A Growing Influence

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006

DICKLEBURGH, England We ring the bell at a cottage called Harvey Lodge and a shadow soon appears behind the glazed door. Then there is the fellow himself. Bob Flowerdew, in the flesh. He is not quite what we expected, not exactly the image conjured by his prim and proper radio voice.

Flowerdew's face has an ageless quality to it: Not plump, but yes, fleshy, and with the radiance of a man at the top of his game. His eyes are hooded like a basset hound's, though limpid blue, and he is wearing an embroidered hippie cardigan thing. But his most striking feature is a braided ponytail that falls to his waist. A plait, they call it here.

The braid gets him noticed, as a headline once screamed in a London tabloid: "Would You Take Gardening Advice From a Man With a Plait?"

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes.

Flowerdew is a wildly popular gardening figure in the United Kingdom. He's the preeminent organic fruit and vegetable guru and a prolific author of books and magazine columns. But his biggest gig is as a star panelist for the past 12 years on the BBC's hit radio show "Gardeners' Question Time." "GQT" has aired weekly for more than 59 years, and it still attracts almost 2 million listeners in a nation of 60 million. On a per capita basis, that would be about twice the size of the audience of "A Prairie Home Companion." Every Sunday afternoon, Britons stuffed with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding flop in front of the wireless to hear Flowerdew and his cohorts talk about pruning pears and blanching endives.

The notion that Britain is gardening mad is absolutely true, of course. It is unquestioned that the annual Chelsea Flower Show, held in May, is televised in prime time over several days. Go into a pub, and you are as likely to hear an argument over how to grow runner beans as the political fortunes of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Last year, a man in Lincolnshire was given a day in jail for trying to kill his neighbor's sunlight-stealing Leyland cypress hedge. By urinating on it.

In the uncertainty of postmodern, multicultural and rather godless Britain, gardening is not just a shared hobby. "Gardening is one of the few things holding British society together," said Sir Roy Strong, historian and former longtime director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This importance can elevate gardening personalities into public figures with a cult following, and the names seem straight out of an Edwardian farce: Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Rachel de Thame, Pippa Greenwood, Bunny Guinness and, of course, the redoubtable Bob Flowerdew. Trevor Taylor, who produces "GQT," says Flowerdew "is a household name, he's a big star."

And if gardening is mainstream entertainment, can sex be far behind? It soon caught up when the Beeb brought out "Ground Force" on TV in 1997 and then introduced Charlie Dimmock -- "pre-Raphaelite angel of gardening," according to one magazine -- to tackle garden makeovers. Not surprisingly, "Ground Force" is credited with reenergizing gardening in the United Kingdom, of passing the torch to a new generation of germinators.

Roy Strong thinks of the charismatic Irish garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, who's all over the telly these days. "He has the most wonderful head of chestnut brown hair. People actually want to touch him, and he exudes sex," he said. "Flowerdew probably does, too."

"The ladies love him, in fact they adore him," said Taylor, "but he relatively recently got married."

On a recent "GQT" program, a female questioner asked the panel of experts how they would pose if they were doing a nude gardening calendar a la the movie "Calendar Girls." Flowerdew said he would like to be seen emerging from a wishing well. For those in the live audience who ask (the show travels from town to town each week), Flowerdew has a stash of autographed pictures. Taylor adds wryly, "I'm sure Bob will tell you other requests he's had."

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