Airing on ITV for two episodes on 25 December and 28 December The Queens Garden sees Alan Titchmarsh spend a year in the Buckingham Palace Garden, here he talks about what it was like gaining such a level access to the Royal garden and how involved the Queen is in the running of it.
How did it feel to be given such unprecedented access to the garden by Buckingham Palace to make this series?
“It was great! To really look at it in depth, find out what was in there and realise the scale and scope of it was tremendous.”
Was there anything about the garden that was not what you expected? What do you think will surprise viewers most?
“What surprised me was the amount of natural history within there. There are 200 odd different species of wild flowers. And there are mammals, birds and insects. It’s incredibly rich. They’re very conscious of being kind to wildlife in all its forms. Any logs and any branches, which fall, are cut into logs and stacked so they can be taken over by insects and fungi. It’s very much done with natural history in mind. I didn’t realise just how rich it was in terms of wildlife, in central London.”
Having spent 12 months visiting the garden and seeing it through all the seasons, what were your favourite moments?
“Well I’m a great fan of spring, so to watch the garden come to life was wonderful. I was there every month, so I watched the whole year unfold. To watch the daffodils and the snowdrops coming up in spring was special. And the lawn was full of fritillaries. They’re little snake’s head flowers which pop up. It’s like being in a country meadow right in the middle of London. So Spring in the garden was particularly special for me.”
The wildlife in the garden features heavily in the programme. Do you think the wildlife and animals the garden attracts is as important to the Queen as her green space and beautiful plants?
“Oh yes. She she is very much at the helm of how her garden is run. And the wildlife is very important to her. She’s got other estates where she is similarly involved, such as Balmoral. And there is this overwhelming desire to be accommodating to all forms of life.“
In the programme we see experts working out where the bees like to source their nectar, a bird survey, the night time observation of the pipistrelle bats and tracking of the tawny owl. Were you surprised at the amount of wildlife the garden attracts and how much scientific monitoring is taking place?
“I was surprised. And for scientists it’s a unique environment in terms of size and scale. Although the parks in London are quite large, this one is much less visited and therefore undisturbed. And that means you get a much truer indication of the kind of creatures who should be there and who are there.”
You have spent your life in gardens all over Britain but how did it feel to spend time in a garden with such historical significance, where every other tree seems to have been planted by a past Queen or King?
“It’s very special. The history of the Royal family is our history and that is what’s so interesting about it. It maps the lives of our parents, grandparents and great- grandparents, as well as mapping those of sovereigns because they were the sovereigns who ruled over our ancestors. It’s a common history and a shared history.
“There are two enormous plane trees there, planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Another tree planted by King George VI and two oak trees planted by Princess Anne and Prince Charles.
“It was also lovely to discover the little sandpit where the young royals used to play. It very much brought it to life.”
What is the favourite thing you learned about the gardens during your year exploring them?
“Looking at the mulberries was very special. I discovered that King James introduced them and there are now 35 different mulberries there. And his experiment came good in the end because although he introduced them to try and produce silk, which didn’t work, the mulberries which are there now are thriving.
“And I really enjoyed helping with the Christmas flower arrangement in the Queen’s fireplace, in the white drawing room. That was very special.
“It was just a treat to go to places where most people don’t get to go.”
You were able to taste some of the produce from the garden such as the bees honey, the mulberry crumble, honey ice cream and the whiskey discovered in the lake. What was your favourite?
“Oh the mulberry crumble was something else. It was absolutely divine.”
Would you like to work at the Buckingham Palace Garden? And is there anything about it you would change if you were in charge?
“Oh I wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything! I’m a very happy visitor and happy gardening on a slightly smaller scale. It’s a very big project and it’s a relatively small team so they work wonders.”
￼In the programme you tell us that the gardens are 39 acres and that in the wildest places around the lake, you feel as if you are deep in the country. Were you surprised at the scale of the garden, given its position in the centre of London?
“Definitely. I think most of us are familiar with that grand sweep of lawn behind the palace, on which the garden parties are held. But I frequently lost my bearings in the woodland. It should be very easy and you wouldn’t imagine it’s that extensive but it’s very easy to lose your way and lose your sense of direction. However, that’s one of the great pleasures of it. There are places where, apart from the gentle hum of traffic, you could be in the country.”
Given the scale of it were you impressed by skill of the team of gardeners and the challenges they face?
“It’s not overstaffed and they work incredibly hard. They’re very skilled and they know what they’re doing. And from their point of view, the big thing they’re working towards all year are the garden parties in June. That’s when their work is really on show to a huge number of people. They are quite meticulous in what they do and have very high standards.
“Most of the borders are perennial so they come up every year but it takes an awful lot of cultivating, staking and looking after. Their work for the garden parties is on- going all through the year. At this time of year they’ll be cutting down and getting rid of any perennials which have faded. But there are also a lot they’ll leave for wildlife. They’re very wildlife conscious. It’s not a case of, ‘We’ll start preparing for the party a month before.’ The whole year is geared towards the garden looking good. And there’s always something to see at any time of year.”
The Queen has been enjoying the gardens for 80 years. How do you think the use of them has changed in that time? And what changes do you foresee for the future? e.g. While you were there, footballers played a match on the lawns for the first time.
“I think the Queen has tried to make sure that as many people as possible, from all walks of life, get to see and enjoy the garden. That’s been the greatest change when you consider the garden parties from Queen Victoria’s time. The Queen wants to reward ordinary people who’ve done extraordinary work.
“How the garden is used in the future will depend on the demands made on the family who live in the palace. When young children come along, I’m sure there will be more provision made for them. The tennis court is still there so they can all still play tennis there.
￼￼“Like any garden, aside from this one being open to large numbers of people at certain times of the year, it is also home to a family. And therefore it needs to fulfil a role for the Queen and the members of the royal family who are there. Mostly as a safety valve and also somewhere pleasant and private for them to walk around.”
Did you learn anything about the Queen’s favoured plants or produce from the garden?
“Well, her staff are always are very careful not to say what the Queen’s favourites are but it becomes clear that she loves what we would call English cottage garden flowers. She likes proper country flowers. A posy is taken up to her every Monday that she’s in residence, so she gets to see how the flowers in the garden evolve throughout the year. It’s just a handful of things, five or six different flowers. A bit of everything, to give for a snapshot of the garden for that week.
“I had a funny encounter with the Queen this year at the Chelsea Flower Show. I did a garden at the show this year but I didn’t do the filming for it. I showed the Queen round the garden and she said, ‘And you’re filming the garden?’
“So I said, ‘No, Maam, not this year, I’m just making this garden.’ And she replied, ‘No not this garden, you’re filming my garden.’
“So I said, ‘Oh yes, yes, Maam I am.’ She was on the ball more than I was.”
You attended one of the royal garden parties. Were you surprised at the amount of staff, preparation and logistics needed to pull the events together?
“I think you can’t fail to be impressed by it, by the amazing logistics involved and the fact that it runs so smoothly. It’s hugely impressive and the people who are invited feel very special.
Are you sad that your year of exploring the gardens has come to an end? What will you miss most about them?
“It’s like any garden you get to know. You love parts of it and you get to see it change with the seasons. I think this programme will remind us how lucky we are in Britain, having seasonality. It’s not like the tropics where the same thing is in flower at any time of year. And the programme points out how much more interesting a garden is, as a result. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to follow that through.”
Why should viewers tune in to The Queen’s Garden?
“I think if you really want to see what goes on over those high walls, this programme will take you right in depth into what exactly is happening there all year round. Both with the plants and the wildlife. It’s like a secret window into a beautiful, hidden garden.”