Life as a gardening expert seems a long way from your pop career, how did your interest start?
It was always in my heart because my parents moved us to Hertfordshire from South East London when I was eight. The transition from living in a semi-detached house with a bit of grass out the back, an apple tree and some massacred rose bushes, to moving into the countryside at the foot of the beautiful Bramfield forest made a huge impact on me. My classmates’ parents were growing vegetables and beautiful flowers, they just had wonderful colours in their gardens and I was really impressed. As a nine year old I remember thinking that I wanted to have a beautiful garden one day, the outdoors had such a positive influence on me.
When I met Hal [her husband] I didn’t have a garden, it wasn’t until we got married in 1996 that I thought, ‘Right, I’d better make a garden’. I wanted to give my children the outdoor childhood that I had had. During that time I was very inspired by TV gardening, I watched Jeff Hamilton and loved what he’d done and I loved reading his books. He talked about it in a knowledgeable but also very spiritual way, which appealed to me greatly. Then there was all the garden makeover programmes, I was really inspired and loved the idea of creating an outdoor environment.
I decided to get out of the music industry when we got married and had the children. I went to Capel Manor College to do a part-time gardening course while I was pregnant with my first child and that’s what really turned the whole thing around, that’s when I thought wow, this is an absolutely irresistible subject. But I didn’t think in a million years I’d end up becoming a professional horticulturalist.
So you were never looking to go back into the media?
No, not at all. I was a bit appalled when it all started to manifest itself in such a public way. When I stopped performing I was looking for something to occupy my time – I knew that I couldn’t just sit at home and have coffee mornings – which is why I decided to go to college, and it ended up being a decision that changed my life.
Then the TV appearances came along and I learnt a lot obviously, but I was getting frustrated at my lack of knowledge, so I went back to college for a much longer period of two years, and to do an evening course about planting and planting design, and I came out with a City & Guilds distinction.
You’re touring again now but the two careers have very different lifestyles, do you find that brings you a balance?
Yes, I think it is a bit like that, I love singing, and I love entertaining. I didn’t do it for quite a long time in the early years when the children were growing up so I went back to it with a renewed vigor, because I had had a rest. The music industry is so wonderful and so unforgiving sometimes, but the highs are incredibly high and the lows are desperate. It was really amazing to find something else that could take the place of that and give so much. It’s mostly high with gardening, very few lows. It’s wonderful because I found it the same time I found Hal and the babies, so it’s all of oursm, not just mine. Being “Kim Wilde” was all about me, being a gardener is a group effort thing; it’s a part of all of our lives.
Were you nervous about being called a gardening expert on ITVs Better Homes?
Yes, because it wasn’t true, I wasn’t a gardening expert; I was an 80s pop star who had a huge passion for another subject. I was put in a position where I had to appear at least to know what I was doing. I got caught out loads of times but my motivation was so genuine that even when I got caught out I just thought, well I’m learning. I know I got up a few people’s noses in horticulture, they were wondering what the hell I was doing there. It had just become a huge phenomena; the garden makeover, garden magazines, the industry was starting to make huge amounts of money and if you were very cynical and looking at me, you might easily come to the conclusion that I jumped off one bandwagon and onto another. I was very patient with people that had that impression, because I knew that I’d show them in the end, which made winning my gold medal at Chelsea Flower Show one of the sweetest days of my life!
What made you base your winning Chelsea Flower Show design on Cumbria?
In the first few months of meeting Hal he told me he wanted to take me to an amazing place, so we drove overnight and arrived at dawn in Cumbria. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, I couldn’t believe that I had lived all my life and had never known about this place. Hal’s parents now live there and we’ve holidayed up there many times.
I did an Alice in Wonderland installation at the Holker Garden Festival in Cumbria and Richard Lucas helped me gather the plants together. After that we did two in consecutive years and started hatching a plan for Chelsea. We ended up mostly with Cumbrian artists on the garden, they provided a beautiful driftwood bench, and the beautiful Hollister slate from Hollister mine. It was a real tribute to a place we had a very strong connection with.
Would you ever enter again?
I would love to. I went and helped Diarmuid Gavin last year; I just went along for the ride really. I’ve helped a few gardeners at Chelsea without being directly involved. I would love to help in anyone’s garden next year, so anyone reading who fancies some help… I’ll get my bum there and back, I won’t even ask for any expenses, just to be there is such a privilege.
It was a triumph for everyone wasn’t it – there must have been some real celebrating?
It really was; I’m still overwhelmed by it. I haven’t got anything on display at home that will tell you I’m in the music industry, but my Gold RHS [Royal Horticultural Society] certificate, the glass viewer’s choice award, the BBC award for best courtyard garden and even the hat I wore are all proudly displayed.
How did you find becoming a gardening columnist?
My work is research and talking to people, mostly I was doing it to teach myself, I wanted to know how things worked out. People would write in and say, ‘I’m not quite sure what to do about clipping my box of Symphoricarpos. When’s a good time to trim it?’ And then I would learn and read up. It was up to me to decide what I felt was the relevant information, sometimes I got it wrong and the readers were quick to tell me. I don’t mind finding myself in a place where I’ve got no idea what I’m doing, it’s much more exciting than life being predictable and knowing exactly what I’m doing. I think what I’ve given to the world of horticulture is energy from a different generation. People are on waiting lists to grow vegetables, and it’s becoming a trendy thing. I know I was definitely part of the change of the image of horticulture at that time; I’m quite chuffed about that.
In these uncertain economic times people are looking for more thrifty pleasures, would you recommend gardening?
I would definitely recommend it. Lots of people are now trapped in houses that they can’t sell, so they might as well make a garden and make the most of it. You should just make a small investment into where you are and make it a lovely place to be. From an economic point of view growing your own vegetables is a really good idea, grow potatoes in a barrel on the patio or get a little pot of herbs, this is cheap and always tastes much better. The economic times have really focused people back on people how they can be more economical in their lifestyle.
What gardening advice do you have for anyone trying to sell their home?
Gardens have become significantly more important to buyers and the right look can definitely add value to a home. Style and plants are very personal, but there are basic things you can get right. If you’re in an urban area then maybe a more formal, funky foliage will work. If you’re in a rural area then certainly you can take your cue from what’s around you, the borrowed landscape and the materials your house is made from. It’s great because there’s a huge focus in the last 10 years on wildlife, and protecting the wildlife corridors. People have become educated about how important plants are and their part to play in pollination. There’s been a huge turn around in horticulture in the last 20 years and it’s fantastic to see that.
What advice would you give first time gardeners?
Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed. Speaking from my own experience you think, ‘Oh I’ll never understand all this’. But adopt a “can do” approach; think about growing a few things to eat, I think that’s really inspiring, especially if you’ve got children. Even if it’s just sowing some year round lettuce, or corn salad, or rocket in a container for the summer, from little acorns mighty oaks grow. I would also certainly recommend taking a summer course at a good horticultural college. You can learn an enormous amount from that and of course there’s just fantastic amounts of information on the Internet. You also have to think about the soil conditions and where the sun rises and sets; the best thing about gardening is that you can never know everything.
You’ve written a book on gardening with children, do your family get involved?
Yes, it was all about them, inspiring them, making them somewhere that was fun for us all to play in. We grow vegetables together – the kids always sow pumpkins and sunflowers, and in the spring I always sow stuff into the raised beds, which we have in our garden. Being outside, has become part of everyone’s life now. Hal loves being out there with me, I always do the fine-tuning tasks and he has a relationship with all the electrical gadgets. I’ve never touched a strimmer in my life and I have no intention of ever doing so!
Do you have a favourite time of year in your garden?
I love it at the end of May when Wisteria comes out, that’s when you know summer’s really arrived. It used to be that my garden only ever sort of seemed to looked good at that time of the year. Then I created my late summer garden, which has got all perennials and ornamental grasses predominantly. Because our soil is clay and we live on a hill with a lot of wind they’re the two factors that have shaped the garden. There’s been a strong focus on shelter, and most of the success of the garden is because we’ve grown things in raised beds, so they haven’t had to struggle with the clay.
Spring is obviously an important time of year for gardeners, what would you say to our readers they should be focusing on?
It depends what they’ve got, if they’ve got things like Herbaceous Perennials for instance, now is a good time to divide them. You can do that either with a sharp knife or a spade or you can tease them apart with some garden forks back to back and just pull them gently apart. The good thing about doing that to, for instance geraniums, or anything growing herbaceously is if you divide them you encourage them to grow.
They’ll mostly start waging war on slugs as well, of course good garden housekeeping is that you’re supposed to encourage wildlife, they’re supposed to do it all for you, but it’s a lie! Every spring I forget how much I hate those damn slugs, then they start eating my sunflower seedlings and I remember. I use everything from copper tape to branflakes to try and get rid of them, the little slugs go over them and then the bran starts to clog up their pores. Coffee grounds are supposed to give the little buggers a heart attack; I try a few different things.
What kind of advice would you give someone who wanted to create a vegetable patch or herb garden?
Keep it very small scale to start off; don’t jump in at the deep end. Think about what level of time commitment you can give and start things off in barrels or other types of containers. There are herbs that require full sun like rosemary, sage and then others that will take a little bit of shade like mint and parsley, so if you have a slightly shady area it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow things.
You’re entered in the Guinness Book of Records for moving and replanting the world’s largest tree, do you think trees are important stalwarts for a garden?
Absolutely. The great thing about trees is that they provide height, they can be ornamental, or they can provide screening. They can provide food and shelter for wildlife, they can absorb pollution, they give you oxygen, flowers, and they’re just fantastic things. Even if you have a small garden you can still choose a small Prunus or Sorbus, a really lovely ornamental tree to have in your garden that will provide spring flowers and berries in the autumn.
What do you have next in store for your gardening career?
At the moment I’m doing a few projects with my brother who has a landscape business and I’ve been doing plant consultation with him on a number of really fantastic projects. One recently involving a giant rockery which was created at the Thames sanctuary, where people just wanted to be surrounded by lovely scent and shelter. Most of the time my gardening is focused on my own garden, it’s about tidying it up, dividing the plants, cutting back the ornamental grasses, thinking about when I’m going to sow the raised beds. It’s about getting ready for the fantastic burst of growth once the clocks go forward.
It must be a wonderful feeling seeing people enjoying the garden you’ve cultivated?
It is, it’s a fantastically rewarding thing to do. I’m very fortunate that I haven’t had to make a full commitment to a garden design business, I’ve got involved in my brother’s so it doesn’t have to take up all my time. I’m still very aware that I have two children and I still have my music career. For me gardening is something that will be with me for the rest of my life, and I can only become more knowledgeable.