Lucy Hall is a Trustee of the National Garden Scheme, gardening editor and journalist, Editor of BBC Gardeners' World Magazine until 2022, and previously Deputy Editor of Gardens Illustrated. She now lives in the Cotswolds, tending a small cottage garden that's awkwardly long and narrow.
Where does your passion for gardening originate?
I realised, not long after moving to London at the start of my career, that living in a flat in the city meant the seasons were just a blur. But by sowing a few herb and salad seeds into a windowbox, the time of year and weather really mattered – and nature could seep into daily life again. I was used to seeing fresh herbs being a part of the kitchen all year round, from my Mum's love of food, so was soon itching to have my own garden and grow my own food – for flavour and freshness, but also because the cycle from seed to plate is so complete and rewarding. It's mind blowing how easy it can be and yet so life-enhancing – but so many people think it's not for them, though I hope that's changing.
Does your family share your love of gardening?
I grew up in a family where gardening was part of life. One of my earliest memories is being with my grandfather in his cosy, slightly foggy lean-to greenhouse immersed in the smell of tomato vines, and feeling the love he had for growing and pride in sharing this with his grandchildren – and, I guess, there's a subliminal sense of this warm, nostalgic memory in my annual rituals of tomato growing.
I'm also lucky to now share gardening with my partner, who's every bit as keen as me and far better at pruning! We don't always agree over priorities in the garden, which can hold up decisions – but that generally creates a better outcome. And it's more fun than to do it solo, as gardening really is a greater pleasure when shared.
Who or what has influenced you the most in your approach to gardening and your writing about it?
The first gardening book I bought became my biggest influence throughout both my gardening and garden writing career, though I didn't realise it at the time. It was the first mainstream guide to organic gardening, written by the late, great Geoff Hamilton, former lead presenter of Gardeners' World and pioneer of natural ways of growing. The interconnectedness of gardening, food, wildlife and nature just made sense to me, and I knew then (in the early 1990s) this was to be the way I would grow.
When I became Editor of BBC Gardeners' World Magazine in 2012, I knew it was an opportunity to guide many readers towards a kinder, more wildlife- and climate-friendly ways to garden – and I'm delighted that this is now the norm for newcomers to gardening today. The magazine's two major contributors – Monty Don and Alan Titchmarsh – are both dedicated organic growers who've championed this approach for decades, so I was privileged to be working with them, and many others, in showing what is possible and overcoming prejudices against an organic and wildlife-friendly approach – many of which are deeply entrenched and still influenced by the Victorian approach of conquering a garden rather than working in harmony with it.
How long has your village been opening their gardens to the public? There must be a lot of different styles of garden to celebrate?
Our little village [Wyck Rissington] in the Cotswolds is close to the tourist honey-pots of Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water, but is a world away, hidden down a country lane that appears to go nowhere! So it's a great discovery for visitors to our National Garden Scheme group opening day, which happens every other year (and comes round again in September 2024). Three or four larger gardens anchor the group, offering a mix of styles from cottage to formal, contemporary and naturalistic, with a range of smaller gardens offering enticing and intimate places to enjoy. This is why I love group openings so much, and why they're such a popular part of the NGS offering, by drawing garden visitors with a range of styles and experiences.
The village is set around a lovely wide green, home to the all-important village hall, where for open days you'll find me front of house (as I do love to chat!), welcoming guests for our legendary afternoon teas. Pretty much everyone in the village who's not opening their garden gets involved, baking and serving, or at the less glamorous end – directing traffic and dragging stuck cars out of muddy fields at the end of the day! It's a true collective effort, for a great cause.
Do you have a favourite part of your garden & why?
In late summer, I have two beds packed with flowers, showcasing favourite dahlias amidst a cast of seed-raised cosmos, tithonia, sunflowers and rudbeckias. Simple, single flowers are the focus, creating a magnet for bees – and for me, as I can lose myself, pottering and deadheading amidst the buzzing of the beds. But this is the best way to learn about plants, getting up close and personal with them, spotting what's looking a bit stressed and why.
When I do eventually open, it's the bird life that I hope visitors will notice. From trees and hedges for shelter, to insect-attracting flowers and, of course, a range of bird feed always available, my garden is designed to support wildlife of every type, in every month. Key to this is attracting insects of all types, and then the larger creatures will follow. So not just bumblebees and butterflies but flies, moths, caterpillars, beetles and yes, even slugs and snails... the Ugly Bug Ball is all welcome, as it's food in the great chain of life.
Have there been any particularly challenging spots in creating your garden?
One of the garden's major attractions for us was its maturity, with established trees and hedges that provide a haven for birds. But with this woody growth comes dense tree roots and dry earth, so soil improvement is a constant need. Dry soil rarely needs more water, instead its structure needs a boost – by adding organic matter to feed it and open it up, it will retain more water when it arrives. So, we've learned to mulch a lot, to make as much leafmould as we can from the natural bounty of leaves that falls, and also to grow from seed by preference, as this means you raise sturdy young plants that will thrive whatever the conditions.
Do you have any future plans for adding features or new schemes to your garden?
This winter – with some trepidation – we're replacing a run of tired (and frankly dull) privet and laurel hedging, that provides little for wildlife, with a mix of native and berrying plants that will support a greater range of creatures. It will mean, however, the temporary loss of mature plants, so we'll be working hard to get the right plants into the gaps quickly – calling for good planning and timing.
The biggest omission from our garden is we have no pond, so creating a wildlife-friendly pool is top of my wishlist. It's a whole new frontier of gardening and, while I've created a pond before, there's a lot to learn in gardening with water to ensure it works as a thriving new habitat.
Our final priority is to save more rainwater so we rely less on mains water on the hottest days – which is a terrible use of expensively processed water. We already have butts and a large dipping tank but as our climate moves to more erratic rainfall, the challenge is to find further ways to capture water and keep it locked up in our plants and soil rather than risking run-off into the street. With this in mind, I've already scrapped a planned paved area, and will use porous gravel instead; while our front garden will become more densely planted around the car parking space. It's all a work in progress!
Gardening Advice & Design
What three pieces of advice would you give to a gardener starting out?
Time is on your side in the garden – so don't rush at it, ripping things out only to regret it later. Gardening is a slow pleasure, allowing you to ease back, and work with the rhythms of nature rather than those imposed by modern life. Sow a seed, plant a tree – nothing happens overnight in gardening, and it should be embraced for that reason.
Be nosy – look around your local area to see what grows well in neighbours' and open gardens. There's your clue to what will grow well in your ground – and unless you hate it, then go with the flow because success is more fun than dead plants.
Choose what you want your garden to do for you – not what friends or family (or TV and magazines!) tell you. So if you love your food, plan for the best place to grow fruit and veg (preferably somewhere sunny), and where you'll eat it. If it's a space to entertain, track the sun through your plot to work out the best spot for your morning coffee bench, another for your table at lunchtime and a seat for evening cocktails! Everything else plays second fiddle to this primary goal. And once settled, just dive in – a seed won't grow in its packet, and a plant in the wrong place in future can always be moved.
Which other gardeners and gardens do you admire?
I've been so lucky to work behind-the-scenes with the biggest names in gardening and watch how hard they all work to make gardening feel accessible, and yet it comes across effortlessly to viewers and readers. The list is long and includes Monty and Alan, of course, plus the talented women in horticulture who've inspired me and so many others – including Carol Klein, Rachel de Thame, Pippa Greenwood, the Queen of herbs Jekka McVicar, and today's brightest talents, Frances Tophill and Arit Anderson.
The gardening chefs who champion homegrown and seasonal food have also put gardening firmly on the radar for foodies, with first among them Raymond Blanc, plus Jamie Oliver and, more recently, Marcus Wareing – showing what is possible when you bring the freshest produce into the kitchen.
And finally, I really admire King Charles for opening his garden at Highgrove and sharing what is a deeply personal space with thousands of visitors every year. He could easily shut it away and not face the damning criticism of self-appointed taste-mavens but it's exactly what an individual, home garden should be: your own creation reflecting your life.
Finally, three gardens I think should be on everyone's bucket list to visit for glorious planting at any time of year are the new RHS Bridgewater, near Manchester, Great Dixter in East Sussex and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – while for a vision of gardening in the future, beat a path to Knepp in West Sussex.
What do you think have been the biggest changes in gardening in the last 10 years?
The greatest change in gardening over the past decade has been awareness of how our actions impact the wider environment, not just our personal space. Taking a lead from nature, growing more native plants and acting for the benefit of wildlife have all entered the mainstream, and few gardeners today are unaware of the negative impact that, for instance, using peat or herbicides can have.
In design terms, gardeners have become more adventurous, translating bold 'catwalk' styles from show gardens into real-world gardens, particularly in cities. The joyous colour palette used by designer Manoj Malde in his Mexican-inspired 2017 Chelsea Flower Show garden, for instance, has since filtered into outdoor paints, furnishings and materials – proving we all love a splash of colour amidst the urban grey!
Are there any trends/changes that you see coming in the next 10?
Climate change will shape our gardening methods and planting styles in the future, as gardens become a vital frontline in helping to keep cities cooler and less prone to flooding, protect our wildlife and reduce fresh food air miles. The days of widespread plastic- and peat-use in the garden are numbered, with peat being banned for amateur use in England and Wales in 2024 and the future of plastic 'grass' under debate, as a petition calling for its ban gathers momentum. The withdrawal of toxic chemicals – once the mainstay of home gardeners in the 1970s and '80s – will continue, so finding solutions that work with nature is vital.
With such a need for greater understanding of gardening, the role of gardening in schools will grow, with a place on the curriculum looking likely within a few years. Meanwhile, gardening will grow in value within healthcare, for its physical and mental benefits, as a positive way to boost exercise and reduce isolation by bringing people together in a social activity with proven benefits – a move that has already started through social prescribing by GPs.
It's a positive future that I see for gardening, moving from being simply a personal pastime to becoming a vital part of this nation's wellbeing. And with gardens covering as much ground in the UK as our nature reserves, gardeners can make a big difference if we all take just a few small steps together, in the right direction.