Growbag Blog

How would our gardening heroes fare in Bake Off?


Who inspired you to take up gardening? To whose books do you return time and again? Whose name do you Google when you want an opinion on a plant? Today we three Growbags are going to be talking about our all-time gardening heroes.

Obviously, just as in Bake Off (see how our cultural horizons have shrunk during lockdown) there are horses for courses, and whereas you would probably rely on Monty Don to deliver something ruggedly substantial in artisan bread week, you would be looking towards Andy Sturgeon to pull off the ultimate show-stopper celebration cake. Carol Klein would need gallons of food colouring in the self portrait round to represent her dress sense (which normally resembles an explosion in a picnic basket), whilst Joe Swift would triumph in a 3D construction out of ginger biscuits that included a working pulley.

Just the cover of Monty’s books indicate that he is more of a bread than patisserie sort of man

Whether it’s Helen Yemm solving a problem or Sarah Raven recommending tulips, we all have our favourite go-to expert whose opinion we trust. Personally, I love the gardeners who work closest with nature, and especially revere those who have undertaken expeditions to see our garden plants growing in the wild to better understand the conditions they like to grow in. Beth Chatto was a shining example and I return to her books time and again.

Beth has the perfect reference book for every part of your garden

Dan Pearson is another writer who just ticks all the boxes, and if ever I need a really trusted overview on a particular genus of plants I would turn to Val Bourne.


Ah, gardening heroes! I don’t know about you, but don’t you think that the world is on a search for every kind of hero at the moment – century-old charity walkers, caring footballers, an honest US president………… I feel like leaping on to the Wembley stage, and bawling out, Bonny Tyler-style “I need a hero, he’s gotta be sure , it’s gotta be soon, and he’s gotta be larger than life…..!”

And of course, Bonny’s quite right – a true hero HAS got to be larger than life – someone who brings you much more than the obvious, and inspires you to achieve more in your own life – a new way of thinking, if you will.

Laura’s choices are worthy ones, and ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ is a very admirable tenet, but its basis is all about following the rules (DON’T plant camellias in chalk, DON’T plant astilbes in dry soil etc.) instead of breaking them; challenging the rules is what gives you a fresh perspective. In horticultural terms, for me such a person was Vita Sackville-West – the woman who put two fingers up to the conventions of what an aristocratic lady should be concerned with, in the 1930s. She created a wildly romantic and glorious garden at Sissinghurst when neat rows of bedding marigolds were all the rage.

Vita Sackville-West – What a woman! What a gardener!

She wasn’t very conventional in her private life either (but we won’t go into that now), and she’d certainly giving Prue Leith a run for her money in her choice of unusual outfits – actually it’s giving me a fit of the giggles to think of Vita Sackville-West baking iced fancies on the Great British Bake-Off!

Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter was another rule-breaker. Famously curmudgeonly with many of the general public (‘..sometimes the public make me feel that Dixter is being soiled’), he was happily digging up rose gardens with Fergus Garrett to grow tropical monsters, and embracing wild-flower meadows long before the mania for them.

Incidentally, he and Beth Chatto were great friends, and a book I look at time and time again is a record of their correspondence over the years: Dear Friend and Gardener – Letters on Life and Gardening. Two old pals, both brilliant gardeners, sharing hundreds of observations and gossip on plants, nature and their lives – it’s a joyful, informative and fascinating read.

Two consummate gardeners with a lot of wonderful stuff to say….

Personality is as important as depth of knowledge when seeking a hero, so let’s give praise for those who have the courage to challenge the status quo. When gravel-voiced Bonny was looking for her “streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds”, she possibly didn’t have a hoary-handed horticulturist in mind, but who’s to say?!


Well, never were gardening heroes needed more than here in Scotland. I don’t think I need to explain in detail but we’ve already endured a cheeky -10 some weeks ago – you get the picture.

It’s why, as I begin creating a garden at my new house in the Highlands,  I draw inspiration from Osgood McKenzie who chose 50 acres of barren rocky land buffeted by Atlantic storms just across from me, to set about planting his garden in the 1860s.

Inverewe is now owned by the National Trust and a gardener’s Mecca, but only because of 20-year-old Osgood’s ‘light-bulb’ moment – he planted a 100 acre shelter belt of pines to protect the peninsula and then simply waited…for 40 years. This is strategic thinking writ large (although, can I afford to wait that long?)

Inverewe, amid Atlantic winds and towering mountains, this is where the real gardening takes place!

Also close to us when living at East Lothian, is Lindisfarne where another gardening icon Gertrude Jekyll was at large. She designed the garden on Lindisfarne’s exposed headland, and purportedly had a go at impregnating the castle walls with wildflowers by blasting seeds at them with a shotgun.

This is proper gardening – never mind your finicky fairy cakes – these guys would have made a damn great clootie dumpling and told Pru Leith where to get off.

Muscular, entertaining and knowledgeable. Sounds like a Tinder profile but actually a gardening book.

Oh my ‘go to’ book? Like a toddler with a favourite blanket, I take ‘Garden Plants for Scotland’ with me literally everywhere I go and I recommend you do the same wherever you live. Every bit as straight talking as Paul Hollywood, its co-author Ken is prone to comments such as: ‘Phlomis – not fans, we just don’t find them visually appealing and take comfort from Christopher Lloyd calling them ‘grubby’.

Although I adore his books, I get the impression I’d be in line for the famous ‘Hollywood’ arched eyebrow from Ken if he was ever to spot my wilting pots.

So these are some of our gardening heroes but we’d love to hear who yours are ….

Louise is definitely this blog’s local hero and has profiled yet another gorgeous plant for us this week in her plant of the moment column.

NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chit-chat from the3growbags, just enter your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

10 replies on “How would our gardening heroes fare in Bake Off?”

Dear Friend and Gardener was a happy charity shop find, so far I’ve only browsed through it , I’m looking forward to reading more . I have found Good Planting by Rosemary Verey is a worthwhile book .

Ah yes, Rosemary Verey is a fabulous plantswoman and writer as well, isn’t she! Elaine here. I also have ‘The Scented Garden’ and ‘Garden Plans’ written by her, both books to get lost in. My favourite garden read of this year has been ‘Scent Magic’ by Isabel Bannerman – gorgeous sensual and passionate writing – another one to add to the list…. Thank you so much for writing in.

All of the above have been a constant source of inspiration during my decades of gardening, and I was fortunate enough to meet some of my biggest horticultural heroes on the list. I will say that a long time ago Geoff Hamilton was a brilliant host on’Gardeners’ World’, a man before his time with organic gardening and a concern for the environment. He also had a good rapport with his audience. Not mentioned is Alan Bloom, who was a great plantsman and gave us many good herbaceous perennials for our gardens. Also a lovely man. Then there’s Alan Titchmarsh …

Hi Jennie, yes – three wonderful gardeners who also had the gift of communicating their passion to others and putting gardening within reach for everyone. Nothing fancy or outrageously difficult just good solid, practical advice that provided the backbone of our horticultural endeavours. Totally agree that Geoff Hamilton was ahead of his time and did so much good for environmentalism as well as horticulture. Best wishes Laura

I love everything by Ken Thompson, who takes a scientific approach, for example highlighting scientific papers on gardening subjects, that would otherwise not see the light of day. His book on wildlife gardening No Nettles Required has been inspirational to me when creating my new garden from a paved-over eyesore. He is such a witty and amusing writer I just love to read his books. He has an occasional column in the Saturday Telegraph gardening pages, you may have seen them.

Oooh Barbara me too! I’m a huge fan of Ken Thompson and always read his column and in fact I have his book ‘The Sceptical Gardener – The thinking person’s guide to good gardening’ which is a collection of his Telegraph articles. Reading your comment made me immediately go and find it and already I am hooked all over again – learning about which tobacco plants will attract night flying moths and why.Love it! Thanks for reminding me and others what a mine of information he is. Good luck with your new garden – it sounds like you’re making it a much better space for both yourself and for wildlife. Best wishes Laura

My bible is ‘Perennial Plants’ by Graham Stuart Thomas’ and I wouldn’t be without all the Gardener’s Guides to Growing… Hardy Geraniums, Hellebores, Fritillaries..etc. published by Timber Press and David and Charles. All the Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd Books are essential for any library, I could go on, as I have shelves heaving with gardening books!

Oh yes, of course, Jennie! How could we forget Graham Stuart Thomas! Elaine here. I also have that hefty tome constantly to hand.You have to be a bit canny with all the plants that have now changed their species names, but I love the way his comments are so much more than the bare facts about each plant; eg.of Campanula alliariifolia “……..each plant can be a picture of poise and beauty”.You really feel that he has personal knowledge of each and every one. How could one ever have too many gardening books!

It was Alan Titchmarsh on Groundforce that was my biggest inspiration in my first garden in the 1990s. And I would spend hours and hours staring at all the plant photos in the RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers. And my late Father In Law, who was a neighbour back then and a Gardener all of his life taught me a thing or two about patience, gentleness and love. Sarah Raven’s beautiful wildflower book is one that I like to refer to again and again, and you can’t go wrong with the RHS Expert series of books. Currently my favourite gardener is Adam Frost. Much like my Father In Law in that he is a gentle, loving gardener. You can tell he has a tangible physical connection with his plot and you can feel the love he has for nature and for gardening as well as his animal friends. And the way he speaks about his family too. And for me, that’s what makes a great gardener….the love he or she has for it. And I find that the most inspiring thing by far. Also, his garden is my idea of heaven!

Thank you for writing in – more great choices! Elaine here.I totally agree with you about some gardeners making you feel that they are deeply connected to their gardens. There are thousands of publications and broadcasts out there, that give you the nuts and bolts – Horticulture By Numbers, if you like – but many, many fewer that give you the sense that the writer/speaker is emotionally involved with the plants and sheer ‘business’ of gardening in a sincere and personal way. We need both, of course – the encyclopaedias as well as the personal inspirational stories – and I can spend many happy hours with either! You’re right about Adam Frost’s patch – it’s fabulous, isn’t it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.