United Kingdom

How I swapped the catwalk for horti-couture

Overgrown and under-loved, just 18 months ago my small West London garden was all but consumed by rampant ivy.

It was the only thing keeping the leaning fences up. But at the beginning of last year my husband and I decided finally to grasp the nettle and start again.

Little did I know that when the digger and cement mixer moved in, the builders were laying the foundations for my new creative obsession.

One that was to prove not only a distraction over recent tough times but also a focus that would match, even supersede, my longstanding passion for fashion, planting me firmly in the hothouse of a growing trend — what's being hailed by cultural commentators as horticool.

This month the newly green-fingered have been spoilt for inspiration with the spectacular late summer displays at the RHS Wisley Flower Show and — in a wonderful one-off bonus — the Chelsea Flower Show, which starts tomorrow after being transplanted from May to September for the first time in its 108-year history.

I never thought I'd say it, but the prospect of browsing the stands at Chelsea's floral festival makes me more excited than any catwalk show or high-profile party at London Fashion Week.

I never thought I'd say it, but the prospect of browsing the stands at Chelsea's floral festival makes me more excited than any catwalk show or high-profile party at London Fashion Week

Having worked for Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan, my professional life has long revolved around the fashion world.

Sartorially, I was one of the pioneers of the tulle skirt with heavy boots, as well as taking colour blocking to extremes by wearing red from top to toe. But since the pandemic my new favourite thing to dress is my little courtyard.

I'm not the only fashionista to say, 'Goodbye haute couture, hello horti-couture'. Selfridges has embraced the trend too, this summer launching garden centres at its London, Manchester and Birmingham stores. As well as seeds and plants, these new botanical boutiques opened with own-label compost, signature-yellow gnomes and an exclusive collection from Prada for gardening and fashion enthusiasts alike, plus a 'potting shed' for expert advice.

According to the Horticultural Trades Association, the UK gained 3 million new gardeners last year. Indeed gardening has become so chic the trend forecasting industry has created a set of portmanteau words for it — always a sign that something's on the up.

'Our Future Forecast analysis shows that what started off with cottagecore [a gardening and fashion style that celebrated simple living] is now evolving into horticool as the focus on outdoor living continues to influence the market,' says senior strategist Angela Baidoo of trend forecasters WGSN.

Horticool brings glamour into the garden, we're told — and vice-versa. 'Across luxury and high street brands well into 2022, expect to see graphic slogan T-shirts that celebrate nature, feminine silhouettes such as the tiered dress paired with all-weather boots, natural dyes made from home-grown fruits and vegetables, and collaborations with experts in the outdoor space,' continues Angela.

Horticool brings glamour into the garden, we're told — and vice-versa. 'Across luxury and high street brands well into 2022, expect to see graphic slogan T-shirts that celebrate nature, feminine silhouettes such as the tiered dress paired with all-weather boots, natural dyes made from home-grown fruits and vegetables, and collaborations with experts in the outdoor space,' continues Angela.

Personally I'm not remotely surprised the fashion world has embraced gardening with such gusto. The textures and colours in my garden rival anything a fabric designer could devise. Earlier this year I tried a tulip called Belicia. A revelation. The raspberry frill on its vanilla petals looks like pink ink bleeding into silk and it opens into swirls reminiscent of a ballgown.

Horticulturalist extraordinaire Sarah Raven describes petunia Black Velvet, with its nearly-noir flowers against bright green foliage, as looking like something by Chanel. As in all design, unusual juxtapositions can shock.

When I planted Dream Touch tulip bulbs under a bare Orange Dream acer I hadn't realised the blooms would grow so tall or the acer's branches so low. But as the flowers threaded their way through feathery leaves two dreams collided in a rather wonderful way.

Now, instead of spending my evenings tracking clothes in magazines, I'm flicking through plant catalogues. Some, like Sarah Raven's, are beautifully presented. Others are nostalgic in format – rows and rows of pictures and tiny text, set out methodically rather than magically. They remind me of my dad, earmarking alpines for the rockery and busy lizzies for his soldier-symmetrical, suburban kingdom.

I've discovered that trends aren't only for clothes. Remember when dahlias were considered rather dire and they'd had their day? Crikey, has that changed. In recent years they've entered a new time in the sun, their former unfashionable face somehow contributing to their current cool — a bit like the pleated skirt and white plimsoll.

Indeed such is the craving for special dahlias you have to be quick to seize them. My friend was all set to order a just-available specimen as if from a new season drop when a neighbour called. By the time she got back online all stock had vanished. The lesson is to think ahead.

Now, instead of spending my evenings tracking clothes in magazines, I'm flicking through plant catalogues. Some, like Sarah Raven's, are beautifully presented. Others are nostalgic in format – rows and rows of pictures and tiny text, set out methodically rather than magically. They remind me of my dad, earmarking alpines for the rockery and busy lizzies for his soldier-symmetrical, suburban kingdom

Just as others might stalk a limited edition designer dress, I joined a waitlist for clematis Arctic Queen with its pristine white blooms.

The Royal Horticultural Society only listed ten nurseries that stocked the icy royal. Dutifully filling out 'notify me' options, I still missed out.

Undeterred, I eventually found a grower and bought the last five. Greedy? Perhaps. Smug? For sure.

Of course, Covid has meant the garden is the new entertaining area. In fact gardening has become an entertainment sensation in itself. When my mum used to watch gardening programmes I thought them dreadfully dreary.

What a difference growing up and Monty Don have made. Rugged and romantic in equal measure, Monty is the classiest, most charismatic 60-something ever to grace a raised bed. Popular too. Who else can post a picture of a lettuce on Instagram and get 45,000 likes?

I'm also tuning into Diarmuid Gavin's super-engaging Garden Conversations on Instagram (IGTV). The original avant–gardener, Diarmuid commented recently that he loved my flower pots (yes, I'd posted a picture of them because I cherish them). They have patina either from a life well-lived or some faux-ageing by moi. I was over the moon. That's a bit like Daniel Hersheson casually mentioning he likes your hair or Charlotte Tilbury loving your lippy.

What a difference growing up and Monty Don have made. Rugged and romantic in equal measure, Monty is the classiest, most charismatic 60-something ever to grace a raised bed. Popular too. Who else can post a picture of a lettuce on Instagram and get 45,000 likes?

New stars are shining too. I admire Arthur Parkinson who gardens like an artist and speaks like a poet. His latest book, The Flower Yard, is selling like, well, hot clematis. He says he'd rather have a designer tulip collection than a designer wardrobe. These days, I get that.

As we all start going out again, I can't deny it's great to be dusting off my tulle skirts but Covid has shown me I have more than enough clothes to remix and enjoy.

Getting in touch with the soil has saved my sanity this year while watching things grow has engendered hope.

I still love retail therapy but now many of the stores I'm drawn to have a florticultural edge while buys beckoning from gardenglory.com include an oh-so-stylish garden hose in rose pink, soft lilac or sage green to replace my broken bog-standard fluorescent job on its ungainly plastic reel.

As for flowers, I'd rather spend my spare pounds on perennials than a flash-in-the-pan display.

Because now I'm a committed gardener, for ever pursuing the Prada of peonies and the Saint Laurent of salvias. My must-have nail colour is mud. My signature scent is sweet pea. The garden path is my new catwalk.

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