Ellen Mary is a horticultural broadcaster, podcast and radio show host, TV presenter and author promoting the wellbeing benefits of plants, gardening and nature.
I’ve started reading your latest book ’the joy of gardening’ and you dedicate it to your uncle Albert. Did he introduce you to gardening? How old were you? Can you remember what you enjoyed most?
I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with parents and family members who love gardening. When I researched my ancestry I found a long line of land workers so I guess its in my DNA. My Uncle had a long back garden and at the end was an organic vegetable patch. He used to give me a jam jar and send me off to pick the caterpillars off his cabbages. I have no idea what happened to those caterpillars but just being outside, learning about growing food remains one of my happiest childhood memories.
There is so much scientific evidence that links the benefits of being outside and the positive impact on mental health. How does gardening help you and improve your own wellbeing?
This is a big question and in the end it comes full circle to the fact that the natural world is intrinsic to our wellbeing. We cant eat, drink or breathe without plants so it is entirely clear that in order to thrive, and feel at our best, we need to understand, protect and enjoy being outside. For me personally, I find spending time outside really quite spiritual, it’s where I feel I am meant to be. From getting beneficial bacteria on my hands from the soil, to nurturing a plant to thrive and encouraging biodiversity in abundance, there are so many elements that fit together to provide positive wellbeing for us and all living species. I find especially if I have been really busy or stressed out that gardening helps my mind, body and soul reset.
What is your favourite season and why? I know you split your time between here and the US. Do you like the same seasons in both continents?
My favourite season is spring, no autumn, maybe summer but there is joy in winter too. I can’t decide! There is so much hope and excitement in spring, flowers and harvests in summer, incredible colours in autumn and chill time in winter so it’s impossible to choose. I will say though, fall in North Carolina is absolutely magnificent as the trees change colours. Some areas are spectacular with the changing leaves at a time when it is still a few degrees warmer than in the UK. I don’t want to say it’s my favourite but it is very special.
I would assume it takes a lot of planning to manage gardens in different parts of the world? What are you tools for success?
A spreadsheet! It usually doesn’t go to plan all year but keeping a list of what I have sown, planted and a to do list covering both countries is pretty useful. Apart from that, it is appreciating that I can’t do it all, some things won’t go to plan and just simply being ok with that. For the best part I manage it, but I avoid disappointment by already knowing I might miss a seed sowing date, a pot might not get watered or I might be too late to rescue a plant from a pest.
Where do you draw your design inspiration?
There’s so much inspiration from magazines to social media, well known gardens to neighbours gardens but mostly from nature itself. I strongly believe working ‘with’ nature is the key to good design and making sure that a space is a happy place for the people who are going to be enjoying it.
Do you have a favourite plant/flower and why?
The hardest question for a gardener! There isn’t really any flower that I don’t like but there are a couple which I am particularly partial to and they are entirely different but both linked to memories. The humble Marigold I love for its vibrancy, easy to grow nature and help with pest control but mostly because my Uncle used to plant so many of them and it reminds me of his garden. The other is Peonies which are in bloom for such a short time but completely beautiful and I featured them in one of my first ever TV experiences. I wasn’t sure if they would be blooming on the day of filming and was so worried about it! Turns out they all opened up right on time and made everyone smile.
Which fruit/vegetables do you enjoy growing and why?
All and any! I am plant based so I will grow, cook and eat just about any fruit and vegetable. I give anything a try from Soya Beans to Chickpeas, Peanuts to Achocha and of course all of the usual allotment goodness such as salads, cabbages, beans and strawberries. I have a curious ability to grow prize winning cabbages even though I don’t do anything special with them at all.
You are also a vegan, which vegetable(s) do you think are really verstatile and should be in everyone’s garden?
Anyone can grow leafy greens. They can be grown around ornamental plants, in containers, hanging baskets, raised beds. Most are easy to sow and grow so greens such as collards, salads, the superfood kale and even mircogreens (where you grow seedlings of certain vegetables to about 10cm and then harvest them to add into any food).
For those wanting to help their local environment, which wildflowers would be good to scatter in your garden?
Wildflowers are amazing for pollinators so generally a good mix will benefit a host of insects and pollinators that will contribute to a biodiverse space. There are many mixes available that include seeds such as poppy, cornflower, forget-me-nots, red campion and oxeye daisy. Having a mix means there are different plants at different times of the year.
What are your top tips for a sustainable garden?
Let some of your garden go wild. It’s amazing what grows when you let it. Try to keep everything within the garden from rainwater harvesting so you dont have to use tap water, to recycling everything from using twigs and branches for insect hotels to collect leaves to store as leaf mulch which can be used to replenish the soil. Composting if you have room is a great way to reuse waste and keep soil healthy.
You are quite the polymath, with your radio show, ambassadorial roles. Is there something new you are working on that you can share with us?
My second book ‘how to grow a garden’ will be released on 28th July which is an instructional book for gardening from scratch including botany basics and even decoding a plant label. How I wrote two books in two years I don’t know - but I did and it’s a dream come true. My biggest piece of advice is that life is too short to not be doing what you are passionate about and with that, many opportunities will present themselves.
Learn more about Ellen Mary.