“How do you become a ‘gardening celebrity’?” asks Adam Frost, letting out a chuckle at the implausibility of his circumstances. “That’s madness. What I feel privileged about is that there’s a decent group of people who think I’m alright.” The star of Flower Show TV coverage, Gardeners’ World regular and award-winning British garden designer is still a little bemused at being recognised in the street, regardless of where he is in the world. Obviously, being on the BBC’s beloved long-running gardening programme has brought him into millions of homes, but now fans are about to discover more about his fascinating story.
He’s off on tour with An Evening with Adam Frost, which calls in at Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre on Thurs 29 Sept. It’ll be packed with smiles, a few naughty bits and plenty of poignant moments, alongside some useful advice for any anyone looking to take their garden to the next level. “It’s literally my life in gardening, which has not been without its moments.” He had quite a difficult childhood, spending much of his time with his grandparents on their allotment, developing a love for growing things and so much of his story centres on what he learned from them. Then we follow him getting moved to Devon at 15, and how that all went wrong. His job at the parks department, wonderful stories about older park keepers and binmen, looking after seafronts and all the interesting things he found along the way.
“Then I moved back to London, and was lucky enough to get a job with Geoff Hamilton…” The impact of his six years with the legendary gardener, broadcaster and author can’t be downplayed. Frost credits the Gardeners’ World presenter as being way ahead of his time and having a profound effect on his own moral compass. “By the end of the show, you should have an understanding of why I care… and why people are important to me… having your hands in the soil and that connection, that safety…” The tour is offering a chance to be brutally honest, and perhaps share things which he’s not said in public before. “If you’re going to do that, you might as well do it in front of a live audience.”
He suggests his own attitude to horticulture is about chasing moments, rather than looking at the bigger picture. Frost’s appearances on Gardeners’ World present a more holistic approach to managing things. It’s about a state of mind rather than a set of demands. “Rarely will you get me saying ‘jobs for the weekend’. I’ll say: ‘here’s something for the weekend, if you fancy it.’ The last couple of years has reconnected people in a certain way. There’s so much to be had from that little space outside your backdoor, which is far more joyous than going to the gym. There are people who conceive it as chore, but there is a growing group who see it as something more.”
The wellbeing benefits are increasingly being acknowledged, with a less traditional demographic getting into the hobby. “There’s definitely a more diverse audience turning up at the shows like Hampton Court and Gardeners World Live. I’d say there are younger people in that environment being drawn into it. I’m lucky that they come and talk to me, so you do get a feeling of what they’re getting out of it.” Frost’s cheery disposition and quiet modesty directly feed into his appeal as a presenter.
I suggest that talking about gardening requires a special breed of person. There’s quite a lot of science involved, although sheer enthusiasm can take you a long way. “If you can explain something in three words, why use six? There’s still a bit of snob factor with horticulture, in how you pronounce things and the right or wrong ways. To be fair, most of it’s a load of old crap…” He says there are certain rules in gardening which you can follow, but the more you understand your own space, the region, the soil and what you can get away with, the better. Really, gardening is just one big experiment.
This constant experiment with blending shapes and colour, taming the landscape and creating something truly personal has become a British obsession over the centuries. From the Romans’ enclosures and Medieval practical spaces to the formal symmetry of the Restoration and Capability Brown’s grand landscaping, that humble patch of land beyond the back door has evolved into something which can inspire and delight. “For the upper classes, you could say this,” concedes Frost. “But for the working classes, it was just about growing food. We live in a part of the world where there’s a huge diversity in what we can grow, so that’s part of it and it’s become part of our psyche. It maybe bridges everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re Prince Charles or Old Jim on the allotment when you’re talking about gardening.” Perhaps this is what makes it special. You don’t need lots of money in your pocket to buy a packet of seeds and grow something on your windowsill. That idea of growing and nurturing can play a part in almost anyone’s life.
His advocacy for growing plants wherever possible stems from his own experiences. “At my first bedsit, I didn’t have an outside space, so I’d grow stuff on the windowsill. Then I had a balcony, so I’d grow herbs and things. Then I had a tiny little garden. As I’ve got older, all that stuff I did early on has played its part on what I do now.” He says he’s been trying to simplify life, so has taken on a slightly smaller home garden. “But I like creating. I love using these,” he says, holding up his hands. Obviously, this has me wondering if his new neighbours have upped their game now a famous gardening expert lives down the road. “A couple have wanted to come round and have a look. But my direct next-door neighbour isn’t that interested in gardening, so we have some lovely chats. But he does keep nosing over the fence, and saying: ‘You’ve turned all the front garden into a veg patch?’ I’m like: ‘You’ve got room to do that, boy.’ I keep joking that I’ll have his garden off him…”
When asked about his secret for creating prize-winning Chelsea Flower Show gardens, he enigmatically suggests: “I just keep doing it.” The Royal Horticultural Society’s spring event seems to be in his blood. His father was a landscaper, who built early gardens there for the renowned John Brookes MBE. Frost would be labouring for him as a teenager, so it was part of his life from early on. Later working with Hamilton, he’d be given tickets. “Let’s be honest, the Flower Show is the closest thing gardening has got to rock and roll. You’d see all these celebrities and think ‘WOW!’” He received some training from David Stevens, who is a massive Chelsea name. “I can remember being at a show and was walking by where he’d built a garden. He pulled the rope up and beckoned me in. I was stood there looking out, and it felt good. This man had created this thing. And was stood there talking about how he’d put the design together and why. I found that fascinating.”
After working with Hamilton, the next journey was setting up a business of his own with a van and a cement mixer. “Somehow that turned into seven gold medals at the Chelsea Flower show, and me ending up on telly on a Friday night.” While running his own company, and quietly designing for other people, he built a garden for Terrance Conran – who took some time to ask about his plans for the future. “We’re stood on the main avenue at Chelsea, and I said: ‘I’d love to do this, but who the hell is going to let me.’ He stopped me and told me why Habitat was set up.” Conran was a joiner, and department stores wouldn’t sell his furniture. So, he opened his own outlets and changed the face of retail. “Somehow I convinced Mrs Frost to spend £18,000 on our first Chelsea garden.” He describes it as an itch he had to scratch. That debut year saw him win his first Gold Medal.
It seems to all come from that one chance conversation. But his projects and ambitions have kept getting bigger. “I’d have these ideas, put them on paper and align them with the people I was making them for. The medals did mean something, but I never really celebrated any of them. I sound terrible, but I just went and did the next one. I love the craic of the 20 days from a blank space.”
These successes meant he was a natural choice for helping present Gardeners’ World, when the Friday night fixture introduced a new hour-long format. But, despite reaching around 120 million people on TV, and building gardens for people all over the world, he says he’s never really had a plan. “I suppose I’ve got up, worked hard, fancied doing something, had a go at it and moved on to something else.”
He’s just finished two busy days of filming, a process which he genuinely enjoys. There’s lots of banter and messing about with the crew and producers, but at the end of the day they’re just filming what he’d probably doing anyway. The celebrity status won’t ever stop him wanting to get his hands in the dirt. “Obviously, like everyone else, the last few years has made me rethink. The garden design practice is my true job, and the rest of it is a lovely little add-on. It’s a load of stuff I can write down at the end and tell my grand-kids about…”
An Evening with Adam Frost, comes to Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre on Thurs 29 Sept, as part of a UK tour