Forget Chelsea Flower Show’s cowpats and Monty Don’s perfect soil, The Beechgrove Garden is for real Scottish gardeners, says Bill Jamieson.
It’s rare – very rare – that I have anything warm to say about the BBC these days. I don’t know what’s gone wrong. Either it has lost touch with me, or I with it. But it does not speak to the world in which I grew up, or the values held over a lifetime.
But there is one glorious, inspiring, floriferous exception – one that to me serves as a model of how we could make life in Scotland better. And it starts in our gardens. So step forward Jim McColl, Carole Baxter, Chris Beardshaw and George Anderson – heroes of BBC Scotland’s weekly gardening mainstay, The Beechgrove Garden.
What? A gardening programme as a Scottish exemplar? Often filmed in the cold and wet of Aberdeenshire? With a couthy Jim McCall up to his arms in plant pots and top soil? Surely no match for Monty Don, that Jolly Green Giant of Gardeners World?
But there is scarcely a better or more inspiring example today of how to apply Scottish solutions to Scottish problems – ever instructive, always relevant and forever inspiring. In a world of verbal dross and the wayward vanities of the bien pensant, here is a beacon that should serve as a guide in many other areas of Scottish life.
What you will not find in The Beechgrove Garden is as good a guide to its virtues as to what’s on show. There’s none of the ridiculous over-the-top ‘Grand Designs’ of the Chelsea Flower Show – a surreal absurdity over which the BBC drooled for the best part of a week. It dribbled and burled over fantastical constructs far removed from domestic conditions: fabrications costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to assemble and far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
By contrast The Beechgrove Garden, hosted by the incomparable Jim McColl, is a real garden with real problems – and real weather conditions – showing us how to plant and nurture plants in Scottish conditions.
You are not left with a feeling of utter defeat because the camera has lingered over some multi-acre reconstruction of the gardens of Malmaison. This year’s award winners at Chelsea inflicted a similar sense of utter helplessness and futility.
The top award winner was a simulated Yorkshire garden complete with stone bothy and cheese-making facility within. Smoke drifted gently from its chimney. Giant earth movers were deployed to recreate a Yorkshire Dales Dingly Dell complete with babbling burn, and nearby, yes, I do not make this up, an authentic Yorkshire cowpat. Ridiculous or what? The area around the cowpat had been carefully lifted and the item borne to London with all the care attending the movement of a priceless artefact from the tomb of Tutankhamun. How the judges drooled. Had they gone truly mad? Next was another money-no-object exhibit: a South African cape winery complete with “authentic” Cape Dutch house and local plants borne thousands of miles from the Karroo to pretend they could be a natural addition to a UK garden. At least we were spared the defecations of roving impala and galloping wildebeest. A Huguenot winery, interspersed with Protea? Here in northern European conditions? Is there anyone in Scotland who didn’t double up laughing?
What next? Perhaps Chelsea could invite the Grand Designs housebuilding guru Kevin McCloud to submit a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe high-rise made of waving bamboo and exotic oriental grasses. There’s nothing here that half a million could not rustle up with the full embrace of the local planning authority, hearty endorsement of the historic buildings inspectorate, obliging approval from the fire safety regulator and a green vicar conferring the ultimate absurdity: the “Blessing of Sustainability”.
A similar cavalier approach to verisimilitude can mar an otherwise outstanding BBC Gardeners World programme – when it’s not knocked off the air for a snooker marathon. Here is Monty Don, advancing towards the camera with his perfect, shiny Farrow & Ball spade and perfect plant from the RHS. The glistening spade plunges into perfect, loamy, weed-free, stone-free compost – earth that must surely have been delivered just beforehand from Fortnum & Mason. Into this, Monty slides his glistening spade to plant a shrub. Easy! Perfect result in 30 seconds! As free of effort as his two drooping Labradors, adding that touch of languid authenticity.
Really? Now I have worked in many gardens. And, like millions of others, the reality is baked-hard ground riddled with stones and builders’ rubble, weed-packed and overgrown with ground elder. The bed requires a pick axe to break up – I have two of those for my garden in Lochearnhead, one already bent and the other blunted. Digging out the ground elder is an afternoon’s work alone and is invariably a failed mission as the plant pops up again within days.
Little of this is evident in those soft-focused cameos of Monty’s perfect gardens, more often than not filmed in the Cotswolds. Oh, no – not the Cotswolds again! Do BBC gardeners live anywhere else? Little wonder that the programme that sets me and thousands of Scottish gardeners alight is The Beechgrove Garden.
Beechgrove is and always has been, as its website declares, “a firmly practical, get-your-hands-dirty gardening programme which delights in success but also learns from failures in the garden and never takes itself too seriously”.
Thanks to its advice, and despite the long winter and wet conditions of Loch Earn, the garden has pulled through, with stunning lilac and apple blossom this year, and more than 60 roses now in bud.
We can make our Scottish gardens – and our Scottish towns and villages – so much more attractive with practical, positive, down-to-earth solutions that the programme regularly presents. Nurseries are well stocked with resilient plants that put on a great show in challenging Scottish conditions. Villages such as Comrie in Perthshire work hard at displays, hanging gardens and green seating areas that help attract locals and visitors alike.
It is not easy work. It requires effort and patience. But the results can uplift the spirit and show our localities to best effect. Step aside, the Scottish Growth Commission! The Beechgrove Garden, with a growth commission of its own, offers practical, real-world solutions to hand. Long may it bloom.