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Gardeners' World at 40

Hannah Stephenson traces the history of the BBC's popular TV series.

It started as a seed of an idea when colour TV was just coming in. But Gardeners' World celebrated its 40th year with an hour-long special on BBC Two which reflected how trends have changed over the years, from the formal bedding of the 1960s and 1970s to the present wave of naturalistic planting and wildlife-friendly spaces.

The first programme was filmed using guest gardens, with Percy Thrower, and broadcast on January 5, 1968. The following year he began using his own garden, Magnolias, in Shrewsbury, for the series.

The style of gardens and a variety of trends have come and gone during those decades.

"In the 60s people had perfectly-manicured lawns, rock gardens and formal beds. Now we've gone for more naturalistic planting," said series producer Rosemary Edwards.

Thrower was already an established name and presented The Gardening Club, the first gardening series ever produced by the BBC, which made him a celebrity. It was studio-based, and the BBC decided to expand on that.

"It coincided with the fact that colour was introduced, and that gardening would be a good medium in colour and would lend itself to being based outside," said Edwards.

Magnolias became the first of five of the show's anchor gardens. Thrower and his wife Connie lived there all the time while filming was going on.

He had gone from being a parks superintendent, so organised bedding schemes were prominent and fruit and veg were non-existent.

In 1976 Thrower broke the BBC 'no advertising' policy and was fired for endorsing fertilisers on TV. His co-presenter Arthur Billitt took the helm at his own home, Clack's Farm, in Worcestershire. Large beds with straight rows of vegetables represented Billitt's practical style, as he

transformed the 2.5-acre garden into an allotment and national showpiece.

Geoff Hamilton was already tending a plot (now known as 'The Original Barnsdale') when he joined the Gardeners' World team in 1979. But more space was needed in 1984 he moved a mile up the road to Barnsdale in Rutland, a Victorian farmhouse with more than five acres of land, most of it pastures.

"The big change was when Geoff Hamilton took over," Edwards said. "Until then Percy, Arthur and others were very much teachers who instructed and told you how to do it. The tone was very much 'This is what you need to do'.

"Geoff became far more the man next door. The way he showed people how to garden was very much by trial and error. He had a lot of experience and he would share information but didn't dictate to the viewers.

"He was the first person on Gardeners' World to begin to garden organically. In the first programmes he was spraying away but then he became more concerned about the environment and was the first person to carry out an experiment not to spray and whether it was still possible to grow beautiful roses."

Ornamental grasses planted among a rich colour palette of perennials truly reflects Alan Titchmarsh's trend-setting style at Barleywood, again his own home.

When he started to do Ground Force for BBC One, it attracted an audience who weren't passionate gardeners, people who bought plants from garden centres but didn't grow them from seed.

"There were people who watched Ground Force who would then tune into Gardeners' World because they wanted to know how to maintain the garden," says Edwards.

Today, filming is done at Berryfields in the Midlands, a two-acre private garden with a range of borders, shrubs and trees as well as two ponds and a large vegetable patch.

And Gardeners' World of the future?

"The main thrust is how our gardens are going to be affected by the ravages of climate change," says Edwards.

"At Berryfields wildlife and the environment are all important, looking at how we are going to have to adapt in the future. There will be more about how to garden faced with increased drought and flood possibilities."

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YEARS AND TRENDS

1968-76: Percy Thrower: Organised bedding schemes were his forte.

1976-79: Arthur Billitt: Large vegetables beds represented Arthur's practical style.

1979-1996: Geoff Hamilton: First presenter to begin to garden organically. Shared trial and error methods with viewers.

1996-2002: Alan Titchmarsh: Showed the worth of ornamental grasses and a rich colour palette of perennials.

2003-present: Monty Don: Has brought informal planting and relaxed style to long borders to the fore.

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PRESENTERS ON PRESENTERS

MONTY DON: On Barnsdale: "If you look at a plan of Barnsdale it looks all wrong. No garden designer would ever have designed that. But when you go there it feels right. And I think that's because it's all about Geoff Hamilton. The man absolutely enthuses the place and actually all great gardens, all good gardens, come down to individuals."

"Geoff Hamilton was my first recollection of Gardeners' World. Geoff was an inspirational figure for me. I liked the way he was organic, the fact he took issue over the limestone pavements and peat debate.

"As a public figure I think he was very brave. Everything you do is scrutinised and so to stand up and say something like he did was very brave.

"I think he saw organics as a personal journey and he was evangelical about it... and for quite a long time, he'd give you both options."

ALAN TITCHMARSH: "Percy was the first identifiable icon and it is impossible to say, to convey, how big he was."

(On taking over from Geoff Hamilton and not being popular): "I remember the letter that came in - one vividly because it began: 'Dear Mr Titchmarsh, when you took over from Geoff Hamilton my heart sank ... I've been watching you these past few months ... you'll do.' The nicest thing anybody's ever written to me."

RACHEL DE THAME (on being too glamorous to present): "You shove your hair any old how. It's usually raining. I've got three layers of thermal underwear and a hideous big jacket. If that's glamour, great!"

CHRIS BEARDSHAW (on working in Titchmarsh's garden): "We did tend to ask permission if we could do things and so we always said, 'Look, I'm going to put this in there, is that all right?' He always said, 'Yes, of course, that's fine,' and you knew if he really meant it because if you went back 10 minutes later, if it was still there he wanted it."

"My favourite presenter is Roy Lancaster. He has the ability to absolutely captivate whoever he is talking to on whatever subject he is talking about. And, of course, Alan is unsurpassed in his pure presentation skills."

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BEST OF THE BUNCH - Hydrangea

These flowering shrubs have long been garden favourites, their great flowerheads in shades of blues, pinks and whites brightening the border in late summer and autumn. Most are derived from H. macrophylla, the most popular being the mopheads, which have large balls of blooms, while lacecaps have flat flowerheads which are more subtle but for me, less rewarding.

Mature bushes can reach more than 1.5m (5ft) high and wide, so choose carefully. If you want blue flowers they need acid conditions, but if you have alkaline soil you can buy blueing powder from garden centres. Hydrangeas like moist, well-drained, fertile soil in sun or partial shade. When pruning, cut out misplaced or crossing shoots in spring. Remove dead flowerheads in March, not autumn. Good varieties include 'Blue Bonnet' and 'Lanarth White'.

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GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT - Lemongrass

The stalks of this tropical grass are a staple in Thai curries and other Far Eastern dishes as the roots and stems contain an aromatic oil producing a distinctive citrus flavour. In a good summer it can be grown outdoors, but this tender perennial will need bringing in in the winter. Otherwise, just grow it from seed each year and use it as an annual.

Seeds should be sown in pots under cover or indoors. Plants need a minimum temperature of 13C (55F) and a humid atmosphere to grow well.

Full-grown plants can reach 1.5m (5ft) if left, but to harvest you just need to cut the stalks above soil level and trim off the leaves.

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THREE WAYS TO... Stay safe when hedge-trimming

1. Make sure electric cable is secured over your shoulder and well out of the way of blades when using powered hedge-trimmers.

2. Plug any garden power tool into an RCD so the current switches off immediately in case of accidents.

3. When trimming tall hedges, place two pairs of stepladders securely on level ground with a plank between them and make sure it's stable before starting. Get someone to hold the ladders stable.

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WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK

:: Pot up clumps of parsley, cutting off their leaves to encourage fresh growth for winter use.

:: Blanch and freeze French and runner beans to have a supply throughout winter.

:: Trim lavender after the flowers have faded.

:: Plant new strawberry plants and keep them well watered.

:: Prune rambling roses after flowering.

:: Mow less frequently if the weather is hot and dry.

:: Keep celery watered and earth up trench varieties to blanch their stems.

:: Peg down non-flowering shoots of carnations into the soil to root, water regularly and cut off the plant separately when well rooted, to increase your stock.

:: Finish summer pruning apple trees.

:: Divide perennials.

:: Keep aphids in check by squashing by hand.

 
 
 

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