PUBLISHED: 12:29 25 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:27 20 February 2013
The One Show's Christine Walkden is one of the country's favourite gardening experts. Pat Parker talks to her about her new book, her passion for plants and her support for a local cancer charity...
CHRISTINE Walkden is something of a TV rarity a down-to-earth Lancashire lass in her 50s who has never been near Botox and has done nothing to polish her image for the small screen.
But Christine knows her onions and any other plant you care to mention. Her horticultural knowledge combined with her obvious passion for gardening are what have made her a TV and radio favourite, and she is The One Shows resident gardening expert. Shes had regular slots on the Paul OGrady Show, is a regular Gardeners Question Time panellist, reports on the Chelsea Flower Show, and has even appeared on Shooting Stars. And she has just published a new book, No-Nonsense Vegetable Gardening, which she hopes will enthuse even the least green-fingered gardener.
Unmarried, she lives with her Labrador puppy and 10,000 gardening books, in an ordinary, ex-council semi-detached in Sawbridgeworth the Hertfordshire town she moved to in 1989. Its a lovely spot for walks, and everyones friendly. They all know me here!
Her small garden is, she cheerfully admits, nothing special. But it is known to millions of TV viewers from the two series of Christines Garden which ran on BBC2 a few years ago.
The series showed Christine tending her garden, giving horticultural talks around the country and chatting with her neighbour Reg, who sadly died last year. Christines infectious enthusiasm for her garden and her close relationship with Reg won viewers hearts. Christines Garden seemed to get under peoples skins, says Christine, as we sip coffee in her living room. There was something magical about it. Even now, wherever I go, people ask me about the programme, and about Reg. He was the real star.
Reg lived with his wife Pat next-door-but-one to Christine, and looked after her garden while she away. Christine misses him greatly. He had so little, but gave so much, she says fondly. He was a magnificently warm, kind-hearted, generous man. He was my soulmate.
Christine is talking to me to help publicise the Helen Rollason Cancer Charitys Bloomin Spring campaign. For 10, donators receive 25 bulbs to plant in memory of their loved ones. Last November, Christine helped plant 28,000 daffodil and hyacinth bulbs in Central Park, Chelmsford, and more will be planted this year.
Christine was keen to support the charity, which has a support centre in Sawbridgeworth, after she had a cancer scare herself in 2009. When youve been affected by something like cancer, you feel you want to do what you can to help.
We take a walk through Christines attractive garden, past the bird feeders, the budding bulbs and herbaceous borders, to the vegetable garden at the top. My garden is a bit rambly, a bit of a zoo, laughs Christine. A garden designer would have 50,000 fits! Ive known professional gardeners whove come here and thought it was a dump.
There are probably umpteen better gardens down my street, but it doesnt bother me Im not competitive or pretentious. I dont want a showcase garden. Its the relationship I have with my garden that matters.
She believes there is an almost spiritual relationship between garden and gardener. I remember one man stopping me in Brentwood. He said, Youve made me realise why Ive been crying for four years. He said that since his wife died, the garden had no life, no meaning for him any more. Often when a person dies whos been intimate to the garden, the soul goes from it, and its never the same again.
Christine was born in 1957, in a back-to-back terraced house in Rishton, near Blackburn, with a paved backyard. Her parents, who ran a sports outfitters shop, had no interest in gardening. But she can remember planting crocus bulbs at primary school, and feeling miffed when she wasnt asked to look after them.
Once, as the school closed for the Blackburn Wakes Week annual holiday, Christine volunteered to look after the pot plants. I brought them home and my dad said, What the hell have you got there? We were going away, so I left them in a bath of water in a dark shed, fully expecting them to be dead when I got back. But they were in full bloom! And I was intensely curious to discover why they had grown.
She started growing cress and carrot tops on her bedroom windowsill, and progressed to filling the backyard with containers.
Next, she started to look after her neighbours tiny front gardens. By 11, I was caring for 53 of them, and being paid for it.
One day, she caught sight of a green oasis two streets away. It looked fantastic, with trees and shrubs. To me, it was like Alices Wonderland.
The Wonderland turned out to be an allotment, and Christine nagged her parents until she was able to take over a disused one nearby, filling it with flowers and vegetables which she sold to neighbours and teachers.
From the age of 11, Christine knew she wanted to be a horticulturalist.
I was incredibly focused. She was pretty hopeless at school, but at 13, persuaded her headmaster to let her do a day-release horticultural course at her local college, even though her fellow students were 18-year-olds with jobs. She left her secondary modern with a City and Guilds in horticulture, but no CSEs.
Yet her family gave her no encouragement. Her father had expected her to join the family business. Ive had a fantastic career, but my family took no interest in it whatsoever, she says, sadly. I always say I gained a career, but lost a family.
It was only on his deathbed two years ago that her father finally said he was proud of her.
After gaining further qualifications, Christine left home at 19 to pursue a career which took her to Kew, a seed company in North Wales and the Rhondda Valley, where she set up a training workshop for young offenders.
In 1989, she moved to Sawbridgeworth when she started to study for her Masters at Writtle Agriculture College in nearby Essex. She went on to lecture at Capel Manor in Enfield, before joining the Baby Bio company in Waltham Cross. The job allowed her to buy the ex-council house she has lived in ever since.
After work, Christine continued to lecture, evenings and weekends. It was killing me.
Finally, she took the plunge and became a freelance horticulturalist, writing, lecturing and leading escorted tours abroad. Her growing reputation as a natural communicator meant she was offered gardening slots on local radio and LBC. Soon, TV took an interest. After a couple of ITV series, she started presenting on Gardeners World. It didnt really work, though. They put me in make-up. It wasnt me.
For 20 years, Christine has lectured at Writtle College as an RHS tutor and last year she was proud to have received an honorary degree from Essex University, presented by Alan Titchmarsh.
It was a former Writtle student who suggested to a BBC commissioning editor that Christine could be TV gold. A producer came to talk to her and a series was planned, although no one seemed sure quite what it would be about. Right up until filming, Id assumed Id be presenting a gardening programme, says Christine, but then I found them filming my photos, and I realised the programme was actually about me. And that was a very big shock. I wasnt happy at all. It turned out that they hadnt commissioned an actual programme, theyd just commissioned me. So Christines Garden just evolved. They recorded my life, no more, no less me pottering about in my garden, chatting to neighbours they followed me wherever I went for a year.
The series beautifully captured Christines natural ebullience as well as her vulnerabilities, her passion for her garden and the warmth of her relationship with Reg. But she was so worried about how it would be received, she left the country before it was screened.
I couldnt stand it I went off to India. I was very worried, because this wasnt professional Christine, this was just Christine. I thought Id get lambasted for dumbing down. It was just my little garden and my life, and I didnt think anybody could learn from that.
But Christines Garden became a huge success. I came back expecting totally negative reviews, and the reception was fantastic, she says. I was machine-gunned with compliments! And I really struggled with that. I spent two months crying. It touched peoples lives in a way I never expected. Its been a very odd journey, and one thats continued, as the warmth and love from people are still there.
Since then, shes become one of the nations favourite gardening presenters, charming Paul OGrady (Theres chemistry there...) and has a regular slot on The One Show. She loves the fact it is live, and that she gets to involve studio guests in her demonstrations. Most including Helen Mirren, David Frost and Alan Whicker are happy to muck in.
Her One-Show appearances are fun, but sometimes a little frustrating, as her time can be cut short. One night, I was only on for 45 seconds, and I was seething. I thought, What a waste of a journey! But that weekend, five people told me theyd tried what Id shown them. Thats the power of TV. Peter Seabrook always says to me, Dont knock it. Youre talking to a larger audience than any other TV gardener. So hey, arent I privileged to be on BBC1 prime time talking about gardening!
TV takes up only a small part of Christines time. Shes just written a new book, No Nonsense Vegetable Gardening, which gives plain, simple advice on how to grow vegetables. Even if youve never grown a seedling in your life, youll understand this, says Christine. Theres no technical jargon, and it will take you on a journey. Even those without a garden can start to grow vegetables Christine explains how a window sill and an old plastic milk bottle can suffice. The excitement of planting a seed, watching it grow and finally harvesting and eating it is, she says, one of lifes greatest pleasures.
Christine can travel 3,000 miles a week taking part in talks, lectures and theatre tours, and has led horticultural tours all over the world, from the Himalayas to Iraq. This November, she will explore Chile. She would love to walk across Turkey, going out in March and returning in September, having seen the flora come and go.
There is always something new to discover. Travel teaches you how little you know, she reflects. Im supposed to be quite knowledgeable, but you see another countrys flora and you realise how much more there is to learn. The one thing I know is I wish I knew as much as I dont know. One life is never enough!
The Helen Rollason Cancer Charity, the legacy of the BBC sports presenter who died of cancer in 1999, funds cancer research and supports cancer patients in the community. Anyone wishing to donate to the Bloomin Spring campaign in memory of a loved one should call 01245 514325 or visit http://www.helenrollason.org.uk/ to download a registration form.
Christines new book, No-Nonsense Vegetable Gardening, How to Grow Vegetables in Small Gardens, is published on March 31 by Simon and Schuster, price 16.99. ISBN 9781847378644.