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Geoffrey Smith

Gardening broadcaster

Born: 23 March, 1928, in Swaledale, Yorkshire.

Died: 27 February, 2009, near Harrogate, aged 80.

"I JUST need to look at a primrose and that puts everything in perspective." Such remarks demonstrated Geoffrey Smith's love of gardening and the countryside. He was one of the most renowned gardeners in the UK – having been in charge of the adventurous planting at Harlow Carr near Harrogate – and then a celebrated broadcaster on several radio and television programmes. His 20-year stint on the panel of Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time made him a household name.

Underneath that gruff Yorkshire exterior was an expert horticultural mind with an ability to communicate to all gardening enthusiasts.

Harlow was undoubtedly his greatest achievement; Smith proved wrong some experts who considered it impossible to grow certain plants in its climate and soil. He delighted in showing how rare species could "flourish", as he wryly put it, "north of the River Trent".

His straightforward and no-nonsense remarks were sometimes viewed with scepticism and not for nothing was he sometimes called "the Geoffrey Boycott of gardening".

Geoffrey Denis Smith was born into a gardening family – his father was head gardener at Barningham Park, north Yorkshire – and after attending Barnard Castle School in County Durham, he spent a few years working with his father.

He was a prize pupil at Askham Bryan College of Agriculture and Horticulture in York, and later said: "I soaked up all I was taught at college. I was like a piece of blotting paper."

At the remarkably young age of 26, Smith was appointed superintendent at the botanical garden of Harlow Carr.

For two decades he supervised Harlow with an informed and enthusiastic spirit. He created new areas and was keen to involve members, locals and the public in his plans. The original 10.5 hectares was enlarged to 27.5 and Smith expanded the vegetable and kitchen gardens as well as planting rare shrubs.

Smith enjoyed chatting to the public about their gardening problems and encouraged the expansion of the educational centre.

Smith put, and maintained, Harlow at the forefront of gardening in the UK. It is now hoped Harlow will create an area of the garden as a permanent memorial to his work.

In the early 1970s the BBC asked him to appear in a television show with the gardening doyen of the age, Percy Thrower. Smith, appropriately, was working up a tree when the producer arrived to interview him. Smith literally fell down beside the producer and accepted immediately. He collaborated well with Thrower in Gardener's Club on BBC TV and in 1976 made his first solo series for the corporation, Mr Smith's Vegetable Garden.

It was in 1983 that Smith first appeared on Gardeners' Question Time, the Sunday afternoon programme that has been vital listening for gardeners for many years. Smith's relaxed and informative manner proved ideal for the programme's format.

The show toured the country, coming from a fresh location each week, and Smith would drive from Yorkshire, having carefully researched the prevailing soil and weather conditions of the area. He struck a delightfully formal appearance, always in a suit and tie, and on hot days asking the audience if he could remove his jacket.

He covered everything from orchids to cacti and was not above taking fellow panellists to task about some of their advice. "What a load of rubbish," he said after some rare species had been discussed at length. But that brusque, plain-speaking style of a real countryman who knew his gardening endeared him to listeners and Smith became the longest-serving panellist on the programme.

He wrote more than a dozen best-selling books and numerous articles in magazines. Typical of the man, he sent his copy in hand-written on lined paper, never using a typewriter, let alone a computer.

In 1995 Gardeners' Question Time visited the Palace of Westminster and Smith railed against the humble poinsettia ("vulgar and garish"). After the recording there was a reception in Speaker's House given by the then speaker Betty Boothroyd, where Smith found poinsettias everywhere.

He last appeared on Gardeners' Question Time in 2003 and remained as committed and energetic as ever.

In 1972 Smith was made an associate of honour of the Royal Horticultural Society and in 1988 he received an honorary master's degree from the Open University. In 2006, at the age of 78, Smith received the Garden Writers' Guild award for lifetime achievement.

Smith walked and photographed his beloved Dales all his life. He was a keen angler and a proud and devoted Yorkshireman. "I don't need paradise," Smith once said. "The Yorkshire Dales will do for me."

He married Marjorie Etherington in 1953. She survives him, as do their son and daughter.

 
 
 

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