Gardeners' Question Time used to be for silver-haired ladies, but that's changed – gardening has got hip

For 75 years gardeners and non-gardeners alike have listened to the Radio 4 programme. Bunny Guinness reflects on her 25 years as a panelist

Bunny Guinness with a traditional scythe at home near Peterborough Credit: Andrew Fox

It fascinates me when I meet glitzy people who are non-gardeners and they tell me: “Oh my God, I love Gardeners’ Question Time”. And you think, “What, really?” But they also say that when they listen to people talking about green things it makes them feel good. While we all appreciate being in a green space gives you those endorphins, I also think that when you listen to people talk about it, it has a similar effect. 

For 75 years gardeners and non-gardeners alike have been listening to the programme on Radio 4. It was first broadcast on April 9 1947, titled How Does Your Garden Grow – A Gardeners’ Question Time, featuring a panel of three gardening authorities taking questions from an audience of amateur gardeners.

Since then there have been well over 3000 episodes filled with gardening tips and advice.

I must have been 11 when I first listened to the show. Then, when I was 16, I met my husband, who was a big Radio 4 person, and I got into it too.

For the past 25 years I've been a panellist on the show; joining the likes of Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood. The first time I appeared on the programme I didn't sleep. We recorded four episodes over two days and the nerves kept me awake both nights. I even went to the doctor and asked what I could do. He gave me tablets but I didn't take them. 

Still now I can feel the butterflies in my stomach before a recording. I think if you are performing you have to have a little of that. I would worry if my butterflies flew away. It keeps you on your mettle. 

It's important to be on the ball, because, as people always want to know, yes, we really don't know the questions that will be asked in advance. That briefly changed during lockdown, but now it’s back to being completely unprepared. It's so much better when it's on the hoof. And even when you're given the questions in advance, you'll still get three different answers. They’re not necessarily all wrong. It’s just that everyone has their own view. 

'The show has taught me as much as it has the listeners. It's helped shape me as a gardener' Credit: Andrew Crowley

The show has taught me as much as it has the listeners. It's helped shape me as a gardener. Without being on the panel, I think I would have been much more design-focused and less about plants. It's improved my horticultural comprehension working with such a knowledgeable team. Pippa really knows about pests and disease. Matthew Pottage from Wisley is so very knowledgeable, even though he’s a really tender aged lad. And Anne Swithinbank is wonderful with her indoor plant knowledge. It's always lovely learning from them.

There have been many memorable moments but for me it has to be when we recorded in the House of Lords in 2002. Betty Boothroyd asked a question: what two plants should I put outside my front door? I suggested standard bay trees, to which she said, “Oh my goodness, isn't that a bit middle class? And I replied, “Well do you want to go up a level, or down a level?”

The worst moments are always trying to get to the recording in whichever village hall it is that week on time. I remember driving to North Wales in the snow. I was going across country for 20 miles and then I hit a road closure. I knew it meant I wouldn't make it otherwise, so I went straight round the barriers. It was a bit nerve wracking. 

You know you’ve got an audience waiting and you’ll miss the cream tea in the green room beforehand! That’s where all the panelists catch up and ask each other questions. And if it’s a WI hosting then you can be sure of massive cream cakes.

The stereotypical audience used to be silver-haired ladies, but that’s changed a lot. More people are aware of the importance of green spaces and gardening has even become quite hip. It means there’s a much better balance of sexes. The questions have changed subtly as well. 

Gardening isn’t just about cultivating your plot. People want to know about the environment and the health of the planet. 

BBC Radio 4 Gardeners Question Time will celebrate its 75th anniversary with its first garden exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show next month Credit: BBC Radio 4

To celebrate the anniversary, we’re announcing that for the first time, Gardeners’ Question Time will have a garden exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May, complete with an on-site recording studio. It will epitomise a bit of what happens on the show. Designed by my fellow panellist, Matthew Wilson, it’s more of an exhibit than a garden. A playful and relaxing space with GQT artefacts, some personal presenter rarities, and familiar pieces of historic gardening equipment that will trace the evolution of gardening (and GQT) across seven decades.

There will be an old VW Campervan acting as a mobile studio. 

That’s where I think radio has the edge on gardening television. It’s faster paced and more informative. We can be more spontaneous. We’re an odd panel all with our different backgrounds and opinions. And we’re also gardeners, first and foremost, not presenters. 

Gardening television I find is too prescriptive. Gardeners' World is much more Blue Peter-ish. There's not much gardening television I could watch to be honest.

Seventy-five years on and I can’t see Gardeners' Question Time becoming less popular than it is today; we have millions of listeners per show. And as the country gets more into the environment and gardening, I think that can only go up. 

People get really caught up in how difficult it all is, but it's really not. What we try to show is that everybody makes mistakes and that’s all part of the fun. 

No one has the perfect garden. The main thing is to get people to try and then once they start it really does become addictive. 

See Bunny Guinness’s latest Youtube ‘Bunny interviews Alan Titchmarsh’ and ‘The Magic of Metal in the Garden’ here

As told to Boudicca Fox-Leonard