How did you get into gardening, Toby?
My mother’s side of the family are uber-keen gardeners, so I’ve been in a garden for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are sowing seeds with my grandfather in his shed. Clearly the indoctrination from an early age worked because I went on to do a degree in horticulture followed by a PhD in garden history.
Have you noticed a surge in interest in gardening recently?
Absolutely. I think the succession of lockdowns has made those of us who have gardens refocus on just how important a part of our lives they are. While those who maybe didn’t do so much in their garden have discovered what an amazing resource they have just outside or on a balcony.
What do you think gardening can do for us?
I’ve always thought being in a garden and the physical activity of gardening, reconnecting with the soil, is so good for our wellbeing, both psychologically and physically – well, apart from the achy back. That’s even more the case right now. A garden brings pleasure as a calm place. It’s a retreat from the craziness of daily life, a place to decompress and revitalise – my mind certainly goes into a tranquil zone when I’m gardening. A garden is also a place where we can express our individual creativity, and that’s always fun.
What are the current trends in gardening?
Driven I think by the lockdowns and also prior concerns about the provenance of our food, there’s been a welcome boom in home-growing fruit and veg. The drive to garden for wildlife is really encouraging too.
If you want to improve or revamp your garden, what do you need to consider?
If you are making or revamping beds, the nutrient status and quality of the soil is key. Remove all the perennial weeds (dandelions, cooch grass, ground elder, thistles, bindweed etc) and all of their roots. You’ll also need to consider drainage, especially if your garden is on clay – it may be necessary to dig in some sand or grit. And plan ahead: if you think you might want to put lights or a water feature that requires a pump, install the electricity cables during the build rather than later, and be sure to follow all necessary regulations.
Would you recommend calling in a pro for bigger projects?
Unless you possess all the skills and tools, it’s a good idea to have a professional do the hard landscaping like paving, walls, fences, pools and rockeries. If you take this route, don’t panic if your garden-to-be looks like a battlefield for a while. Ground preparation is 90% of the work and makes a mess, but then it all comes together quickly at the end. To find a reputable contractor, the British Association of Landscape Industries has an accredited scheme.
What good sources of gardening inspiration are out there?
You mean apart from my excellent new book? Blatant plug aside, there are so many other great sources. Some of my favourite magazines are Gardens Illustrated, The English Garden and an American one, Garden Design. There are heaps of websites too, but Pinterest is a great source of visual ideas. With all of these, the first rule is to not be intimidated by the picture-perfect gardens featured. Use them as a source of ideas. When I’m designing a garden, I always tell my clients to spend some time thinking about what they want the garden to achieve for them, and to make a wishlist and a scrapbook of ideas they like. Then you can start prioritising.