John Cushnie: Straight-talking voice of common sense on 'Gardener's Question Time'

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The Independent Online

John Cushnie was truly a practical gardeners' gardener. On BBC Radio 4's long-running Gardeners' Question Time he was, for the last 15 years, the compassionate voice of common sense who – after colleagues had detailed painstaking proposals for salvaging some afflicted, diseased or otherwise distressed plant – would simply say: "You'd be better off to dig it up, chuck it away and put something better in its place."

He was certainly never short of knowledge or enthusiasm, and as Radio 4's controller Mark Damazer said in a precisely fitting tribute, "His trademark acerbic wit was deployed with terrific timing against a wide variety of plants he did not like – and it was always done with an affectionate twinkle in his eye, with an exuberance of voice and with unrelenting sympathy for fellow gardeners."

John Alexander Montgomery Cushnie was born in May 1943 and brought up in Lurgan, Co Armagh. His father, a factory supervisor, gave him the garden at Lurgan to look after when he was 15, and John successfully grew flowers to sell so that he could afford to buy his first greenhouse.

From school at Lurgan College Cushnie went on to spend a year at the Greenmount College of Agriculture and Horticulture in Antrim before joining Belfast's Housing Executive, which also had charge of the city parks. After 10 years there he founded his own business, Cushnie Landscapes in County Down, and speedily thereafter, from 1970, became a familiar voice offering gardening advice on BBC Radio Ulster. He joined the panel of Gardeners' Question Time in 1994 and, as Damazer said, "laced every programme with warmith and joy".

Cushnie Landscapes specialised in producing traditional and low-maintenance gardens for both private customers and public bodies, and Cushnie's own preferences were clear. "I prefer order in the garden. Not twee with regimented rows of plants and manicured lawns and certainly not wild with weed-infested 'meadows' but tidy with lots of colour from flower and leaf and a broad selection of quality and unusual plants."

It was typical of Cushnie, though, that he should add: "My garden proves the words of wisdom: 'Do as I say, not as I do'. At times my garden of two acres, plus six acres of field that may one day be an arboretum, is a mess. I spend so much time in other people's gardens mine tends to suffer."

His pleasure in the garden was none the less undiminished. His recipe for a happy life was "a dander in the garden first thing in the morning before breakfast at any time of the year. Trust me and try it – you will find something in flower every day of the year."

His own favourite plants changed, he reckoned, almost daily – "depending on what I see". But he was keenest about trees and shrubs, and the fragrance of plants such as lavender, sarcococca, mahonia, sweet pea – "and an autumn bonfire top of the list".

"There is no aspect of gardening that I dislike," he claimed, adding: "Mind you, don't ask me that question on a freezing day with the rain pelting down the back of my neck and me trying to prune the fruit trees or tidy the perennial border."

Cushnie also wrote books and articles about gardening, and was a popular workshop, seminar and after-dinner speaker. He broadened his popularity with his role as "Hedge Man" on Radio 2's Chris Evans Show, and for the past three years presented Greenmount Garden, featuring practical garden designs, for BBC 1 television in Northern Ireland. Cushnie died of a heart attack on New Year's Eve, his last Gardeners' Question Time having been broadcast on 27 December.

Robin Young

John Alexander Montgomery Cushnie, gardener and broadcaster: born 14 May 1943; married 1969 Wilma Taylor (two sons, one daughter); died 31 December 2009.