Interview: Alan Titchmarsh, gardening author and broadcaster

There is little doubt who is Britain's best-loved gardener.

Alan Titchmarsh can still have horticultural audiences eating out of his hand when the 60-year-old former Gardeners' World presenter reverts to his original career from the world of light entertainment. But workaholic Titchmarsh still likes to keep his fingers dirty. His new series of How to Garden books will be out this spring.

In his trademark folksy manner, Titchmarsh calls this distillation of more than 40 years in the trade "little tomes".

In the week that Gardeners' World belatedly starts again for the spring, Titchmarsh, the former park-keeper, who went to Kew and became a horticulture journalist, is spending more time presenting his chat show than on gardening. He hosts an hour-long show on ITV every weekday and works for the BBC presenting the Chelsea show as well as writing volumes of "memoirs".

Many wonder how he can churn out so many books and articles while being a full-time broadcaster and celebrity. His new novel is due out in October, another autobiography about his "gardening years" is out this autumn and the next novel in 2010. He also has another six How to Garden books due out "in six months or a year. I can't remember the titles at the moment."

There is only so much gardening advice to give, and Titchmarsh says: "I worked with an editor. Having written 50 books I do take information from previous writings. I wish I had a team - I just have a PA."

But he says he does fear burnout: "I keep telling myself I need to pace myself. I'm lucky to do a job I love. At the moment I'm enjoying the variety."

Then he says something that makes it seem as if he feels he's being attacked. "I'm a gardener at heart but I'm being allowed to do other things on the box. What's wrong with that?"

But he says the fall-off in TV gardening at the expense of seemingly endless chef programmes and car shows is not his fault. And he doesn't appreciate chefs, such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, telling people how to grow their own produce.

"TV cooking is always going to be more popular than gardening because everyone eats three meals a day but I'd be interested to know whether Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay would let me into their kitchens to cook.

"Just because we don't swear doesn't mean we're any less passionate. We're there with the information."

As for Top Gear, which currently attracts six million viewers, Titchmarsh says: "If you look at the information you've learnt at the end of Top Gear, it's not much." Gardeners' World brings in two million viewers, the same as the fellow BBC2 car show before it got its entertainment makeover.

"Gardeners' World is an informative programme. You come out knowing how to do something. It's a different kettle of fish. In Top Gear you laugh a lot. Gardeners' World is an information service."

Titchmarsh, the man who made gardening mainstream a decade ago with 12 million-viewer Ground Force makeover shows, bemoans that there's "not that much gardening on TV now".

He says Ground Force has had its day - the quick-fix, product-led makeover looks dated now in recessionary and green times - but "just because there's not as much on TV now that doesn't mean gardening's not reflected in life". He explains that "Ground Force sprang out of the last recession". Titchmarsh talks about the recession and health-led return to growing your own, with vegetable seeds outselling flower seeds.

"We're interested in what we eat now. We have the desire to see where our food comes from. Gardening is very much at the forefront of people's minds. People want to know how to garden."

Titchmarsh recognises that gardening is more serious than ever in these times of recession but sees a need for gardening to lighten up.

"I don't know what will be next in gardening on the box. I'm not a clairvoyant. There probably is a need for more entertaining gardening telly. Ground Force is not there anymore. People said you can't make a garden in two days. We proved you could. It was an info-tainment programme. Gardening's short of that at the moment."

But Titchmarsh has no plans to go back into TV gardening. It seems he is a little bored of relaying the same how-to-grow information year after year.

"I have a high enough profile as it is. I still get stopped in the street and get asked gardening questions."

But is he looking forward to the year's gardening highlight, the Chelsea show. Titchmarsh says: "I don't need to think about it until the third week of May. Things will change between now and then so I don't swot up too far ahead."

He adds: "I write every week for newspapers and every month for Gardeners' World magazine. I'm always writing about gardening. I do my chat show on ITV but I still garden every day at home."

He has humble hopes for the books: "I hope people find them useful. They look small and economical, but there's a lot of information and value for money."

Titchmarsh defends himself against comparison with the legendary Dr Hessayon, who has sold 50 million copies of his 50 gardening books. "This is my 50th book so I have a reasonable amount of experience too. They're bound to be compared to Dr H, but to me the only similarity is they're of comparable size."

CV
1964 Apprentice gardener with Ilkley council
1969 Diploma student at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; later
supervisor of staff training
1974 Becomes a garden journalist
1983 to date TV presenter of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
1996-2002 Main presenter of BBC Gardeners' World
1997-2002 Presenter of Ground Force
2000 Receives an MBE
2004 Awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour by the RHS


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