Obituary:Clay Jones

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The Independent Online
A gardening expert needs many of the qualities of a family doctor: a sympathetic ear, a depth of knowledge and experience lightly worn, a manner that is reassuring without being briskly dismissive of anxiety. Like the patient, the gardener should feel better for the consultation, even if it offers no instant cure. Clay Jones had all these attributes, and for more than 30 years he deployed them in books and articles, on television and, most memorably, at lunchtime on Sundays, on Gardeners' Question Time on BBC Radio 4.

He had the ideal radio voice, a gravelly Welsh drawl lightened by what his long-time producer, Diana Stenson, calls "a lovely dark brown laugh". It was so distinctive that his wife Glenys - they met at school and were childhood sweethearts - imposed a vow of silence on him when they were out shopping together. Otherwise, as soon as he opened his mouth, he would be surrounded by supplicants seeking a cure for the club root in their cabbages.

He was not born Clay: nor, as many believed, did he assume the name to advertise his horticultural credentials. His given name was David, but when he went to Cardigan Grammar School in 1935 he found at least a dozen David Joneses had got there before him - so he called himself by his mother's maiden name.

Gardening was part of his life from boyhood, which he spent on his parents' smallholding. In 1942, at the age of 18, he joined the army, becoming a captain, and in the last years of the Second World War served in Burma. On his return he took a degree in Botany and Economics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, then spent a year working in the college's botanic garden. After a short spell as a gardener he joined Bees' seed company and then Cuthberts, where he was Director from 1959 to 1977.

Meanwhile he was developing a career in broadcasting. In 1960 he helped launch a Welsh-language gardening programme for BBC Wales, and during the Sixties he appeared occasionally on television with the redoubt-able Percy Thrower. In 1976 he was invited to join the panel of Gardeners' Question Time by Ken Ford, who was then doubling as producer and chairman.

The programme was passing through a tricky period, with the gradual break- up of the long-standing and popular team of Fred Loads, Bill Sowerbutts and Professor Alan Gemmell. Loads had died and Jones was to replace him as the expert on vegetables. He made several broadcasts alongside Sowerbutts and Gemmell before they too had to give up and others came into the team, including Stefan Buczacki, Geoffrey Smith and Daphne Ledward.

Although the programme's trade mark has always been a relaxed and cheerful spontaneity, the panel have to endure a gruelling production schedule, going on the road for two or three days every three weeks, making for obscure village halls in remote areas, staying in hotels of uncertain quality. They have to like each other, and be of an easy-going and tolerant disposition. Mannerisms are quickly spotted; one of Jones's was that he always took along home-grown tomatoes in season, and would solemnly slice them over his breakfast ham.

Before each recording, the team seek to relax the audience by telling a joke. Jones always told the same one, about the secretary of a horticultural society who had an affair with a member - slightly risque but ultimately inoffensive, as was to be expected from a devout churchgoer.

In 1985 Ken Ford died, so the programme had quickly to find a new producer and a new chairman. Diana Stenson came from Woman's Hour to fill the first role and, at Buczacki's suggestion, Jones assumed the chair. It was a seamless transfer. After a few weeks he seemed to have been doing it all his life, and at the same time he was shepherding the new producer into the mysteries of gardening. "He was an absolute gent," she recalls. Says Buczacki: "He gave the programme a sense of reassurance and timelessness. He could always see the funny side of gardening."

His tenure ended abruptly in 1993. Early that year the BBC, as part of a corporate policy encouraged by the Government, decided to put several long- established programmes out to tender from independent producers. There were rumours of new voices being brought in, of gimmicky attempts to attract younger listeners. In July, soon after recording a programme, Jones suffered a mild heart attack. He quickly recovered but decided that, in view of the uncertainty, it was a good time to give it up. The rest of the old team, led by Stenson and Buczacki, decamped to Classic FM a few months later, and Jones gave an uncharacteristically angry interview to the Daily Mail, attacking the BBC's decision.

He continued to write and broadcast occasionally, but had more time to spend on his own fine garden, which he had created on a difficult sloping site outside his 16th-century cottage near the Severn at Chepstow.

Michael Leapman

David (Clay) Jones, gardening writer and broadcaster: born Cardigan 6 November 1923; OBE 1990; married (one son, one daughter); died Chepstow, Monmouthshire 3 July 1996.