The planted question MPs love

Michael Leapman reports on an unlikely Parliamentary alliance
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KEN LIVINGSTONE, MP for Brent East, had caught the eye of the chair and prepared to deliver his question. What issue would his withering invective be launched upon this time? Asylum-seekers? Inner-city deprivation? No."I have had three London gardens," he said bitterly, "but I have never been able to grow red-hot pokers. What am I doing wrong?"

It is rare for a politician to admit rank failure and, had this been an ordinary Question Time, John Major, with his record in garden sundries, would have taunted red-hot Ken without mercy. As it was, Mr Livingstone was addressing the kindlier experts of Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, recording their Christmas Eve edition last week on the covered terrace of the Palace of Westminster as guests of the All-Party Gardening Club.

Along with revelations in this newspaper about the Commons Classic Car Club, the veil is being lifted on a range of shadowy organisations which few of us knew existed. The Gardening Club was formed in 1993 by Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South in Scotland. He had entered Parliament only the year before and was shocked at what he found. "I knew there must be a lot of keen gardeners in the House and I was amazed they didn't have any kind of organisation," he said.

He called a meeting and about two dozen MPs turned up, the core of today's membership. They have been on trips to gardens near London and experts have gone to the Commons to impart their wisdom.

"I have about 180 people signed up, plus 30 or 40 in the Lords," says Mr Donohoe. In the jumpy post-Nolan atmosphere he is keen to stress that this is "a fun club" and not a lobbying organisation: there is another group of MPs who keep an eye on the legislative interests of the horticultural industry.

All the same, the All-Party Gardening Club - members include the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, Labour backbencher Glenda Jackson, and the Environment Secretary, John Gummer - carries more clout than your local allotment association. So when Mr Donohoe invited the producers of Gardeners' Question Time to record an edition in the House they accepted with alacrity.

The regular team of experts was expanded with the addition of one of the club's members: Gordon McMaster, Labour MP for Paisley South, who used to work in the Parks Department of Renfrew council. He thought that what Mr Livingstone needed was a good mulching - a view often expressed on all sides of the House - but other panellists said the problem with red-hot pokers (kniphofia) was drainage. The stunning red flowers do not like heavy London clay, so Mr Livingstone needed to put in grit and other free-draining material.

After the recording he said he would act on the advice. "I've got a wildlife garden with a frog sanctuary and ponds and so on, and of course the kniphofia would look absolutely wonderful by the ponds.

"I remember reading as a kid that gorillas liked eating them, so I thought I'd grow one and take it to feed Guy the Gorilla at the London Zoo. But I put one in my mother's garden and it withered away.

"I've tried them every time I had a new garden and finally I bought quite a large plant when I moved to Cricklewood six years ago.

"But over the years it gradually wasted away to nothing, like some sort of anorexic member of the Royal Family."

Regulars of Gardeners' Question Time know the questions often hide intense personal disappointments of this kind. Deputy Speaker Dame Janet Fookes asked how far apart plants should be spread, and later disclosed what was behind her inquiry.

"I had someone help me plant my tiny garden in Plymouth," she said. "When they put the things in I thought, 'Gosh, that Garrya elliptica is going to be 7ft high and probably as wide, and it's in a teeny space of about 2ft'. I felt a bit let down by the answers because I wanted some exact advice."

Michael Leapman, who writes regularly on gardening for the Sunday Review, has won the Garden Writers Guild Award, sponsored by Sutton's Seeds, for the best garden writing of 1995 aimed at non-specialist readers. It was for his article "Mr Montefiore's Time Capsule", which appeared in the Review in April.