Britons spend pounds 2bn a year on their gardens. Next week the faithfu l will make their pilgrimage to the Chelsea Flower Show, but for those who cannot attend there is row upon row of willing experts to advise - and entice them to spend even more. By Louise Levene
The tulips are quivering, the slugs slide happily across the hostas and the fuzzy dust of mildew settles softly on the lupins: the gardening season is upon us.

Gardening is big business. This weekend the land will resound with the buzz of mowers and the ring of cash registers. Roughly 15 million of us will be up to our elbows in well-rotted manure and we will have spent a couple of billion pounds before the year is over.

But the time we spend weeding and digging is as nothing compared with the happy, mud-free hours spent in the armchair tuning into the average week's 12 hours of garden broadcasting, or afternoons drooling over photographs of shapely borders in one of Britain's 22 garden magazines or the thousands of garden books available. Gardening now is often entirely vicarious. Many people who never quite make it as far as their own compost heap will next week make the pilgrimage to experience horticulture's answer to Wimbledon fortnight: the Chelsea Flower Show, which has evolved from traditional marquees to an imposing display of gothic conservatories and magnificent show gardens sponsored by newspapers and companies to the tune of pounds 200,000 a plot.

The BBC will screen a 50-minute report on the show next Wednesday for armchair gardeners around the country, and it will also take up a big chunk of next Friday's Gardeners' World.

Gardeners' World, presented since 1979 by Geoff Hamilton, is the showpiece of gardening broadcasting, 26 years old and one of BBC 2's most popular programmes, regularly clocking up more than 6 million viewers. Channel 4 is desperate to grab a chunk of the green-fingered audience, but often gets it wrong. It has recently dumped Garden Club (2.5m viewers) and is now wasting good airtime with the gruesome and misnamed Garden Party, a queasy blend of community programming and care in the community which talks to green-fingered folk about their horticultural headaches, makes a few suggestions, then sends them away with a camcorder. Recent offerings include two old dears videoing their vine-weevils.

Ratings-hungry commissioning editors with the long-term memories of greenfly are convinced that they can pull a younger audience by portraying gardening as a cool, sexy thing to do. Big mistake. The demographics of gardening are inescapable: it is something that older people do. Programmes such as Dig and Garden Party have tended to alienate this natural audience. No one knows what the target audience thought, as they were all down the pub at the time.

In this context, Gardeners' World's Geoff Hamilton is a star in his firmament. He understands the central dilemma: "The big problem is that the only thing viewers have in common is an interest in gardening. Age, income, size of garden, level of understanding can be totally different." Gardeners' World solves this problem by catering relentlessly to the lowest common denominator. Hamilton would be the last person to apologise for this. Ordinary is his middle name. Tony Laryea, executive producer of Catalyst, the independent company that makes Gardeners' World for the BBC, sums up his genius :"He appeals to men and women equally. For men, he's the sort of bloke you'd like to have a pint with; for women, he's the man you'd like to put up your shelves."

A mild heart attack last June prompted more than 2,000 cards from viewers. "I had to give the flowers away, the room was completely choked with them," he says. The 60-year-old star is determined not to be spoilt by such adoration: "I'm worried about stopping being ordinary. Someone phoned me the other day and said: 'I love what you do because you're so ordinary.' I take that as a compliment."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the bland and unthreatening nature of both presenter and subject, Gardeners' World isn't out of place in its primetime slot. It is slickly made and manned by a staff of gardeners who can talk and weed at the same time. Geoff doesn't do chat and this is the secret of his success. "My first producer taught me most of what I know about presenting. He said, 'If you're not good at something, leave it alone. Don't go on Noel Edmonds' Fun House or whatever he calls it because you're not very good at that sort of thing.' "

He once made the mistake of trying to inject a little humour into an item on seed-sowing, only to have the producer storm up in a fury: "Hamilton! Leave the fucking jokes to Morecambe and Wise." His protege has taken the advice to heart. "The vast majority of people who present gardening programmes are gardeners, and they're good at talking about gardening but they are bloody awful at the acting role. It's very hard to do and it's something I try and avoid."

It is this keen awareness of his own strengths and limitations that has made Hamilton the grand old man of TV gardening. Ultimately the success or failure of any magazine-style programme will hinge on personality. Ideally the gardener on the screen will talk simply and directly to the one in the armchair with a gentle authority that is foreign to most other areas of broadcasting. Hamilton himself cites Delia Smith as a kindred spirit and Desmond Lynam is of the same stamp.

The ordinariness that he makes so much of makes it easy to take his silky expertise for granted. It is only when suddenly bereft of that doggedly natural tone of voice that you realise its magic. His recent illness necessitated an 11th hour substitution by Alan Titchmarsh. Smarmy and ingratiating, his puppyish eagerness to please was totally out of place in primetime viewing. For all his Kew Gardens training, Titchmarsh came across as an entertainer first, a gardener second. Hamilton acknowledges the truth of this. "I have an enormous regard for Alan, but his presenting has a sort of professional edge to it. He is an absolutely ace television presenter, but I think that sometimes stands in the way a little as far as gardening is concerned."

Hamilton's status as household god makes him a very valuable commodity. In addition to his earnings from broadcasting and journalism, a gardener with his profile can expect advances of at least pounds 40,000 a book. With seven BBC publications under his belt, Hamilton ought to be very wealthy indeed by now. "I wouldn't say I'm rich. I'm the worst businessman in the whole world." Maybe, but he is smart enough to pick the right publisher. A good gardening book can be a licence to print money, but with the exception of superstars like Hamilton, Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey et al, the key thing to success is not who you are so much as who you're with. It's the publisher's marketing muscle that counts.

Dorling Kindersley is the biggest player, with its impeccably produced coffee-table fodder. "You're not asked back if you sell under 100,000," warns Anna Pavord, the Independent's gardening expert and DK author. BBC books sell at least 50,000 copies on the back of a series; Geoff Hamilton's Cottage Gardens sold more than 100,000. "Other gardening books are available," says the BBC's grudging little health-warning on the screen, but it's hard to beat a 30-minute ad for the product.

The market's appetite for hardbacked horticulture is so great that entire book clubs exist to feed the demand. Who belongs? The Literary Guild's membership profile scarcely differs from that of the Royal Horticultural Society: middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income. Gardening is not the new rock and roll. You may kid yourself that young people are taking more interest in gardening these days but that is probably because you are a sad old thirtysomething unwilling to acknowledge that your raving days are over and your paving days have arrived. If you are out there pinching out your sweet peas there is every chance you are wearing a cardigan and need glasses to read this - but who cares? The garden's looking lovely.

WHO'S TOP OF THE TREE IN THE GARDENER'S WORLD?

Alan Titchmarsh

Type: Rampant climber, cross-pollinates well.

Best suited to: The gardening page of the Daily Mail, particularly after a frosty scheduling rethink killed his career as a daytime light entertainer.

Distinguishing features: Trained at Kew Gardens. With 36 horticultural manuals to his name, is reportedly planning a potboiler set in the steamy world of television gardening.

David Hessayon

Type: Evergreen, shade-loving.

Best suited to: Print. Hessayon is Britain's best-selling non-fiction author and the most widely-read gardening writer in the world, with global sales of 38 million. The phenomenon began in 1959 with the publication of Be Your Own Gardening Expert (now available as The Garden Expert), and the 16th in the Expert series, The Bulb Expert, was published last summer.

Distinguishing features: Near-anonymity. A fondness for cosy illustrations of verdant lawns, bright foliage and pipe-smoking suburbanites. His style has met with much derision, but Hessayon's is a winning formula.

Dr Stefan Buczacki

Type: Old-fashioned rambler.

Best suited to: Print and radio. Uprooted himself from GQT to the Classic Gardening Forum on Classic FM, but the earth has now settled again

Distinguishing features: Professorial. Once confessed that his favourite garden implement was the long-handled dandelion rubber, but then, each to their own.

Rosemary Verey

Type: Old-fashioned standard rose.

Best suited to: Grand settings.

Distinguishing features: Mistress of Barnsley House in Gloucestershire, whose gardens she created, and horticultural adviser to the Prince of Wales at Highgrove. Partly responsible reviving the potager (ornamental vegetable patch).

Anna Pavord

Type: Vibrant, hardy.

Suited to: Print.

Distinguishing features: Flowers profusely, all year round, in the Independent.

Pippa Greenwood

Type: Happy hybrid - blooms in most conditions.

Best suited to: Thrives on radio as a Gardeners' Question Time panellist, on TV as a presenter on Gardeners' World, and in print, with her Daily Mirror column "Pippa's Patch".

Distinguishing features: Technically-minded but friendly authority on plant pests and diseases, formerly head plant pathologist at the RHS garden at Wisley.

Beth Chatto

Type: Excellent ground cover

Best suited to: Writing and lecturing.

Distinguishing features: Her book The Green Tapestry chronicles the development of the Beth Chatto Gardens in Colchester. Specialises in cultivating plants in difficult conditions.

Christopher Brickell

Type: Upright, prefers shade.

Best suited to: Writing.

Distinguishing features: Former director-general of the Royal Horticultural Society, riding high in the bestseller lists with his Encyclopedia of Gardening and others.

John Brookes

Type: Evergreen, prefers shade.

Best suited to: Designing and teaching.

Distinguishing features: Landscape designer and founder of the Clock House School of Garden Design in West Sussex. Author of the bestseller The Small Garden, and creator of the concept of the garden as an extra room.

Penelope Hobhouse

Type: Classic upright, thrives in warm climate.

Best suited to: Writing and designing.

Distinguishing features: Tended the National Trust Garden at Tintinhull, Somerset, for 14 years before her recent retirement. Now a regular visitor to the US, where she is regarded as a horticultural superstar.

Gay Search

Type: Showy but reliable.

Best suited to: TV - presenter of Gardeners' World, Gardening From Scratch and Front Gardens.

Distinguishing features: Married to Tony Laryer, of GW's production company, Catalyst.

Adrian Bloom

Type: Sturdy, upright habit.

Best suited to: Radio, as a member of the GQT team, though unfurls for the odd appearance on Gardeners' World.

Distinguishing features: Chairman of Blooms of Bressingham, the nursery founded by his father. Mentions heathers and grasses a lot.

Bob Flowerdew

Type: Showy perennial.

Best suited to: TV and radio - an unwilting regular on Gardeners' World and GQT.

Distinguishing features: Pony-tail - an unusual accessory in this company. Especially keen on recycling and organic gardening, he once astounded Gardeners' World viewers by revealing that he saved his urine in petrol cans and poured it on to his compost heap.

Comments