by Silvana de Soissons•15th August 2011
Having the editor of one of Britain’s leading garden magazines coming to your house for lunch is a very daunting prospect indeed. One way round the embarrassment of revealing your humble, wild and untamed plot is to focus, for several days at least, on producing a really hearty meal, so that there is next to no time left to wander round outside. That, and pray for rain.
As luck would have it Tamsin Westhorpe is as cheery and relaxed about gardening as the magazine she has stewarded for the last two years. The English Garden is the real gardener’s magazine of choice, featuring ordinary people who create extraordinary gardens through hard work, commitment and passion. It is not a media platform for the glossy glory of stately homes and millionaires’ mansions, but rather the gritty tale of grafting cottage gardeners and nursery owners and the creative narrative of deeply personal spaces within limited budgets.
Much of the planting schemes shown are done by seed and by recycling old materials into new designs. Inspiration is garnered and corralled from the Bible of all horticultural voyeurism, “The National Garden Scheme Yellow Book”.
“That is actually how we find many of the gardens that we feature in the magazine. Word of mouth also plays a very important part in what we do. We have a really loyal team of writers and photographers and they refer great gardeners, gardens, plant nurseries, florists, ideas, cooks and places to us.”
The magazine is published by Archant, along with its sister publication, The Edible Garden. The team consists of just five people, and every month, across the seasons, they weave a pictorial and literary tapestry showcasing the very best on offer: from gardening books to National Trust hints and tips, growing your own food, improving your horticultural techniques, buying garden tools and equipment, visiting classical gardens or designing modern borders. From patios, pergolas, potagers and pruning, over 80 pages of beautiful gardening news, views and stories are delivered for just under £4, or an annual subscription of £36.
I am an Italian living in Britain for two decades, and it is fair to say that the Italians live to eat, but the English live to garden. The Horticultural Trades Association represents the majority of the UK’s ornamental horticulture and gardening industry and they have estimated that in 2011 the industry is worth £9 billion per annum and employs some 300,000 people across the entire supply chain, which constitutes 38% of the workforce employed in arable agriculture. Gardening is Britain’s favourite hobby, and The English Garden reflects its joys, its woes, its beauty and its challenges in bright, celebratory technicolour.
“I certainly appreciate all the hard work that goes into a beautiful border,” Tamsin told me. “When I look at the August front cover, for instance, I know that the hands that dug, composted, sowed, planted, watered and pruned that soil and those plants have spent hundreds of hours refining and perfecting it. I can feel the pain, the tears and the joy.”
There is a definite thread that runs from the plot to the plate, from the soil to the sideboard. Readers can find out how Mark Diacono, author of “Taste of the Unexpected” prunes his blackcurrants to create maximum yield, how Sarah Wain of West Dean Gardens grows chillies and cooks with them, how a visit to RHS Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire becomes a gastronomic outing with a visit to Betty’s Café Tea Rooms.
Many cooks are gardeners and many gardeners are cooks: the holistic approach of the magazine blurs the boundaries between these two lines of human endeavour. You will frequently see flower borders filled with herbs, cabbages and onions, and vegetable gardens overflowing with nasturtiums, calendulas and dandelions, all harvested for the salad bowl.
It is very interesting for me, above all, to find out how unconventional Tamsin’s career path has been. She is the first to admit that her career opportunities have arisen from a fortuitous mix of luck, chance, serendipity and sheer hard work.
“I left school at 16, as I really was not at all academic, and I started working in my great uncle’s nursery at Burford House Gardens near Tenbury Wells. I looked after the till, I untangled the clematis and did all kinds of manual chores.”
Eventually Tamsin enrolled to do a National Certificate in Interior Landscaping at Sparsholt College near Winchester, and as part of her training she had to do work experience in Bournemouth Parks Department, picking up litter, mowing, weeding and also managing bowling greens. She was up at 5am each morning in order to make sure that all the lines were straight on the grass, all the edges were trimmed and all the bins were emptied.
After she finished at College she had a variety of jobs including working at different garden centres, lecturing students who were training for their RHS certificates, owning a plant and flower shop, working for a television production company and working for Amateur Gardening Magazine. Tamsin told me:
“At Amateur Gardening Magazine I really cut my teeth. I became its Deputy Editor, and as it is the country’s oldest gardening magazine it is held in really high regard by many professionals. It is where Alan Titchmarch used to work before he became a television presenter. It is a weekly title, so you have to work really efficiently and accurately, with speed, to produce the articles.”
Then, one day, just over two years ago, aged just 37, she received a phone call asking whether she would like to go to an interview at The English Garden magazine which was then looking for a new editor.
“I swotted up all night, I looked through all my old gardening magazines, I took in a whole suitcase of ideas of what I could achieve, and, surprising even myself, I got the job,” she confides.
Ever self-deprecating she never flaunts her own intelligence, exuberance and people skills as the real reasons for her success. Awards have rolled in every year as appreciation for the magazine’s practical, democratic and encouraging voice has spread.
“I suppose that in doing all the various different jobs I did before becoming editor put me in very good stead. I learned about how people treat you when you are in a lowly position and I learned how difficult it is to sell anything to anyone. For people to buy a magazine, particularly now that the recession is biting so hard, we have to really work hard in its production, to offer excellent value for money,” Tamsin explained.
She also told me that her years as a lecturer at Kingston Maurwood College in Dorchester have been invaluable in teaching her how people value accuracy, are hungry for knowledge and crave understanding. The didactic approach of the magazine is informed and embedded by and within this philosophy.
Tamsin tells me there are many plans in the offing:
“I really want to focus more on social media and engage with our readers online. I hope to discover new gardeners and showcase new, really interesting gardens, owned by normal people as well as finding and launching new, talented writers.”
I ask her what advice she would give to new and aspiring gardening writers, who wanted to get a foot on this very competitive ladder and make a living out of their passion. She told me:
“You need to be very focussed indeed to get into garden writing, simply because there are so many people already involved in the business. I would advise to get your work published by your local newspaper, because you would be amazed how quickly your name may be picked up by a bigger title. Work for free initially, just to get your foot in the door: go to garden shows, root out a new nursery, a new garden open to the public or a new plant hybrid and then write about it. Above all, get your hands and knees in the soil and get gardening. Experience and knowledge can only come through hard work.”
Tamsin is going to write about her own attempts to develop and improve her one acre garden near Leominster. She acknowledges she does not have a great deal of spare time, as commuting to and from Cheltenham every day, where the magazine is based, and raising a 5 year old son means her gardening hours are precious.
“I suppose I look at my own life as the underlying reference point for all my readers: we are all short of time, yet we all want a lovely garden. So what The English Garden tries to show is that it can all be guilt free. You do not need a vast budget or lots of time to achieve a pretty garden. Just enjoy it all, that’s the most important thing.”
The English Garden
Follow Tamsin and the team on Twitter: @TEGmagazine