Book review: The People's Gardener by Jim Buttress

For a career dug out of the soil of the lush English countryside, the early shoots of celebrity gardener Jim Buttress's life were anything but green.

Wednesday, 8th June 2016, 10:00 am
The Peoples Gardener byJim Buttress
The Peoples Gardener byJim Buttress

Born on the tenth floor of a tenement block in the less salubrious East End of Glasgow – without even a window box to colour the view – Buttress could have been forgiven for thinking that a garden might only be a handy place to put a storage shed.

But the amiable expert, now aged 71, who was a Superintendent of the Royal Parks, a respected RHS judge and more latterly a popular judge of the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge, caught the gardening bug long before he started school… and has never looked back.

So how did the boy who grew up in the south-east of England (next stop for baby Jim when his dad’s wartime naval service in Scotland ended) go from naughty schoolboy to one of the most popular and successful gardeners of the modern era?

In his warm, fascinating and fun-filled memoir, the suitably down-to-earth Mr Buttress spills the beans on a lifetime of doing the job he adores, winning awards and accolades beyond his wildest dreams and meeting an eclectic cast of characters, from a herd of elephants in Hyde Park to the Queen and her entourage of corgis.

The seeds of Buttress’s gardening career were sown in the family’s large and productive back garden, his grandfather’s smallholding, where young Jim quickly fell in love with the great outdoors, and on trips to gardening, flower and produce shows with his dad.

By the tender age of four, the gardening-mad lad was regularly receiving watering cans, wellies, spades and seeds for his Christmas presents and had his own small vegetable patch to grow produce for shows.

But when it came to education, the boy proved to be to learning ‘what bindweed is to successful gardening’ and he often used punishment periods – locked in the school’s walled garden – to do bits of gardening work.

When he left school at 16, Buttress spent several years working at a local nursery where the teenager took special delight in Sixties-style pest control… fumigating the large greenhouses with ‘a handful of nicotine shreds and a big box of matches.’

Next stop, despite reservations about going back to academic studies, was a two-year horticultural course at RHS Wisley College, a tough choice for a young man who freely admitted that the only thing he had ever read cover to cover was the Crystal Palace FC programme!

But it was the start of a successful career which began with a job as Garden Supervisor with Greater London Council and led to his Royal Parks appointment, gold awards at the Chelsea Flower Show, elevation to RHS judge, TV celebrity status and winner of the much sought after RHS Victoria Medal of Honour.

Through the seasons that he had always followed in his gardening year book, Buttress had grown, developed, thrived and blossomed into the man we now know as the people’s gardener…

In his Foreword, fellow gardener Alan Titchmarsh describes Buttress, best known for his trademark bowler hats, as ‘a man comfortable with plants and companionable with people.’ And it is this irresistible blend of expert and extrovert that makes the former royal gardener such an entertaining raconteur.

Imbued with Buttress’s irrepressible sense of humour, powerful passion for gardening and keen eye for the absurd, this rollercoaster journey from tenement to royal palace will delight gardeners and anyone who loves a good tale.

(Sidgwick & Jackson, hardback, 16.99)