An audience with Christine Walkden

Posted on Thursday, February 24th, 2011

There is something about celebrity that fills me with nerves. I’m not sure what it is. After all, celebrities are just flesh and blood with the same foibles that we all have, but the fact that they are celebrity sends a shiver down my spine. I’m not sure if it’s the fame that does it for me, as it’s not dissimilar to the nervous excitement I used to feel when presenting to the higher echelons of the financial services company I used to work for in my ‘previous life’. So perhaps it isn’t so much fame as success that gives me a thrill. And Christine Walkden is certainly a success in her field!

Enough of the philosophising and down to Christine. For those of you who don’t know her already from her books and UK television presenters, she is a passionate gardener whose enthusiasm and down to earth manner inspire her readers and television audiences. Lancashire born, she is as direct and pragmatic as you like. She calls a spade a spade. Well, to be honest, she’d call a spade a spade, or a plant support or a slug dispatcher, depending on what it’s most practical to use it for at the time. It was with this knowledge and a little excitement that I proceeded down to our local garden centre today for a talk by Christine Walkden.

Walking into the room I found myself confronted by a few rows of obviously keen gardeners, one of which (dressed plainly in chinos and a blue jumper) was fiddling with an old fashioned revolving slide projector. I then realised that, of course, this innocuous stranger was actually the star of the show. Taking my seat I joined the others in waiting for the tail enders to arrive for Christine to start her talk.

Once everyone was settled, Christine launched swiftly into her talk, the topic of which was how to get 2000 plants in a 20’ by 30’ garden. She started by explaining that gardens are getting smaller all the time, yet we still come to garden centres, buy something we fancy (with scant regard to eventual size or growth rate) and come home to face the problem of where to plant it. We all laughed nervously – how did she know us so well?!

She also expounded the rule of managing expectations…not of plants but of yourself. If you put a shrub in, promising to move it elsewhere in 5 years time when it outgrows the space, how realistic is it that this is going to happen? Like heck it will! The laughter was a little more relaxed this time – clearly she wasn’t using some clever mind-reading technique to reveal all our little secrets, she was simply a gardener like you and me.

Christine then proceeded to spend a good hour explaining to us how we can fit in those 2000 plants (and much more beside) with nothing more than a little imagination and forethought in not buying petite plants from a garden centre which will turn into rambling monsters by the end of the year.

She encouraged us to consider all surfaces to be potential planting areas. Pop a few breeze blocks down to create a bed on a paved area, use crevice planting to have a self-watering trough, create soil-free planting zones with tufa or home-made versions, and look at every part of your garden and think “how can I plant something there?”. A thought struck me – I was intending to paint our recently purchased old fashioned concrete coal bunker to make it a bit less conspicuous, but why don’t I just turn the top of into a planting area? But it’s in shade. No matter, Christine was happy to suggest some plants which would work well there. A new project – lovely!

Don’t restrict alpine plants to rock gardens, she advised. After all, rock gardens are just a way of showing them off, any well drained position will host them nicely. Why not try carnivorous plants? Great for getting kids interested – what little boy wouldn’t enjoy feeding those dead flies that congregate on the windowsill to a plant?! If you’re using a trough for a water feature pop a milk crate upside down in it so it’s made safe for children without losing the planting potential. When planting bulbs in layers (so you can fit more in) water each layer as you go so the bulbs know they are meant to start growing. Plant Saxifraga or Dianthus in walkways, they cope well with being trodden on. Put a sponge through a blender and mix this in with your hanging basket compost instead of expensive water absorbing gel. The tips were coming thick and fast!

Her presentation technique was sometimes mad cap (some tips would need a large health and safety warning in other circumstances!) but always warm and effusive.

At the end of the talk she was happy to answer questions, sign her book (her own paper-based gardening blog, can’t wait to read it) and chat to the audience. It was clear that she will never tire of talking about gardening, and we’ll never tire of listening to her.

As I left, the sky had cleared after a grey morning. I stocked up on compost and headed home for a welcome afternoon in the garden, and to check out the top of that coal bunker.