Meet gardening expert Frances Tophill

A now familiar face on BBC Gardeners’ World, TV presenter Frances Tophill is part of the ITV Love Your Garden team, which is currently filming series 10 of this hugely successful show, creating surprise transformations to the outdoor spaces of some very deserving people.
Frances has been involved with the RHS campaign for school gardening and is passionate about inspiring young people to get into horticulture. She is working on a number of community gardening projects in the South West and is also helping the redevelopment of some coastal gardens that were damaged by the 2014 storms. This is a particular passion of hers, having grown up by the sea.
Frances is passionate about sustainability and growing your own, and has her own very productive allotment. The author of 3 successful books, the most recent being Rewild Your Garden: Create a Haven for Birds, Bees & Butterflies, she is currently writing her 4th book.
 Frances recently visited the Weleda gardens in connection with our Get Green Fingers campaign. We jumped at the opportunity to chat to Frances about her passion for gardening and find out what she’s been growing during lockdown.

Do you think people’s relationships with nature have changed since Covid / lockdown?

I  think a lot of people had a chance to appreciate nature for the first-time last year. When the only thing we could do was walk, we went and explored our local environments, we listened to the birds sing, heard the bees buzzing around and I think that changed people’s relationships with nature a lot. Many people were connecting properly with nature for the first time, so yes I think we have all connected a lot more deeply with nature and hopefully thinking about how we can protect it in the future.

Why do you think people have turned to gardening and growing more?

In the last year people have started to garden more for a whole number of reasons, but especially with the lockdown it was a great excuse to get outside. Some people have been financially hit by the pandemic and growing their own produce is a lot cheaper than buying it. Some of us have had time that we haven’t had for a while, to actually dedicate to growing our own herbs and produce. So it has been a hugely growing trend since the lockdown began.

What are the physical benefits of gardening and growing your own?

There are so many physical benefits of gardening and growing your own, including the health benefits from eating fresh produce that is home-grown, and it does taste better I have to say! But also getting outside in the fresh air is so good for us.

What positive impact can gardening have on mental health?

I actually think that the positive impacts on mental health through gardening cannot be quantified because there is just so many of them. In the last year, I have been enjoying a quieter more personal form of gardening - just being outside and in nature is so healing for mental health. But in general, throughout my own career, I have seen people gardening in community spaces where they can connect with others and have a sense of community through gardening. That sense of connection with both people and nature, as well as nurturing something and watching it grow and the hope that brings, can really benefit mental health. There is just so much that we get from nature that makes us feel part of the world, and that’s what human beings need to feel I think, so it is enormously beneficial.

What does ‘making your garden more biodiverse’ mean?

Making your garden more biodiverse means creating an environment that is not just about the specific plants you want to grow, but encouraging all the world’s species into it too. That’s fungus, bacteria, insects, birds, even foxes - everything we can encourage into our garden can really help the whole ecosystem around us, which we are custodians of when we garden.

Why is biodiversity so important?

Biodiversity is hugely important the world over but especially in gardens because so much of the world is made up of gardens. As gardeners, we have a chance to support a huge host of different species, plants, fungus, wildlife, and creating as much biodiversity a possible encourages as many animals as possible to interact with our gardens and find a safe haven which they might not find it in the countryside.

What is your best top tip for a beginner, to make their own garden more biodiverse?

I have two top tips for beginners on how to make your garden more diverse. Firstly, to grow some pollen rich flowers, and secondly bring some water in! If you have water, then you will have the different life cycles of all types of insects, and pollen rich flowers means they have something to feed on. If you bring the insects in, then all the other wildlife will follow.

The research lists what the public has been growing through the pandemic, what are your favourite foods and herbs to grow in your garden?

I absolutely love growing all food and herbs - there are so many I cannot just pick one, but if I had to pick a few I would have to say fennel is definitely one of my favourite herbs because it is so beautiful, it also has an amazing flower which is really beneficial to insects. Coriander I absolutely love because you can eat everything about it, the seeds are just as good as the foliage. And in terms of produce I would have to say tomatoes are my favourite to grow, because they taste so much better when you grow them yourself than any tomato you will find in a supermarket ever!

What have you got growing in your garden at the moment?

Right now, I am growing lots at my allotment! I am growing squashes, courgettes, gherkins, sweetcorn, loads of perennial veg. I am really experimenting with perennial vegetables because you don’t have to dig the soil to grow them and its much better environmentally. I am also growing lots of onions, lots of herbs, everything I can fit in.

What is your favourite dish that you have made using produce you’ve grown?

My favourite dish I have made using my own produce was a really nice tomato pasta that I made last year when we had a huge abundance of different kinds of tomatoes, but I mainly used orange ones and had some smoked mackerel with it. It was absolutely amazing, even if I do say so myself!

What is your favourite time of year to be gardening?

I like gardening at all times of year but my favourite I think is spring. It’s the season of hope - you see everything emerge from the soil, you start to hear all the insects and birds around you. You also start to smell all the fragrances that come from the flowers blossoming and new leaves emerging from the trees. I just think spring is magical.

Is there a gardener that has particularly inspired you or a favourite garden?

There are loads of gardeners that have really inspired me, lots of people who I learned from especially at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. There were so many amazing people who were so full of knowledge. But as for gardeners, I was recently introduced to a video of an amazing woman called Ruth Stout who just grows everything by doing nothing. It’s the most low maintenance veg growing I have ever seen and she covers everything with hay and just grows it in that, so it’s a really low maintenance and sustainable way of gardening.

How old were you when you first started gardening and what did you start with – was it a success?

I was actually quite old when I started gardening, I had a career change; I was 19 when I got my first job as a gardener having never done it before and the first thing I grew was wallflowers.

Why do you think it is so important for companies like Weleda to operate sustainably and support the biodiversity of our planet?  

I think it is so important for companies like Weleda to operate sustainably and support biodiversity because bigger companies have more ability to make a big difference. Individual gardeners can make a difference on a smaller scale, but if big businesses operate in a way that is absolutely sustainable, I think that will save the planet - not to put too much pressure on them!

What’s your favourite Weleda product?

My favourite Weleda product is the Wild Rose Body Oil, I am always using it and it smells amazing.

Which Weleda products would you recommend for gardeners?

Weleda Skin Food and Weleda’s hand cream is something I would recommend for gardeners. They are great for dry skin and dry hands, especially if you are like me and don’t use gardening gloves too often.

What do you like most about the Weleda brand?

What I like most about the Weleda brand is the total dedication to being sustainable and  encouraging biodiversity. The fact that so many of the herbs used in their products are grown locally, I think it is a fantastic business model and I am all about green, sustainability and eco-friendly and obviously growing, so it was the perfect partnership really.

How would you describe your beauty routine and do you use natural or organic products on your skin?

I do try and use organic beauty products as much as possible and think it’s really important. I tend to always use products with SPF as I am outside in the sun all day – in between being in the rain all day - and I try and get the natural moisturisation, which is where products like Weleda Skin Food and the Wild Rose Body Oil comes in handy.

What are your top tips for staying healthy?

My top tips for staying healthy are keep active both in your mind and body, keep learning, have lots of fun. Keep smiling and laughing with friends and family, and obviously keep connecting with nature because that’s what it is all about.

Quick Fire Quiz

Favourite colour?

Particular hobbies?
Pottery, walking, music, sewing, I’ve got lots!

Current book you’re reading?
I am reading Feral by George Monbiot

Top tracks you listen to?

Really embarrassing ones that cannot be mentioned. Lots of Irish folk that I was raised on

Food craving?
Actually salad

Birthday treat?
A picnic in a bluebell wood

Best holiday ever?
South of France when I was 14 with my friend Rosey. We met the most handsome Johnny Depp lookalike

Guilty pleasure?

Eating lots of cake

All-time Weleda favourite?
Wild Rose Body Oil