Alan Titchmarsh: ‘I suppose I should be going stir-crazy in self-isolation. The reality has been rather different’

Gardener, writer and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh has been going to the Chelsea Flower Show for half a century, and should have been there again this month. Instead, he's in lockdown — and it's reminded him why he took to a career in gardening in the first place.

Since my first visit in 1969, Chelsea Flower Show has been a regular fixture in my diary — first as a student of horticulture, wide-eyed at the standard of cultivation and the variety of plants and gardens, and subsequently as a journalist and broadcaster. I’ve made three Chelsea Gardens and still glance every day at my Gold Medal, which hangs on the oak beam that supports my writing space in our barn.

For 30 years, I presented the BBC’s TV coverage of the show — staying in London from the Saturday before the opening and broadcasting from the grounds of the Royal Hospital, arriving as early as 5.30am when the air in the Floral Pavilion was a rich confection of crushed grass, strawberries, lilies, roses… everything, it seemed, that ever grew.

“I have found, if not inner peace, then a kind of contentment I had somehow mislaid”

This year, the scents that assail my nostrils will be from my own garden where, at time of writing, I have been self-isolating for the best part of a month. I suppose I should be going stir-crazy. The reality has been rather different. I have found, if not inner peace, then a kind of contentment I had somehow mislaid.

My wife and I preside over four acres in Hampshire, and about half an acre on the Isle of Wight. We have not seen the island garden since mid March, but can rely on an able local firm to carry out vital maintenance so that the lawns are cut, the pruning carried out and weeds kept down. I miss the sea view, but, as lockdowns go, ours has been privileged. My life as a broadcaster means that, normally, I am often away from home for at least a couple of days a week. On those when I am in residence, most mornings will be spent writing. I work between 8am and 1pm and then consider that I have earned my afternoon in the garden.

The Covid-19 pandemic means that, having reached the magical three-score-years-and-10, I am automatically categorised as ‘vulnerable’. Self-isolation was recommended. The two staff who help me in the garden were put on furlough, filming stopped and I found myself the sole gardener in charge of four acres, including umpteen flower borders, several lawns, a wildlife pond and wildflower meadow, a greenhouse and… well, the list goes on. I now have them all to myself.

“When treasures arrive by post (left at the bottom of the drive), my eyes light up”

From day one of the lockdown, all garden centres were closed. I count this as a huge mistake on the part of the Government. Precautionary, yes, but with little thought to the disastrous effect this will have on the horticultural industry, whose main income is generated between the months of March and May. Social distancing in a garden centre is easier to ensure than in a supermarket. And, when householders are asked to remain at home, the garden takes on an even more important role in  providing exercise and maintaining both mental and physical health.

Since March 23, I have mown and weeded, forked, planted, fed and potted and pricked out and generally reminded myself why I decided on a career as a  gardener in the first place. I have continued to patronise the specialist nurseries that sell by mail order and sympathise with them at their struggle to keep pace with packing and dispatch.

The RHS wisely listed on its website all those growers that had planned to exhibit at Malvern, Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (the latter postponed until September), with the result that gardeners could contact them and order plants that would otherwise have no homes to go to. When treasures arrive by post (left at the bottom of the drive), my eyes light up.

Perhaps this strange spring will awaken in us all a greater appreciation of our gardens and of those who grow the plants we take for granted when they are readily available down the road. I hope we don’t forget the dedication of nurserymen and growers in a year that will doubtless see many of them go to the wall.

We owe it to those who manage to make it through this year’s struggle to patronise them more than ever and recognise the fact that gardens have a vital role to play in the health of the nation. It may be impossible to quantify in box-ticking terms, but my life as a full-time gardener during the past weeks has reassured me of its beneficial properties.