnant with her first child, Wilde attended a specialist gardening college, landing a job as a garden designer on a TV series in the United Kingdom shortly afterwards. This was followed by another popular show, Garden Invaders, a newspaper column and various private commissions.
“It was very liberating,” she says now of her decision to take a break from singing. “There was a sort of Groundhog Day scenario going on in my life at the time and I thought, ‘I want to see what my life can be like without being Kim Wilde all the time.’ After being on tour, living in airports and TV studios for such a long time, I wanted to get back to something more real. Before I realised it, a private passion had become a second career, just because of the enthusiasm that I had for it.”
This passion can be traced back to her childhood, she believes, when her family moved from London to the English countryside: “The smells of fallen leaves, wildflowers, blackberries – the free store of nature had a huge impact on me as a kid.”
Wilde still has some of her childlike awe of nature – it is important to her that her gardening projects respect and take inspiration from the surrounding area, for example. Nonetheless, with training and experience she has learnt to impose a subtle order on nature’s bounty.
“I like to see good structure in a garden, and lots and lots of plants,” she says. “That’s our garden in a nutshell. The first thing you’d see are all the plants, but a lot of thought has gone into the basic framework of it.”
This thoughtful approach was recognised in 2005, when Wilde won a gold medal at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, for a courtyard garden she created using reclaimed slate tiles. That design was inspired by the English Lake District – but the possibilities for gardens in the UAE are just as exciting, she believes.
For example, there is a lot of fun to be had with container gardens – where everything is planted in pots, tubs and window boxes. These have become something of a trend, partly because of the rise in apartment-block living, and partly because they offer greater control over factors such as moisture and sunlight than traditional gardens. These can be very successful, says Wilde, as long as they are planted correctly. “First of all, you need to make sure your containers are big enough – that’s one of the most basic mistakes people make,” she says. “Second, you need to take care of moisture, so use mulches on the top of the soil when you plant to make sure that the moisture in the container isn’t being lost at the top, maybe by putting a plastic liner inside, or using moisture-retaining granules or compost mixtures.”
Choosing the right plants for a desert climate is also key, the singer advises. “I would use drought-resistant plants – for instance, you might choose a rosemary, it’s as tough as old boots and you can use it in the kitchen. Or I love box [Buxus sempervirens], which is a Mediterranean shrub; it’s evergreen, it’s a shrub, I’ve got it throughout the garden. It’s the perfect foil to all nature’s plants, it doesn’t grow too fast, so you don’t have to keep maintaining it all the time, and it’s sort of drought-resistant, too. That’s my ultimate favourite shrub.”
Gardens needn’t simply be decorative, however. Increasingly, home gardeners are looking to grow their own fruits and vegetables, which produce tasty crops and a sense of achievement. However, Wilde has learnt from personal experience that the best approach is to start small. “People are more and more interested in growing their own, but if you’re just starting out I’d advise you to look for easy solutions for growing plants in smaller environments. When I started growing vegetables, I was too ambitious; I made a plot that was far too big and far too labour-intensive, and it quickly overwhelmed me.”
Though it can be challenging at times, Wilde finds the call of gardening irresistible, even when she is busy with family and her singing work. “My husband and I are always in the garden, either working on it or planning it,” she reveals.
It can also be a way to connect with family. While Wilde’s father, Marty (a 1950s rock ’n’ roll singer), and elder brother, Ricky, have worked with her extensively on her music career, her younger brother, Marty Jr, is a fellow gardener – a common interest she treasures. “I’ve given him a lot of books and shared a lot of my knowledge with him, and he’s taught me a lot, too. We’ve done some projects together. It’s one great place we can connect, because we have that shared passion. He’s quite a lot younger, but when we’re together, it feels like we’re in a little private club, and I really love that,” she says warmly.
There’s more than a touch of the Earth Mother about Kim Wilde the gardener, then. But she hasn’t lost her pop star’s sense of fun, even when it comes to planting. “I love there to be spontaneity in the garden,” she says. “I love self-feeding plants; it’s got a bit of a rock ’n’ roll vibe about it; things happen or they don’t – but if they do they can be spectacular.”