British gardener Alan Titchmarsh is something of a national treasure in the United Kingdom. He has his own statue at the famed Madame Tussauds waxworks museum in London, which, curators claim, needs to be cleaned twice-weekly because of the lipstick smudges that his amorous fans leave on his likeness. His career in horticulture spans more than half a century and he's well known to British audiences for his broadcasting work, which includes pioneering TV gardening programmes such as Ground Force.
He’s also a writer of gardening books and novels, and recently visited Dubai for the first time to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he met with Emirati garden designer Kamelia Zaal and the Balcony and Urban Gardening Group of the UAE, to learn more about growing conditions here.
Titchmarsh, who has been an organic gardener for more than 30 years, sought more-natural working practises at a time when so much of gardening was about absolute perfection. The focus when it came to growing was on absolute order, regardless of how that might be achieved.
He notes that there’s something of a retrospective taking place on the gardening scene, with a back-to-basics approach gaining popularity, partly as a response to health-and-safety issues, as well as environmental awareness.
“We know now that spraying something, generally speaking, isn’t necessarily the end of it in terms of residue, and it’s also interfering with a very complex food chain. I don’t spray. I started back in the days of beards, sandals and grey socks, and while I didn’t have any of those things, I saw the wisdom of the thinking at that time.”
“Work with nature, rather than against her,” is Titchmarsh’s mantra. “You can’t suddenly become an organic gardener and overnight everything works; it takes two or three years for everything to get back into its own. You’ll seldom get epidemics [of pests] and you’ll learn to cope with a hole in a leaf and not be obsessive about it.”
[ Kamelia Zaal shows Alan Titchmarsh how she brings the desert to life ]
Titchmarsh does nothing to repel invaders from his own garden, and he welcomes birds and insects. “If you are encouraging them all, then there is a balance. Garden with your prevailing conditions. You have to compromise, but working with nature is so much more pleasurable. Plants want to grow – it’s up to us to give them the opportunity.
“When I started gardening for a living in 1964, a long time ago, it was the days of spraying anything that moved, and there were nicotine shreds and DDT. If you’re not an organic gardener now, in five to 10 years, you’re likely to be forced to be, because so many of these products won’t be available domestically.”
Titchmarsh talks about “keeping the magic of [gardening], but taking away the mystery” as a description of how he has navigated his career and made gardening more accessible to the masses. He founded Gardens for Schools, which began as kitchen-table charity, with his wife, to introduce children to the magic of growing and to remind them of what it is that sustains us.
“Without plants and an awareness of the great outdoors, and respect for it and the joy of it, we wouldn’t exist,” he says.
Titchmarsh joined forces with the Royal Horticultural Society and its campaign for school gardens, and their work now means that more than 20,000 British primary schools are gardening. A similar programme, Grow Your Food, is run in the UAE by Dubai Municipality as an Expo 2020 initiative.
Titchmarsh gestures to a palm tree outside the window of the hotel we are at. “How does that make you feel?” he asks. “It’s good for us all to be connected and grounded with the great outdoors. It doesn’t matter where you are, it has to be tailored to that place, but enabling is the big thing.”
If Titchmarsh was stranded on a desert island and allowed to take only one plant, what would it be? “An apple tree, because it has fabulous blossom. When those leaves start coming out in spring, they are downy, then the blossom is pink and white, and then the fruits develop. You can sit under the summer sun and enjoy the shade. It’s a practical choice as well as a romantic one. It changes with the seasons, which is the delight of the UK. We suffer our winters, because without winter, we wouldn’t have spring.”