Interview - Carol Klein

TV presenter and author Carol Klein talks to Matthew Appleby about her current projects and her ambitions for the future.

Gardeners' World presenter, author and columnist Carol Klein - photo: IPC Media/Amateur Gardening
Gardeners' World presenter, author and columnist Carol Klein - photo: IPC Media/Amateur Gardening

Carol Klein once suggested garden centres may be obsolete - which is, perhaps, not the best way to appeal to the industry or the millions who buy plants and gardening products.

The Gardeners' World presenter, 63, who recommends propagating and seed swapping over buying new plants, has criticised the industry as being too "industrialised" and out of touch in times of recession.

In a recent Guardian column Klein said: "The grow-your-own movement is expanding beyond fruit and veg. Many gardeners have rejected the idea of 'buying a garden', choosing to grow their own garden instead. In defiance of industrialised horticulture, there has been growing enthusiasm to collect seed and grow it on, to strike cuttings and divide plants, swapping with friends. This, in turn, promotes a deeper understanding both of the plants and the processes involved: 2008 was about doing, not shopping. (This year) this trend may well become entrenched."

But she backtracks now, saying: "I run a nursery too (Glebe Cottage, Devon). I never recommend people don't buy plants. At shows we did, the more you told people about how to propagate, the more involved they got and the more came back for more things and different plants. And seed sales are up again."

Klein's dream is for a green gardening TV programme, reflecting her DIY ethos, to feature propagating and grafting. But she believes that it is unlikely to happen because the BBC feels she is getting too old to commission it.

Talking to GR in February, she said: "(A programme like this) would have been and still is so pertinent. What people want to know is not what they can do as a one-off but about the whole process of gardening from start to finish.

"But I very much doubt it will happen in the present climate. I think I'll be saying as much as I can about that and a couple of other ideas at a Gardeners' World commissioning meeting.

"I've got just as much energy as everyone else. I used to see Geoff (Hamilton) huffing and puffing on his knees and I've got just as good knees as anyone.

"I hope to have the opportunity to do those things on Gardeners' World but it looks like I'm not going to be doing any separate programmes - there aren't any on the cards because most of the BBC's gardening money is going into Gardeners' World."

Klein says the long-running BBC series can learn from petrolheads' show Top Gear in some ways. Promoting her new book Grow Your Own Fruit, she says: "I think we can take a lesson from programmes like Top Gear - not in their ethos, of course - but because even if you hate them they're still exciting. I don't watch it but I have seen a couple of bits. I do think Gardeners' World needs some more oomph."

The viewing figures of the car show on BBC2 amount to over six million, more than double Gardeners' World's two million-plus - and Top Gear is exported to 100 countries.

Gardening forums, too, have suggested Gardeners' World could jazz up its act when the show returns in April.

Klein explains: "At the same time, cars and gardening are not analogous. The whole point about gardening is that it's free. However, when do you see really good gardening bits?

"We have grabbed people's attention and interest. It's a lot to do with the enthusiasm and believing in what you're doing. I think there's been a time when Gardeners' World has done that."

Klein said the series was rocked by Monty Don's departure after his stroke last year. "It was a difficult year for everyone with Monty going. It was very difficult for people to find their feet, I think. That could be analogous with Jeremy Clarkson leaving Top Gear. It was not going to be the same programme."

Klein says that her new BBC/RHS-backed book could "kick start" a resurgence in home fruit production. Her 2007 Grow Your Own Veg bestseller has sold more than 300,000 copies.

She says: "I'm not pretending it was solely responsible for the veg boom but it was a help. Yes, it has sold a lot of copies, not that I've made anything out of it. It's still doing all right. It reflects the interest of people in growing your own food. It's a natural extension of when we used to grow our own fruit. I loved that and found it incredibly rewarding. People fight shy of fruit, though. They think veg might be possible because it's an annual event but there's something much more permanent and serious about fruit.

"By the same token (fruit) is longer-lasting, so even more part of the cycle.There's still more you can do with grow-your-own.

"You do need more space but most people can manage with fruit, even if it's just one blackcurrant bush or a little row of raspberries. People haven't realised you can get a reasonable crop out of a small space. But not everyone has room for an orchard. You could replace a tree in the garden that is not doing well with an apple or plum. And strawberries are so prolific, easy and straightforward. They may only crop for a few weeks but you can stagger that by growing different varieties. And if you get too many, you can always make jam."

Klein says she does not know how the BBC and RHS are going to promote growing your own fruit. "I should imagine it's going to be a part of Gardeners' World and the fruit gardens of the RHS.

"The RHS is working side by side with the BBC on its veg campaign. I don't think they're mutually exclusive. RHS Rosemoor is wonderful."

"Fruit won't be as big as veg because it's not so instant and doesn't have that same simpleness. You're not going to be picking pounds and pounds of raspberries and apples in the first year.

"But in the current climate people are going to be more interested in long-term products for their garden.

"Fewer people are moving house. And they're more aware of what their gardens can do for them. People will take more interest in long-term projects, so the fruit thing is not a flash in the pan and I don't think veg is either. Grow-your-own veg prepared the ground in the same way - it's a really useful thing to do. It's really rewarding and anyone can do it. That's what the campaign has done and what the grow-your-own fruit campaign can do too. You don't have to be an expert."

Klein says she would never do anything but push the organic cause - she cites last year's scare about aminopyralid getting into the food chain via manure (although Defra says there were only three proven cases) and says all organic gardeners reject pesticides for moral rather than cost reasons.

But she does say saving money is a trigger for people to start growing their own. "For many people it's a question of grow-your-own or don't have any at all."

Klein's next book is likely to be on propagation and will be based on a series of articles she wrote for the BBC Gardens Illustrated magazine, with photos by Jonathan Buckley. "I would love to do something like that but don't know if there will be a link to the BBC/RHS.

"The RHS handbook (on the subject) is brilliant but if I can give it a modern twist and show people how easy it is and develop that part with TV it would be great.

"It's a chance to do more on starting something off, returning to it and observing it through the year - how it began and developed. That's what gardening is all about," Klein points out.

She says she was thrilled when she learnt how to graft an apple tree - "something anyone can do".

But the BBC is thwarting her TV ambitions outside the main Gardeners' World series. Klein lost out on the lead presenter role when Don left Gardeners' World and she subsequently complained about BBC ageism and sexism.

A special about women who work as gardeners has been postponed twice since last summer, along with a Joe Swift programme on different ways of growing plants in confined spaces, such as green walls and roofs.

Klein says: "It will be on in the summer, hopefully, but it's a bit disappointing for some people (who are featured) in it. We were told that we would probably get better viewing figures early in the new year, but it has been delayed again." Another Klein special show, Plant Addicts, has also been shelved since 2008.

Quite how gardening TV goes forward is the big question for many in the gardening trade since the demise of Ground Force in 2005.

Klein says the BBC has the market sewn up but that ignores the influence of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, who arguably have had more influence on the grow-your-own movement than any garden TV presenter.

Klein's Cook Your Own Veg follow-up to Grow Your Own Veg made much less impact than its predecessor. "That's the power of TV. But I don't think of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as being a gardener - he's known principally as a chef."

She agrees that Oliver's campaigning power is such that he is in a "different league", adding: "There's a big campaigning edge to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall through his cooking programmes but people don't watch to find out how to garden."

Klein says Gardeners' World does not need to campaign in the same way as Fearnley-Whittingstall's Landshare scheme or Oliver's school dinners attack. "They're two very different sorts of programmes" she says. "They have a purpose but with Gardeners' World it's more about getting people to watch over a very long part of the year and catering for them. You're not going to get the same people coming to Gardeners' World."

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