Down to earth evergreens

It has seen 12 presenters, the rise and fall of decking, successes and failures, and some very cold weather. Like gardeners in general, it has taken what’s been thrown at it with a smile. This year, the institution that is The Beechgrove Garden is 25 years old.

Millions of gardeners have honed their skills with the help of the weekly television programme. With down-to-earth advice – and no pretensions to the glossy brand of TV gardening that hides its mistakes – the programme has remained a leader in tackling horticultural trends.

Faces from the Aberdeen garden’s past and present will come together to recall their experiences in an anniversary programme next weekend. Taking pride of place will be Jim McColl, one of the original presenters and still one of the current four gardeners. The others are Carole Baxter, Carolyn Spray and Lesley Watson. George Barron, now 89, who was the other original presenter, will also be appearing.

Made by Tern Television for the BBC, The Beechgrove Garden has been produced by Gwyneth Hardy for the past seven years. She says making the television special brought home to her the pleasure of working with the gardening industry: “The anniversary programme was a great privilege to record. It crystallised for me how pleasant and generous gardeners are.”

Many of the landmarks of modern gardening in Britain, which saw the industry depart towards makeover-led design, began at the Beechgrove. It gave us the Hit Squad, where the gardeners would arrive on doorsteps to target eyesores. Where the Hit Squad led, Ground Force followed.

The original garden, named after the BBC’s studio location in Beechgrove Terrace, Aberdeen, was a famously small patch. Eventually, it just ran out of room and moved to a 2.5-acre site near Westhill, a few miles west of the city, but the programme retains the Beechgrove name.

“The previous site was supposed to be a quarter of an acre, but I don’t know if it was even that,” says Hardy.

It was open to the public, but the programme makers had to brace themselves for the damage that could be done by the most innocent-looking visitors. “A lot of members of the older population used to come, usually ladies with umbrellas and bags, and the garden would be denuded and decimated by the time they had gone round. They used to take cuttings away in their umbrellas and we would reel from the effect of that – it would take some time for the garden to recover.”

The Beechgrove Garden came about as an antidote to gardening programmes based south of the Border, where advice given would be weeks ahead of what gardeners in Scotland could expect to do, the seasons being a good two weeks behind.

There is still a need for tailored Scottish advice. Even now, when southern gardening programmes say it’s time to split irises, in Scotland they are probably not yet even in flower. Back in the 1970s, Scottish gardeners would see English programmes and think “this isn’t right”, says Hardy. “What the BBC were looking for was a Scottish programme for Scottish conditions. It was also based on the type of garden that people could see themselves having, and the makers thought, ‘let’s not have a fancy garden, let’s have an ordinary suburban garden with all the problems that you would have’. The aim was to be practical, but for Scottish conditions.”

Which is not to say that Scottish gardeners are a dour lot sitting counting seeds in a dark shed, incapable of imagination and fun. As well as catering for the Scottish gardener, The Beechgrove Garden is never shy to show mistakes and poke fun at itself, and Hardy adds: “If we can grow something in the conditions of Aberdeen, then most people can take heart.”

With strands such as the Hit Squad, the show also pioneered gardening on-location, something else which has been taken up by other programmes. “We have to be careful to reflect diversity of climates,” says Hardy. Last year they tackled a garden in Durness Point in Sutherland – one of more than 100 community projects undertaken – which had some of the most inhospitable weather in the country. “The conditions were horrendous, but we still managed to create a garden.”

She adds: “We are still ahead of the game in trying to anticipate trends. We thought four or five years ago that makeover was dying. By 2000 we’d decided it was dead and it was time to go back to basics. Lo and behold, all the garden programmes are following suit. There no new ideas on this earth, but we try to take notice of what viewers want.”

It’s not a bald statement: Alan Titchmarsh, Britain’s self-styled head gardener, saw the way the wind was blowing and turned his back on Ground Force two years ago, and more recently on Gardeners’ World. And crucially, he’s going back to basics on How to be a Gardener. Remember where you saw it first.

A Very Scottish Garden: 25 Years of the Beechgrove Garden, BBC 1, 30 March, at 5pm. The new series of The Beechgrove Garden is on 3 April at 8:30pm on BBC 2.

Hardy growth medium

JIM McColl is something of a perennial in The Beechgrove Garden. He was there at the start and, after a five-year break, returned almost a decade ago.

Recalling how he become involved, he says: "In the 1970s I was doing a bit of radio broadcasting when one of the BBC Scotland chiefs stuck his head round the door and said, ‘when you have a minute, we have a new idea for a gardening programme’."

He teamed up with George Barron: "They made it clear from the start that it was to be a twosome. We had something like 60 years’ experience between us. We got on like a house on fire."

It was a partnership that endeared them to the nation. Over the years the programme evolved as the pace of television quickened, and McColl, now 67, left when Barron retired.

But he was asked to return in 1994, a decision he thought about long and hard. "All-rounders with lengthy experience are hard to find," he concluded.

But experience has often had to battle with style in the growing taste for quick, snappy television. "We live in an age of soundbites," he adds.

"You do have a constant battle with style and fashion, the older people get puzzled by the quick changes. And the longer makeovers go on, you either have to have them bigger or more bizarre and it moves away from the reality of people looking out of the window at their plot and thinking, ‘what can I do here?’ "

Which is why he believes The Beechgrove Garden is delivering the right thing. "Makeovers give the impression that gardening is an instant thing, but it’s a process. What gets up my nose slightly is you see plants from nurseries in the south coast ending up here. We are on the fringe for many things. Take hebes, for example, people wonder why they die, and the gardeners blame themselves. But hebes are on the edge of their territory here."

To this end, he is involved in the Scotland’s Garden Trust project at Perth, a planned 45-acre site which it is hoped will be a hub for horticulture north of the Border, as well as having plant trials and public gardens.

The latest figures, released last week, show gardening is now worth 5 billion as an industry - a huge leap from about 3.6bn last year.

That’s a lot of money down the drain if your plant dies, says McColl. After notching up decades in and out of the Beechgrove Garden, that’s a lot of experience talking.