In the garden with BBC Radio 4 presenter Winifred Robinson
- Credit: Archant
When BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Winifred Robinson is not on air she likes to be in the open air, tending her garden in Stockton Heath, writes Mairead Mahon.
Winifred Robinson has beautifully manicured hands. There’s nothing unusual about that, you might think, until you discover that real hands-on gardening is her passion.
That’s because Winifred, who is one of the best known voices on BBC Radio 4, has a pretty extensive collection of gardening gloves. They were one of the first things she packed when she moved to Stockton Heath, near Warrington, a little over a year ago, leaving behind an idyllic cottage garden in Oxfordshire: a garden that had taken her 13 years to create.
So, armed with her gloves, her library of gardening books and her tools, she took a deep breath and assessed her new garden. And it may have taken more than one or two deep breaths because what confronted her was going to take a lot more than a few plants and a water feature to turn into a beautiful sanctuary.
‘It was daunting. The garden had been allowed to run wild and for, one moment, the thought of bringing in a landscape firm to provide me with instant perfection crossed my mind, but it was a fleeting moment and my inner gardener quickly rebelled against it,’ laughs Winifred.
Today, the garden is a delight, packed full of good things, including a herb patch but it took a lot of hard work to transform it. The first thing that Winifred, her husband and son had to do was to arm themselves with that essential gardening tool: black bin bags.
‘It took three of us – with some help from William the dog – all weekend to fill masses of them: 20 on the Saturday alone but it was worth it, allowing me to see the true shape of the garden and to get my mind ticking with ideas,’ says Winifred.
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It also revealed one or two special gifts that had lain hidden for years and one in particular was almost a sign that all was going to be well
‘It was a Whichford basketweave terracotta pot, that had been almost completely covered by undergrowth. I literally fell over it. Ok, you might think, a pot in the garden, not such a big surprise but it was made by a firm near to where we used to live and a perfect match for some I already have. This serendipitous find has pride of place on the patio, filled with succulents. Match the plant to the pot and you’re halfway there,’ Winifred says.
Winifred has a strong sense of heritage when it comes to gardening, believing that we leave our work behind for other gardeners to enjoy and build on; which may have made it a little easier when leaving her Oxfordshire garden behind.
‘The previous owner of my Stockton Heath garden had loved it very much, although his widow had been very old and looking after it had been too much for her,’ Winifred says. ‘As well as the Whichford, he left behind tools and some plants such as a favourite rose of mine, New Dawn. It had been hidden behind a tumbledown greenhouse, as well as a gorgeous blue hydrangea which was hidden behind long grass. However, the greatest gift he left and it is the greatest gift that any gardener can leave future generations – soil rich from years of digging in compost.’
So, the garden was cleared, the soil was good: what happened next?
‘Well, like most people, budget was a consideration and more so for us because we had had massive and essential work to do on the house, including a new roof and of course, it always costs more than you think. So, I bought two smaller, cheaper, fast-growing plants like Montana clematis and jasmine and walked around peering into other people’s gardens to see what flourished. That way, you don’t waste money putting in things that won’t thrive,’ she says.
Cheshire red brick is a different backdrop to the cream stone of her old cottage, as she found out when she planted pink ballerina roses and blue Nigella. ‘They looked straggly and untidy and I realised this Cheshire garden needed to be sharper and smarter.’
She has now hit on a winning formula – a formal layout which suits the house but with informal planting. So much so that she is hopeful of maybe opening it at a later date for the National Garden Scheme.
‘We did this with our cottage garden, as it raises money for charity. Maybe here we could do it as some sort of neighbourhood grouping.
‘My neighbours have been wonderful. As soon as they knew I was a gardener, they donated plants to me. Yes, gardening beats a glass of wine as a bonding exercise every time. But I do have plant envy when I see well-established gardens. I don’t envy things like cars but I’m jealous when I see holly topiary,’ she smiles.
Winifred enjoys finding inspiration from other gardens and gardeners and visiting some of the wonderful green spaces in Cheshire. Friends and family, including her five sisters, are all amazed at the magic she has worked.
Although her mum died some years ago, Winifred knows she would have approved. ‘I was brought up in Liverpool, near the docks, where there wasn’t much colour but my mum and her neighbours used plants in their tiny yards to rectify that: someone even filled a beer barrel with pink roses.
‘Mum was always growing something and had a sense of pride in creating beautiful things and she’s passed it down to me. Is it in the genes? Who knows? But I do keep a record of everything I grow and maybe, one day, my son will appreciate it. Mind you, that will be an extra as, honestly, I also write down planting as an aid to the old memory,’ laughs Winifred. w
Follow her on twitter at @wrobinson101