Perhaps the best thing to ask about Ellen Mary is: what doesn’t she do?
One of Grow Your Own Magazine'sTop 5 Women Influencers in Horticulture, she hosts a gardening podcast, gardening radio show, presents gardening TV content, appeared on BBC Countryfile, filmed with BBC News, the Royal Horticultural Society, and has been featured in The Times. She is also the Horticultural Coordinator for the Royal Norfolk Show. With around 13.2K followers on Instagram and growing, she’s promoting gardening in a fresh, new way.
Here’s what happened when we had a chat with her.
It’s really nice that you’re taking a fresh approach to gardening! You do lots of garden-related media things: podcasting, TV, etc – how would you define yourself?
Ellen Mary: I get asked this question almost every single day, and I always say, at the end of the day I’m a gardener. That’s what I do – I’m a gardener. What I do is sort of promote it. So, I don’t really know, I’ve been wracking my brain for a description for probably over a year now. I do many different things, but I’m a gardener first!
How did you get started in the first place?
Ellen Mary: When I was really tiny, 18 months / 2 years old, and my parents had a kitchen garden and I used go to the end of the garden and pick the peas from the pods – that’s when they taste the nicest. I really believed that there were fairies underneath the shed, it was kind of like a magical world for me. My uncle had an organic kitchen garden and I used to go and help him there, and so it’s always been a thing in our family – everyone’s always loved gardening.
When I was at school, I didn’t really talk about it so much I guess, it wasn’t really a thing. So I spoke to my careers teacher and she asked me: what do I love doing? I said, “well I love plants”. She completely dismissed it and told me I could be a teacher or a nurse. And you know, when you’re 15, 16, you don’t know any different, you don’t know any better.
I ended up falling into a job in HR and Business Management, and I don’t regret it – it’s a great career – but all the time I was doing that, I was still gardening. I was still learning about gardening, and I started to work in other people’s gardens at the weekends.
I just realised pretty soon that life is really a bit too short to not be doing something you’re really passionate about. I took some certificates with the RHS, and after I left my job I did some workshops in collaboration with THRIVE, a charity working on social therapy and horticulture.
I became a jobbing gardener doing other people’s gardens. Somebody asked me to write a column for a nature magazine about gardening, and then from there we had a local TV station called Mustard TV, I got to learn how to produce and present on TV. They wanted somebody to do all the gardening content, so I started writing and producing and presenting a gardening show as well.
And everything probably came from that, and then from there in the last year, it’s just gone really bananas! It’s just great, but some people ask me “what did you do to get there?” and I’m like: I have no idea!
Is there an area you enjoy the best?
Ellen Mary: At the end of the day everything contributes to spreading awareness about how good gardening is. So I enjoy anything promoting gardening: whether that’s like actual tips or how to garden, or the wellbeing benefits of gardening, or anything that’s reaching an audience. I just think if one person listens to what you say, and thinks OK I will give this a go, then you’ve done a good job. I think the talks are probably best, where you’re actually face-to-face with people. Because I think you have a closer interaction, on a personal level with people, and you make eye contact. It’s probably my favourite of everything I do, definitely.
The project you worked on – No Fear Gardening – it says online that it was the first live horticultural TV show. Is that right?
Ellen Mary: Yeah it’s so mad! Michael Perry and I decided we would do a live show using the TV studios of Norwich City College for their project. It was live on YouTube and Facebook, and we had a studio audience. Nothing like that had ever been done before, so it was completely new, and really really good fun. The best part about it was that the students actually ran it, so we just presented it and gave them ideas, but the content was their content. It was such good fun!
Why do you think it’s important to change how people view gardening, and who gardens? (Rather than the stereotypical image of a gardener)
Ellen Mary: Well I think, gardening has skipped a generation or so. Obviously, it was really really popular a couple of generations ago, everyone loved gardening, and then it kind of just skipped a generation. It almost became a little bit embarrassing to like gardening, or it was certainly undervalued anyway – to have gardening or horticulture as a career. I think going forward, with climate change, wellbeing, and the digital increasingly stressful world that we live in – we need to know how to garden. We need to know how to connect with nature and to try to find a balance in our lives.
Sometimes just photographs alone don’t really inspire people. Using social media and having a little bit of fun with it is great for showing how important it is going forward with our climate. People are much more conscious about their decisions now, and the impact we have on the planet. Actually, that goes hand in hand with gardening and growing your own food, and understanding nature. It’s a massive topic, and social media has opened up that world. It has opened it up for discussion. There are so many people are out there doing some seriously cool garden stuff and actually making it look a bit more trendy.
Wellbeing / mental health is definitely something people are talking about a lot more…
It’s great that we are talking about mental health. I think over the past, probably 10-20 years, life’s become digitised. We need to balance it. Everyone seems to be going so fast, everything is so quick. We live in this amazing busy world, with access to so much stuff – which is great, but we just need to be aware of it. People are recognising how important it is to be outside, to connect with nature. What that can do to wellbeing is astounding. I’ve seen it happen first hand; I’ve seen people with many different types of mental health problems, and I’ve seen remarkable transformations in people who have come to the garden. Some of these people literally haven’t spoken a word for months due to shock from something that’s happened, and then they’ve started to talk, and ask some questions about plants. I’ve seen what happens and I just know that it’s good for our wellbeing. (When that happens) You kind of want to jump up in the air screaming: yay!
What advice would you give for someone who perhaps doesn’t have loads of space to garden in, and maybe wants to garden for their wellbeing / mental health, or just gets easily distracted by their phone/tech?
Ellen: Start small, take on something you think you can manage. If you’re ready to jump into an allotment, that’s great, but many people only have a window-sill, balcony or patio. Just start with what you can manage. While social media can show us some of these massive amazing gardens, that isn’t what it’s all about. It’s about how you manage it yourself. Doing something that suits you time-wise and space-wise is the most important thing so that you don’t become overwhelmed. I always say that a great way to do it is microgreens.
They are just so easy, and it’s amazing because you watch these teeny tiny little seeds grow into something that’s no bigger than about 10cm, and then you just harvest them like that, and you’re getting all the same nutrition and benefit of growing, but in 7-10 days. Start small, and then see what you want to do next. Step by step, and just don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t say you can’t do it, because everyone in the whole world can garden. You can do it!
You can find Ellen at:
Veg Fest, London on 26th October 2019
Peter Beales Roses, Norfolk on 7th November 2019
Grow Careers Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on 21st November 2019