Interview - Toby Buckland, presenter, BBC Gardeners' World

In times of economic downturn, some quarters of the horticulture industry call out to the media to come to their rescue.

BBC Gardeners' World presenter, Tony Buckland - photo: BBC
BBC Gardeners' World presenter, Tony Buckland - photo: BBC

And the BBC's appointment of Toby Buckland as lead presenter of Gardeners' World could prove to be the lifeline the nursery and garden centre trade have been waiting for.

Buckland, 38, a married father of three from Dawlish, Devon, is a former nurseryman and professional gardener. He was little known in the world of mainstream television until he leapfrogged gardening personalities Carol Klein and Joe Swift to take the top job in media horticulture. He now has the unenviable task of restoring Gardeners' World's viewing figures, which hit four million in the Alan Titchmarsh era but dropped to just over two million during Monty Don's reign.

Don, a former jeweller, made no bones about being self-taught in horticulture, with no obligation to the industry. Buckland, having trained in horticulture, intends to help the trade.

"Heading up Gardeners' World, my first responsibility is to gardeners but I do care about the industry," he says. "There's a theory in gardening that you should only visit small nurseries and grow as much as you can from seed. That's perfectly good but I want to broaden Gardeners' World's appeal and make it acceptable for gardeners to visit garden centres, while highlighting what's on sale at garden centres now.

"I believe gardeners need to be shown how to shop for things and encouraged to support the industry. It shouldn't all be about growing your own as cheaply as possible."

Buckland's support for the industry is unsurprising, given his career. Born into a family of builders, the value and importance of learning a trade was instilled in him from an early age. But Buckland opted for plants and compost rather than bricks and mortar. He worked as a grower cultivating roses and pinks before gaining a National Certificate and Higher National Diploma in Horticulture. Now he intends to use a back-to-basics approach to inject the feel-good factor into television gardening.

Buckland explains: "All former presenters had their own style and brought different qualities to the show. What I'll be bringing is practicality - the hands-on skills. Gardening is a collection of skills. Put them together and that's when plants grow."

Former presenter the late Geoff Hamilton, along with Titchmarsh and Don, all adopted an organic approach on television - to the dismay of garden product suppliers, who blasted the three decades-long ban on chemical fertilisers and weedkillers for being out of touch with the viewing public.

Taking part in a debate on topical issues at the National Amateur Gardening Show in Somerset on 7 September was a wake-up call for Buckland. An audience show of hands found just one-third were organic, but three-quarters raised their hands when asked if they'd used chemicals such as Miracle-Gro or slug pellets this year. It was proof that television's organic approach was not in tune with the viewers.

Unlike his predecessors, Buckland isn't organic, although he professes to garden in an ethical and eco-friendly manner. His appointment could mark a radical shift of policy on Gardeners' World. Buckland says the word organic often gets "bandied about without people always knowing what it means" and admits he uses chemicals - but only when he has to.

"Gardeners' World is a broad church and it has to speak to everybody, giving tips to organic gardeners as well as to new gardeners. In some cases it's better to be an inorganic success than an organic failure and never pick up a trowel again. Growing your own and saving food miles is the single most important thing you can do. And if that means you clear your allotment with glyphosate and then go on to be chemical-free, it's common sense," he argues.

Buckland insists he wants gardeners to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but the growing-media industry will be keen to know if he'll use peat on television. "I've long tried to use less peat in my garden and will continue with that at Berryfields (the Gardeners' World garden).

"The Government has set targets of being 90 per cent peat-free by 2010, so gardening in a peat-free world is something that we will all have to learn. I will be showing viewers how to use alternatives: coir, wood fibre and green compost. All behave differently to peat but can, if you have the know-how, outperform peat. That said, even the gardeners at Kew, who have been peat-free for years, say some plants need a little peat in their potting mixes - citrus trees, for example. So if we talk about growing lemons, we'll recommend peat as one of the ingredients. We won't ignore the issue - we'll be honest to help viewers," he pledges.

Buckland believes that a common-sense approach will raise Gardeners' World's ratings. With the credit crunch biting and consumers reigning in spending, television's influence over gardeners' shopping habits has never been more critical.

CV

1987: Joined Whetman Pinks, Devon, later working for Devon-based rose grower Blyths

1991: National Certificate in Horticulture at Bicton College, Devon. Awarded Best Practical Student title

1995: HND in Horticulture at Hadlow College, Kent

1996: Researcher for Channel 4's Garden Party

1997-98: Woodland supervisor at Cambridge University Botanic Garden

1998-2007: Presenter, Gardening Club (Granada Home & Leisure), Garden Magic (BBC1), Grass Roots (Meridian) and Weed it and Reap (UKTV Style)

June 2008: Winner of gold and best-in-show for Ethical Garden at BBC Gardeners' World Live, Birmingham

September 2008: Lead presenter of Gardeners' World on BBC Two.


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