Carol's TV career and garden still blossoming
These are busy times for Devon's TV gardener Carol Klein. She has a new book out this month and will soon be back on our screens in the BBC's Gardeners' World. What's more, she is more enthusiastic and hands-on than ever about the remarkable North Devon garden that has been her passion for 35 years.
"I'm just so focused on packing in plants and getting more varieties to thrive here," she tells me in her unmistakable earthy Lancastrian tones, as she sits smiling in the kitchen of her beloved Glebe Cottage.
Carol's overflowing and exuberant garden in Warkleigh, near Chittlehampton, perfectly matches her lively personality. Both Carol and her garden are well-known to the many millions of us who follow her horticultural exploits on television.
She is one of the hugely popular presenters of Gardeners' World and her own spin-off shows, Grow Your Own Veg and Life in A Cottage Garden, have been a huge success.
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So it's a happy time for Carol. This is good to hear, as the past few years have certainly had their challenges, including an ageism row with the BBC and an upsetting dispute with her neighbours, which led to her being forced to close her much-loved plant nursery 18 months ago.
Today, such concerns are the last thing on her mind, as she celebrates the completion of her latest book.
"I love writing, helping people to grown their own plants and enjoy gardening," she explains, leafing through the beautifully illustrated pages. "This book has been a real joy to produce."
Called Wild Flowers, it is an inspirational mix of the poetic and practical and is out this Thursday (BBC Books, £18.99). In it, Carol looks at native plants from buttercups to primroses. She explores their history and habitat, then explains how best to grow their cultivated cousins.
With the subtitle "from nature's own to garden grown", the book has something from everyone, from the dedicated plantsman to the casual reader eager to learn more.
Despite being well into her 60s and a veteran of two hip ops, mum-of-two Carol is as vibrant as a bunch of blue delphiniums (which, I learn from her book, are a form of buttercup). She is full of excitement about the coming season, both the plants growing at Glebe Cottage and her Gardeners' World appearances.
As a fan of many years myself, I'm glad to hear it. She has made her peace with the BBC's decision not to give her the presenter's job when Monty Don left the show in a hurry due to health reasons in 2008. At the time she joked ruefully that she had "hit the grass ceiling" and the BBC was overwhelmed with protests from viewers who thought it was high time for a woman – and an eminently qualified one at that – to get the job which had been an exclusively male domain since the days of its first presenter, Percy Thrower.
Instead, Toby Buckland, a fellow Devon horticulturalist and 20 years Carol's junior, was installed, amid a chorus of complaints about BBC ageism and sexism. It was a role in which he failed to shine, and in 2011 a recovered Monty Don was back in the driving seat.
"It's all politics, I suppose," sighs Carol philosophically when I raise the subject. "I mean – I could have done the job. After all, I did do it when Monty first left.People want to make a story of it but far be it from me to say any more."
Then she grins and can't resist adding: "But I did hear from all sorts of people that folk had liked what I did. And I think I did a good job.
"Now, I only have a short time on each Gardeners' World show to do my pieces. But hey, I make the most of them – I pack in the info and get my points across!"
It is this positive can-do attitude that helped her and husband Neil to get through another very upsetting time, back in the summer of 2011, when a neighbourly dispute threatened the couple's livelihood.
For many years they had run a thriving plant nursery in a rented field next to their garden. But when the field changed hands, Carol found herself in the midst of an acrimonious dispute with her new landlord. It all started, she freely admits, when she wrote in a gardening magazine how upset she was about the felling of some beautiful trees on the land by the new owner. "Well, it was just heartbreaking. We miss them so much," she explains unrepentantly.
The new owner took offence, one thing led to another (amid counter-claims that Carol's compost heap was out of control) and before long Carol was given notice to quit. "I don't want to dwell on it too much now, but it was horrible at the time," she says.
With typical resilience, Carol most certainly did not go quietly, however. She rallied her friends and a team of helpers to shift every single plant from the nursery. "We took out 300 concrete paving slabs, 50 railway sleepers and 20,000 plants," she says. "We even took out the top soil by the barrow-load. I'd spent years making it, I wasn't going to leave it behind."
Good for her, one can't help but think. And Carol is keen to see the positive side of the upheaval. "Yes, it was the end of an era, as I'd been selling plants for years. But it has meant that I've been able to devote more time to my own garden, which is an everlasting delight to me."
Viewers of the forthcoming Gardeners' World series will see Carol once again in her lovely, rambling potting shed, packed with good things in every intriguing nook and corner. And this year the shed is proving to be fertile ground in itself. "Neil has put on a green roof, which is all planted up and growing away. It's given us even more space for plants," she says zestfully.
But doesn't she feel a bit, well, nostalgic for the times she opened Glebe Cottage nursery to the public?
"No," she laughs. "I love talking to people and imparting my love for gardening. But what with the TV work and my writing, believe me I get plenty of opportunities to hold forth.
"In many ways, I think it is better to show people how to grow their own from seeds or cuttings, instead of selling them plants ready-grown."
Indeed, it is this grow-your-own ethos that has been at the heart of Carol's career ever since she and Neil came to Devon from London. They made the move back in 1978 when she was an art teacher. "I was desperate to have a garden, so I found a job in South Molton," she remembers. "We came down in an incredibly snowy winter, with drifts right up to the hedges. A wonderful estate agent found Glebe Cottage for us and we've been here ever since."
Carol left teaching on maternity leave for her now grown-up daughters Alice and Annie, "and never went back," she explains. "I was mad on gardening even then, but we never had enough money to buy plants. Everything had to be grown from seeds or cuttings. Before too long I was completely hooked on propagation. After a while, it was getting out of hand and I said to a dear friend of mine, 'What am I going to do with all these plants?' She said, 'Sell them, of course.' It all started from there."
Carol began in a small way with a market stall in Barnstaple, then began to exhibit her plants at Royal Horticultural Shows. "It was partly because I was competitive but mostly I did it to promote the business. The more medals you win, the better your plants sell."
Over the years Carol has won an impressive six gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show and many more at RHS shows for her spectacular displays of herbaceous perennials ("plus the odd tree"). But her first Chelsea show nearly ended in disaster, as she remembers with a hearty chuckle: "We were offered a chance to display at Chelsea as a last-minute cancellation. So we were completely unready and didn't have nearly enough plants. But of course, I couldn't resist going for it.
"Neil and I were up all night loading plants into a hired lorry by candlelight. Then in the morning the clutch went before we even left the village. So the lorry was just this metal box, getting hotter and hotter in the sun as the hire company replaced the whole gearbox.
"Neil and I nearly had a complete nervous breakdown before we even got past Barnstaple. But even so, we won a silver medal, and we were off."
It was Geoff Hamilton, then presenter of Gardeners' World, who first spotted Carol's likeable mix of Lancastrian humour and horticultural knowledge. He featured her on several of his shows.
"My first TV appearance was just dreadful, though," she laughs. "I was so nervous that I didn't smile once during the whole feature. I don't smoke any more, but back then at the end, the final long shot was of me gloomily digging in the garden. Everyone had a clear view of a large packet of king-sized Silk Cut popping out of my top pocket. Dreadful!"
But she soon learned to relax in front of the camera. "Neil and I used to practice with him holding up a cardboard box and pretending it was a camera," she remembers.
One thing led to another and now Carol is a relaxed and likeable regular on our screens, with the garden at Glebe Cottage very much her co-star.
And despite the setback of losing her beloved nursery, there are plans afoot for expanding her plant collection once again, she reveals. "I can't say too much now, but there are other places where we could have a nursery near us," she says. "I'd also like to open the garden here again at Glebe Cottage.
"It is such a pleasure to meet people and talk to them. I'm hoping that by the summer of 2014 we will be offering garden visits of some sort once more."
Before then, we will be seeing plenty of Carol, both in the forthcoming Gardeners' World series and in her new book. "Every week in Gardeners' World this season I will be looking at a wild flower for a special TV segment, based on chapters of the book," she says. "I'm starting with lying on cold earth in Oxfordshire getting up close to snowdrops, then working my way through the flowers of summer. I can't wait."
Nor indeed, can we. Very kindly, Carol has given us five copies of her new book for a reader competition. To win one, see the box, right, and look out for Carol in the exciting new series of Gardener's World, coming soon on BBC2.