Bill Jamieson: Gardeners’ World can’t follow Bake Off recipe

A garden is a lovesome thing God wot, and not to be sexed-up a la Great British Bake Off  by BBC panjandrums. Picture: Richard Hanmer/BBC
A garden is a lovesome thing God wot, and not to be sexed-up a la Great British Bake Off by BBC panjandrums. Picture: Richard Hanmer/BBC
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Plans to make Gardeners’ World follow the Bake Off recipe are flawed, says Bill Jamieson

If you heard the sound of a trowel being tossed into the garden shredder, you heard right. The BBC’s anchor Gardeners’ World programme is about to be given The Great British Bake Off treatment. The show is to be revamped with the producer of last year’s Bake Off brought in to reshape the programme for a younger audience. Seven new presenters will be brought in to give the show a broader appeal.

Good luck with that. The Great British Bake Off sweeps all before it. Its audience has nudged 15 million against just over two million for Gardeners’ World. But it is a profound delusion to think that great gardening can be conjured up like a slice of Mary Berry drizzle cake. In fact, I can’t imagine anything more misguided or dangerous.

A trivial matter? Big issues are involved here. There are some 2,300 garden centres and retail nurseries. Seasoned gardeners feel they’ve been to most of them. The UK garden market is worth around £5 billion. At a crowded Dobbies in Stirling last Saturday, like so many, I went in to buy one thing and came out with five.

There are dangers here in putting Monty Don in Speedos. One is to treat the UK’s favourite hobby – and indeed most human phenomena – as if everything can be solved by instant make-over.

There’s Alan Titchmarch and his instant garden transformations in Love Your Garden. There’s interior make-over programmes that send us scurrying to B&Q to embark on our own immediate uplift. Home improvement? Or botched catastrophe?

Then there’s the architects’ fantasy hour: Grand Designs, where planning rules magically disappear and houses rise like giant airport departure lounges – and at a cost well above the already stupefying numbers quoted.

It’s all make-believe. It’s forever fantasy. These programmes do not sate our yearnings. Rather, they leave us deeply dissatisfied with our lot and with wholly unrealistic expectations of what we can instantly do.

There is a second confusion: this is to treat the pleasure of gardening as akin to that of baking a cake and amenable to the same televisual dramatisation. It’s not just that great garden results cannot be conjured up in the same time frame as a TV competition cake, even allowing for all the subtle editing and camera work to skip the boring bits.

The pleasure of gardening is different in character. It requires a mindset and an acceptance of setback that would exhaust the most dedicated cake-maker. Above all it requires patience and a time scale that extends, not over a frantic hour but over years.

The very worst for an archetypal gardener to count on is instant results. Monty Don can sometimes fall into this trap as he advances down the path towards the camera with eager expression and spotless earth-free Farrow & Ball spade. With this pristine implement he digs a perfect hole in perfect stone-free dark crumbly compost with the perfect texture of a Paul Hollywood chocolate cake.

In 40 years of gardening I have rarely encountered soil like this. The reality for most of us is that we have to hew our way through builders’ rubble, stone-ridden detritus, matted waste and stubborn weed roots. The tool of choice for planting in these conditions? I use a pick axe. Televisual? Not a grimy, sweaty bit of it.

And let’s set well aside for most gardeners the Titchmarch Love Your Garden treatment with the magical arrival of overnight decking, the fork lift delivery of mature trees starting at £200 a pop, the huge water feature with sunken concrete base, leak-proof lining and gargling electronic fountain activated by buried electrical cables – all these hauled in by a team of expert carpenters, electricians and beefy site boffins for whom carting around cement slabs and giant earthenware pots full of top soil seems to present no logistical problem. You’ll see lighter injuries in the local A&E casualty unit.

Set against all this frenzy is the incomparable Jim McColl of BBC Scotland’s Beechgrove Garden. There is the immediate realism of being filmed in all Scottish weathers and wrestling with the day-to-day problems that a garden presents. There is barely a programme in which he and Carole Baxter have not conveyed clear, practical, literally down-to-earth advice. It is gardeners’ gold.

It’s all well and good to seek to attract a younger audience. But for some time the trend has been for young people to prefer minimal gardens. Often neither partner has the time nor the inclination for much more than a play area for children and a couple of white plastic chairs. There’s also the second car to be parked, so countless front gardens have disappeared under concrete.

In any event, this is a slow reward business and the best gardening programme gets down into simple detail that – in time – will yield far more satisfaction than instant scatological change. Much of the gardener’s deep satisfaction derives from becoming slowly wise. The reward is in the discovery process of what works and what doesn’t.

And there are few greater pleasures than that derived from watching an ailing plant slowly recover from near death to floriferous resurrection. My greatest gardening reward has been in seeing a sick, problem-ridden rose return to born-again splendour. That it doesn’t always happen only makes the pleasure of recovery and recuperation all the greater.

No souped-up TV programme can span the disappointments as much as the joys that are a natural, inevitable – and necessary – part of growing slowly wise in gardening.

Ratings hungry programme makers may moan that programmes of small detail have only minority appeal, a limited demographic in need of sexed-up treatment. But consider a TV programme this week that must have sent a shiver down the spines of the make-over mob and the modernisers. A BBC Four “slow television” documentary featured nothing more than two hours of footage captured from the front of a bus travelling through the Yorkshire Dales. There was no plot, no background music, no talking heads, no sonorous commentary – only the deeply calming pleasure of unfolding scenery.

What hypnotic visual and psychological therapy! Modernisers would be appalled. But it attracted an audience of 800,000 viewers – more than watched a Channel 5 documentary about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in the same time slot, while the Film4 blockbuster The Bourne Legacy attracted less than half the audience of the bus journey. “Slow gardening” – like that magical slow bus journey – might not be the ratings flop that terrifies the TV panjandrums.

Millions love gardening for its quiet recuperative pleasures. We love it, not despite the time it takes to learn but because of it. So beware a world-view that treats all pleasure – indeed all experience – as fit for the Bake Off approach.

There is more to the pleasures of gardening than Paul Hollywood’s honey-soaked sponge scattered with Smarties or Mary Berry’s silver-plated cake trowel. Gardeners’ World is not to be turned into a frantic, frenetic Bake Off – it’s a cake that just won’t rise.