You rarely see Alan Titchmarsh without a Cheshire cat-style smile on his face. It could be said that TV’s demi-god (although many people would accuse me of demoting him) of gardening is the cat that got all the cream.
You wouldn’t be wrong: TV gardener, broadcaster, writer, novelist, natural historian and the founder of a charity are just some of the items he could put on his CV.
In fact, he seems to be so busy that it is surprising he has time to do any gardening at the Georgian home he bought four years ago after leaving the famous Barley Wood.
Of course, gardening is in his blood and he would rather lose a limb than not dig and plant, but what did come as a bit of a shock was that his veg patch is rather small: just two small triangular beds.
“I grow enough for us to eat. There are only two of us at home now, so I don’t need to have a huge area of the garden just for vegetables,” he says.
“And it is very surprising what you can get from a small space,” he adds, listing radish, potatoes, parsnips, onions, leeks, rocket, courgettes and rhubarb among the produce he harvests.
“The danger that people encounter when they decide to grow vegetables is that they clear a huge space or get an allotment and just go for it.
“They try to do everything and end up with far too much and you don’t know what to do with it all. You either end up buying five chest freezers to store it in or you give it all away.
“I just try to encourage people to work at it a little at a time.”
Titchmarsh looks tanned and relaxed in a short-sleeved blue shirt when we meet on the first day of the Gardeners’ World event at the NEC.
He’s not long come off stage where he has entertained the masses – he’s as much the showman as the plantsman – with amusing stories, gardening tips and answering queries.
Funny, and with a naughty glint in his eye that just gives a hint of what his somewhat saucy novels contain, he plays his audience like an old-pro comedian, lapping up the two-way banter.
He gently rolls his eyes in a mocking gesture when in response to his question as to the whereabouts of a decrepit magnolia tree he is told by a woman in the audience that it’s in her front garden.
And, no she doesn’t know what kind of soil she has in her garden, either.
But somehow, with even such scant information, he is able to offer a solution to her problem, much to her delight. “The people here are great and I love to send them up a bit. They genuinely are very good natured, otherwise I wouldn’t get away with it sometimes,” he says.
“I enjoy talking to them and answering their questions. It’s another part of my job.”
That people love to engage him in conversation is the reason he hasn’t had chance to have a good look around the arena and show gardens at the event that finishes tomorrow, although he managed to buy one plant on his way back from the Grow It! Theatre.
“I think I need to go early in the morning when there aren’t many people here as I won’t be stopped so often. I’m sure I’ll get round it all if I get the time.” Ah. Time. The gift he would dearly love to be able to buy at one of the myriad stalls.
The Yorkshireman has just finished two books – a novel that centres on the male mid-life crisis and a book of his childhood memories – he’s halfway through making a natural history programme that will be screened in autumn next year and he’s filming another programme for the BBC, the National Village Show, where he will visit village fetes across the country looking for champion growers and bakers.
“I love the variety and I’m very lucky to be able to do it all,” said the father of two daughters.
“I do turn down an awful lot of offers, although it might not seem like I do, but I’d love to have some more time. Filming does take up a lot.
“But, it’s the variety that keeps me fresh and I like the stimulation of doing different things.”
And, as if he does not do enough, he has also set up a charity that awards grants to schools and children’s organisations involved in garden projects.
More than 250 grants have been awarded so far, an achievement that makes him proud.
“Kids are waiting to be inspired. There’s too much finger-wagging from parents sometimes, telling them not to do this and not to touch that.
“Of course, you need to be careful with tiny tots, but they mustn’t be deprived of what nature has to offer. Look at tadpoles, woodlice and other insects, make a dried flower collection. They love it.
“If parents give them a bit of garden, it’s usually the shady bit under a tree where you can’t grow anything. What they should be doing to get them really interested and hooked is to give them the best bit of the garden and let them get their hands dirty.
“They’re learning, enjoying themselves and doing everyone a favour, and they are learning responsibilities.”
It is that sort of kind and generous sentiment – a trait he admires in others – that somehow affirms his place as one of the most respected figures on television.
And you don’t have to walk far around the NEC to hear how much people like him: “I’ve done what I came to do,” says one woman to her friend, as they walk towards the car park, laden with plants, “I’ve seen Alan Titchmarsh.”
Show highlights include The silver medal winning Woodland Wildlife Learning Garden, by Walsall schoolchildren and the Walsall Arboretum Use Group’ the Think Pink Garden for Breast Cancer Care’ Time for a Beer Garden by horticulture students at Solihull College.
Gardeners World Live at the NEC ends tomorrow (Sunday) when there will be a family trail, especially for children.
This article appearedm in the Birmingham Post in June, 2006. It must not be reproduced without prior permission from Jayne Howarth