The gardening culture in the United Kingdom is strong and ingrained in society, much more so than it is in the United States. To talk about what it’s like to be a gardener across the pond, joining me on the podcast this week is Bunny Guinness, a regular panelist on the long-running BBC Radio 4 program “Gardeners’ Question Time.”
Bunny is a landscape architect and journalist in Peterborough, England, and the host of the new podcast “Bunny in the Garden with…” She’s co-authored a book with King Charles and been a panelist on “Gardeners’ Question Time” for 25 years. She has won multiple gold awards from the Chelsea Flower Show for her designs and has penned several books on gardening.
“Gardeners’ Question Time” is the first podcast that I listen to in my feed every week. With no advance notice of the questions, Bunny and her colleagues masterfully give thorough answers. It’s an entertaining and educational program that brings many perspectives on the most successful ways to garden.
Before continuing with my conversion with Bunny Guinness, I want to pause a moment to let you know my Online Gardening Academy™ Master Seed Starting Course will open up for enrollment on January 23. You can sign up to be notified. You can also register right now for my free webinar Seed Basics & Beyond: 9 Things to Know Before You Start Plants From Seed. There will be four opportunities to attend between January 24 and 27.
Bunny Guinness’s Path to Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
Bunny didn’t pursue horticulture as a career at first. Though her family was heavily involved in horticulture — she is the niece of renowned rose breeder David Austin — she says weeding for pennies and listening to adults rattle off Latin names probably turned her off. She initially studied food science at the University of Reading but soon realized she would be in a laboratory her whole life, and she did not want to spend her life indoors.
“Then I met someone doing a horticulture degree,” she recalls. “So I took the year out, worked in horticulture, and came back to study horticulture. And I think that was the best decision I made because it is that lovely mix of science and art and being outside and meeting people.”
Bunny says few people pick horticulture in school these days because the perception is horticulture is all low-paid, outside, hard work — things that aren’t particularly trendy.
During her year trying out horticulture when she was 18, she worked for a garden advisory service, doing tests and trials in labs, visiting growers, and growing Encarsia formosa, a parasitoid wasp used for scale and whitefly control in greenhouses.
“Then I did my horticulture degree, and I didn’t even know landscape architects existed,” Bunny says. A university lecturer suggested landscape architecture as a postgraduate degree and career path, which she explains is more viable than a career in garden design.
“There aren’t many firms that employ garden designers,” she says. “They’re usually one-off people who learn by doing it. Whereas when you’re a landscape architect, there’s a much bigger range of jobs.”
Bunny did commercial work and worked under highly qualified landscape architects, gaining invaluable experience. Then her husband, a farmer turned accountant, encouraged her to set up her own firm. “That’s what gave me the final push. and I’m so glad I did that because it’s lovely being your own boss,” she says.
Bunny says it’s harder work being her own boss but in terms of satisfaction, there are much bigger rewards. She also has the benefit of being a landscape architect who also has a degree in horticulture. Many landscape architects don’t have a background in horticulture and work at firms that hire horticulturists to fill that knowledge gap.
Making a Garden in the Cotswolds
Bunny lives up in the tail end of the Cotswolds, where old stone walls, buildings and roofs are common. She and her husband bought an old farm an hour’s commute from London with a rundown farmhouse with big stone barns and old tin sheds. In the field where their cattle and sheep graze, an old medieval village is underground.
The core of the main building dates back to the 12th or 13th century and has a vaulted undercroft, where, historically, the sheep may have lived. The farmhouse was an addition built in the 17th century.
The property was a tenant farm for a long time, so the occupants did not make long-term plans, such as planting trees. When Bunny moved in, the first thing she did was order a thousand tiny trees. Now, the tree belt has grown into an effective windbreak that shelters the garden.
Bunny did the improvements on her property in an inexpensive way, growing most of the hedges and plants from cuttings. Her clients are happy to buy huge, mature trees, but her father was a self-made man, and she inherited his economical way of doing things.
She says nothing beats homegrown, but she acknowledges the expense of fresh vegetables from a home garden compared to field-scale growing.
A lot of us would probably not want to do a spreadsheet to see how much we’ve spent versus the economics of what comes out of it, but at the same time, we love what we do, and that’s often why we garden. And once you get your systems down, it’s very efficient and very affordable.
Bunny at the Chelsea Flower Show
The Chelsea Flower Show is the world’s largest and most prestigious gardening show. To win anything there is a big deal, and Bunny has won the coveted gold medal six times.
Bunny first took a shot at Chelsea by entering a competition sponsored by Gardens Illustrated Magazine. The top prize was a spot at Chelsea, though Bunny was the runner-up. Then she competed in a contest run by the Sunday Times for the same prize and was the runner-up again. Her third go was a competition with Wyevale Garden Centers, and she won.
The prize meant a garden of her design would be built at Chelsea and her expenses would be paid. Her husband, with his accountant’s hat on, questioned why she would do this show for just her expenses when she could be working for paying clients, but being at Chelsea was a phenomenal promotion of her business, she says.
She went back five more times. She says designs are submitted a year ahead of time and the best are selected by a panel. Each garden is quite large and every bit has to be perfect, with 25 plants per square yard — and these are show plants, not little piddlers, she says.
“You have to order almost twice as many plants as you use because you’ve got to pick the best, and so it is a bit like flower arranging when you plant them,” she says.
Her first garden for the Chelsea Flower Show was called “The Wind in the Willows.” It was designed to be a children’s garden with water features that are safe for kids.
Her inspiration was a garden party she threw when her children were young. She had hired a clown to entertain the kids, but the children were in the pool chasing the frogs and trying to catch the fish. “No one was listening to the clown, and that’s what made me think that really, children’s gardens are amazing. They’re better outside than anywhere. They’re easier to entertain.”
Wind in the Willows included a river with an underwater grid that children could walk on, a drainable paddling pool and a house with a chimney that children could climb up to get on the roof.”
It was a natural-looking space, with natural-looking swings and things to climb, rather than the ubiquitous orange and blue plastic playground equipment.
Wind in the Willows inspired Bunny’s first book, “Family Gardens.” “No one had done one quite like that before, and that was great fun to do,” she says.
Her next Chelsea garden was “Working from Home,” with a treehouse that was an office. This required finding a tree that was big enough for a treehouse but small enough that it could be transported through London without an escort. She found one on a farm next door, and excavated it on a cold day with a tree spade. When it was lowered down on a platform, a big limb cracked. They bound the limb back on the tree, and nine months later, it burst into leaf, Bunny says.
In another year, she designed a double-decker garden with a building in it, with a glass roof and a covered space below with an outdoor fireplace. They got the biggest walkable glass sheet they could get — 6 by 10 meters — and nearly lost it when it was lowered down into place. “Always these cliffhangers,” Bunny says. “Maybe it’s me.”
Bunny has also been on the Chelsea selection panel and has served as a judge. She says it is no doubt the biggest boost to the garden industry in the United Kingdom. People come from all over the world, and it gets press coverage all over the world, she says.
Chelsea gardens cost £300,000 to £400,000 each now as they have become more sophisticated over the years. “Which in a way I think is a shame,” Bunny says. “I think it would be nice if there were some that were more pertinent to the average gardener and they weren’t all these sort of feats of stainless steel and this, that, and the other.”
My one and only time visiting the Chelsea Flower Show was in 2022. The theme was “wild,” and the gardens were very beautiful, though beyond the reach of many of the people who visit the show or watch on television. I did find the information, ideas and inspiration were more realistic than in prior years.
The United States doesn’t have an outdoor garden show that compares to the Chelsea Flower Show. We do have the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is large but an indoor event, except for a period during the pandemic when it was held outdoors.
Gardening is more woven into the culture in the U.K. The U.S. gardening culture, unfortunately, doesn’t demand a massive outdoor show. Bunny points out that the range of climates in the U.S. could also explain why a national outdoor show isn’t as appealing in the U.S.
“Gardeners’ Question Time”
“Gardeners’ Question Time” has been running for more than 75 years, It includes three panelists and a chairman, and often takes questions from a live audience.
“It amazes me that every week, 52 weeks of the year, you can get 12 gardening questions for that long a period and still have 2 million listeners a week,” Bunny says. “That just tells you something about our country, doesn’t it? We do love gardening. We’re passionate about it.”
She adds that many listeners aren’t gardeners themselves but they like the warm feeling they get hearing about plants and outdoor spaces.
The show travels the United Kingdom, taking place in spaces from as small as a tiny village hall to as large as a 2,000-seat theater. The panel does not know what the questions are before they are asked live.
“When you garden, when I garden, when anyone gardens, we all do it slightly differently, and I think it’s interesting to hear different people’s take on it, which is why it’s better that it’s spontaneous,” Bunny says.
“Highgrove: A Garden Celebrated”
In 2014, Bunny published “Highgrove: A Garden Celebrated” with a famous co-author. You may have heard of him. Back then, his title was Prince of Wales, but today he goes by King Charles III.
Highgrove House is the family residence of the king and Queen Camilla, with organic gardens planned and planted by Charles over the course of more than 30 years.
She had freedom of access to the garden and could ask any questions she had so she could write about how the garden is managed throughout the year, week to week.
“The king has done great things for horticulture in this country because he’s promoted it,” she says, noting that he also has access to the world’s top experts.
Charles bought Highgrove in 1980. It was a faded country house then, Bunny says, but big, with lovely parkland around it with old oak and ash trees.
“We call it wood pastures in this country,” she says. “So around a lot of the sort of stately homes and the big houses, you have individual specimen trees with grass mown by sheep or cattle beneath it, and you get this typical browsing line. So the trees cut off on the bottom of their canopies in a flat line because that’s the height the cattle or the sheep can reach. So it’s a very perfect type of landscape, and that was one of the reasons he bought Highgrove.”
Some of those ancient trees around Highgrove are 1,000 years old, according to Bunny. It also had a walled garden that was used for keeping pigs.
Charles called in John White from the Westonbirt national arboretum next door to learn how to lay out an arboretum. Charles now has cherry trees, which he loves for spring and autumn color, and Japanese maples.
He also worked with Molly Salisbury, among other garden designers. “It was fascinating speaking to all these people who helped him,” Bunny says.
She says what she found most extraordinary was that a man from a family that is not a gardening family — who had only planted the odd ceremonial tree — wanted to create a wonderful garden.
“The queen and the queen mother have lovely gardens, but you didn’t actually see them out there with spades planting snowdrops or anything,” she says. But when King Charles was a prince, he’d come to Highgrove on weekends, jump out of the car, go in the front door in his suit, and come straight out the backdoor in work clothes with his spade and do the physical work alongside young gardeners who struggled to keep up.
“He really puts his heart and soul into that garden, not just physically, but the planning, choosing the right people to help him,” Bunny says. “And then it’s a showcase, and he hasn’t just done it as a lovely rich man’s plaything. He has used his garden really to promote horticulture and his charities.”
If you go looking for the book, note that the U.S. release, published in 2015, is titled “Highgrove: An English Country Garden.”
“Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness”
Bunny worked with physiotherapist Jacqueline Knox, who was the Pilates coach for the GB Olympic Rowing Team, on the book “Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness.”
Bunny had helped on the design of a garden for Jacqueline, and when they got to know each other, it led to the book idea — how to keep yourself fit for gardening.
Bunny recalls Jacqueline telling her: “Every spring my studio just fills up with all these people coming in, sort of click to one side because their neck’s gone or their back’s gone, or their knees have gone, and they’ve spent all winter doing nothing, and then they race out to hit the weeds and turn the soil or whatever. And then they obviously get injured.”
Bunny herself would get slipped discs from falling while trying to carry a heavy bag of soil on an icy path, and garden tasks like that. Jacqueline taught her about core muscles, how to bend, how to carry weight balanced in both hands, and how to warm up before gardening and stretch after,
“If you go into the garden and you spend an hour weeding, an hour doing a bit of hoeing, and an hour pushing the mower, that is equivalent to doing an hour full on in the gym,” Bunny says.
Because your mind is in it and you enjoy it, you don’t realize what you’re putting your body through, she says. After four months off in winter, then spending dawn to dusk outside for a day in spring, “you’re a crock the next day,” she says.
“I do think it’s worth just learning how to look after your body when you garden. And then you’ll be doing it forever and you’ll be gardening forever. And then you’ll be mentally happy, hopefully, physically fit, and you’ll be enjoying yourself.”
“Bunny in the Garden with…”
Bunny’s new podcast, “Bunny in the Garden with …”, is a series of interviews with people who aren’t professional gardeners but are keen gardeners. Her first two guests are soccer player Eric Dier and actor Jim Carter, best known as Mr Carson on “Downton Abbey.” She’s also recorded an episode with Mary Berry, the English food writer and a presenter on “The Great British Bake Off.”
“Basically, the podcast is we talk to someone who’s famous for something else … but they love gardening,” Bunny says. “And it’s talking to them about their gardens, how they got into it, their tips, why they garden, what they don’t like. And so it’s just really getting to know them through their idea of gardening. Because I think when I walk into someone’s house or garden, you can immediately tell a lot about them, can’t you? Whether they’re tidy-minded, whether they’re all over the place, whether they’re organized, whether they’re lively, whether they’re lazy, whether they’re active, whether they love animals. There’s so much you can tell from someone’s garden. And I think that’s a fascinating way to explore people’s character.”
If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Bunny Guinness on gardening in the U.K., you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you follow English gardening design practices? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. We will open up for enrollment on January 23. Sign up to be notified.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Highgrove: An English Country Garden” by Bunny Guinness
“Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness” by Bunny Guinness and Jacqueline Knox
“Garden Transformations: Designer Secrets and Tricks of the Trade” by Bunny Guinness
“Bunny in the Garden with …” Podcast
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.