A secret garden paradise in Birmingham
Apr 3 2009 By Alice Hemmings
A Birmingham building site is soon to be transformed into a beautiful garden in a new series of BBC Gardeners’ World. Alice Hemmings takes a look.
Ankle deep in rubble and dust, it’s hard to believe that this muddy building site is soon to become Britain’s best-loved garden – especially as it is television’s best-kept secret.
The four acres of unused and untamed land in the heart of Birmingham are to be transformed, episode by episode, into a botanical paradise in the new series of Gardeners’ World, which begins tonight on BBC2.
It may be the most dramatic change to the green-fingered television programme but it is far from the only one.
The team has left the idyllic Berryfields garden in the more rural setting of Stratford-upon-Avon, which was for years lovingly cared for by previous presenter Monty Don and his colleagues.
Greenacre in the more urban setting of central Birmingham is now the fresh face of the cult series – and ushering it in will be the equally fresh-faced Toby Buckland who is facing his first full season of presenting the show after taking over from Monty last year.
After he finishes filming a segment for the second episode, Toby bounds over for introductions.
His hands and fingernails are caked with mud, and one has to wonder whether he ever puts down the trowel.
He ushers us proudly inside the new Gardeners’ World shed, a sunny, brightly-coloured space filled with chairs, flowers and kettles.
Above the sofa looms the What’s Hot and What’s Not whiteboard where Toby and his co-presenters will discuss what’s flowering and what’s wilting in the horticultural world - just one of the new features of the revamped show, which the BBC hopes will draw in thousands of new viewers alongside the faithful.
“I’m tremendously excited about it all,” Toby says about Greenacre. “It’s given us such a great chance to be creative and really experiment.
“We’ve got this new garden and we’re going to fix it up, and we want to encourage viewers to get out into their gardens too.
“We’ve tried to keep the show as relevant as possible to what people can achieve and what they would want to achieve in their gardens.
“Where else in the world are you free to experiment and play and potter like you can in your own garden?
“You can be totally creative. It’s your own space. It’s about freedom, it’s about fun.”
Fun is certainly on the menu for the new series.
Alongside a gnome that spies on the presenters will be short features on individual viewers, including a police officer from Essex who runs a gnome sanctuary from his garden.
This diversity is part of the fun of shooting in a major city, Toby says.
Birmingham in particular has become the horticultural hub of Britain.
“I’ve always loved Birmingham because it was the first major city I ever visited,” he continues. “There’s a real energy here, in the city and the people.
“Cities are so much more than the sum of their parts - they’re so many people working together and making a difference, and that’s what we want in the show.”
Another appealing point of shooting the series in such an urban space is to encourage new viewers to start experimenting in their own garden.
“We’re really trying to encourage viewers to make their gardens their own,” Toby says. “When I used to walk home from school, every house had the same garden with roses and tulips, and the same arrangements. The only difference was where the washing line was!
“That’s not what we want. I would never preach and tell people what to do – everyone has an individual style.”
The new Gardeners’ World isn’t just for the intellectual horticulturists among us. It’s for anyone with even a hint of green to their fingers, no matter how much time they may have on their hands.
The 30 Minute Fix is a new addition which tells the busy botanists out there how to improve their garden in just half an hour. And don’t worry - even those with a, shall we say, less than blooming history of gardening are welcome to Buckland’s garden party.
“We don’t want anyone to write themselves off as serial plant killers,” he says with a smile. “Once you have success with a small thing, you realise that we’re all gardeners at heart. We’ve all got the ability.”
The series will be altogether more light-hearted than previous incarnations, judging by kitschy Gnome Cam, which captures audio of the unsuspecting presenters off camera, and series producer Andy Vernon reckons this can only be a positive thing in these gloomy economic times.
“We want our viewers to know that although the credit crunch is going on, we can still have a laugh,” he says.
“Carol (Klein) agrees – in her new segment ‘In Bloom’ she says she wants vibrant colours for flowers this year, because we all need cheering up!”
It’s good to know that the credit crunch hasn’t taken the shine off the BBC’s roses, although Andy agrees that thrifty gardening will be a major feature at Goodacre - right down to the shed, which originated from a DIY store flat-pack and now boasts recycled doors from Stoke City’s Britannia stadium.
“This year we want more of a family show, accessible to everyone no matter what the budget,” Andy continues. “We wanted a fresh start and to show our viewers that, if we can do it here, they can do it there!”
Is it possible, though, that among the gnomes and vibrant flowers, the more serious long-time viewers might find themselves sitting on the fence?
Andy shakes his head. “I would hate for the viewers to think that we’re not thinking of them,” he says. “There’s still a lot of serious gardening on the shows but we’re very confident about having more fun. We want to involve the viewers in the programme and I think most of them will really enjoy it.
“Some of the changes are in responses to feedback left on the BBC message boards – we’ve made these changes with viewers in mind.”
It does seem that the new format is all about the viewers. Whether it’s ten tips to kick-start your garden or a close-up on a couple who argue so much they’ve each got their own lawn, every shrub is worthy of the spotlight.
“We really wanted to celebrate the eccentricity of English gardens,” Andy says. “Gardening is a very British thing; it’s what puts the ‘great’ in Great Britain.”
Leaving the little orange and blue shed and looking at the muddy field through Toby and Andy’s eyes, it’s much easier to see now how Greenacre will put the green back into Birmingham.
But we’re still not telling you where it is.