Planting hoary old chestnuts

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The Independent Online
RADIO 4's Gardeners' Question Time comes up to its 2,000th edition this week, and I don't feel I can let the occasion pass without some kind of tribute.

Those who have never heard Gardeners' Question Time may need a short introduction to its format, which, like all the best ideas, is simplicity itself. A panel is gathered, comprising one Tory MP, one Labour MP, one middle-of-the-road MP and someone odd, such as a woman or a journalist. They are then asked questions by an invited audience. These are almost always on topical gardening issues of the day - recent programmes, for instance, have featured some of the following:

'What sort of plants would the panel recommend as being the easiest and most profitable to cultivate 2,000 feet down in a mothballed coal mine?'

'How do I go about adopting neglected and uncared-for Bosnian house plants and bringing them to this country?'

'My Tory MP is beginning to wilt a bit and change colour from the normal blue to a sort of pinkish hue - and the other day I found him trying to go through the opposite lobby by mistake. What am I doing wrong?'

'Does the panel really want to see the United States being governed by a Bush for the next four years?'

'My Prime Minister came highly recommended, but is not performing nearly as well as was forecast. Should I persevere, or uproot him and try again with another growth?'

This is merely the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion which often leads to amusing exchanges and sometimes quite explosive situations. Few who heard it will forget the programme on which Enoch Powell declaimed passionately against imported exotics, or when the Rev Ian Paisley lost his temper over a mischievous proposal to install stained-glass windows in greenhouses.

Some panel members became household names through the programme. Lord George Brown, for instance, for his catchphrase, 'Give it a little water - and a lot of whisky]', John Profumo for 'Would I lie to you?' and Harold Wilson for 'The peony in your pocket has not been affected'. Generally the most senior politicians do not appear on the programme unless they are in opposition and need the money or publicity, though one notable exception was Sir Anthony Eden's appearance during the Suez crisis, and his muttered answer to every question: 'Too much sand] Not enough water]'

The show has not been without its critics, and it is sometimes said that the answers divide very much along party lines. The Tory always says that his party has put more money into chrysanthemum research than anyone in history, the Labour man or woman always points out that it only benefits the top 5 to 10 per cent of gardeners, while the Liberal Democrat or other third force man says that until we have consensus gardening in this country it is hardly worth discussing anything at all.

There is some truth in this accusation. In fact, there is a lot of truth in it. Sometimes it is left to the fourth person to put any non-political ideas at all, such as when Germaine Greer said what she would like to do with male flowers or when Dr Anthony Clare memorably revealed how permanently disturbed flowers can become if removed from the seedbed too early.

Indeed, many people cannot see why the panel is composed largely of politicians. Why should they know any more about gardening than anyone else? But it is too late to change one of Britain's most popular radio programmes - and here are some tips if you would like to get a question used.

Do ask something that the panel is likely to know the answer to.

Don't ask about anything that happened in your garden more than two weeks ago.

Do try and be really topical in a pointless sort of way. A good question at the moment would be: 'Does the panel think Columbus was a brave and innovative gardener or merely a ruthless exploiter of the new species he discovered?'

Do ask about something emotive, such as homeless perennials or scrounging parasites.

Don't be afraid to ask something jokey or personal, such as: 'If the panel were stranded on a desert island, what plants would they like to take with them?' (Nobody wants to know the answers to these questions, but they unfailingly get chosen; and that's what Gardeners' Question Time is all about.)

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