A Garden to Dye For
Fast fashion, hummingbirds and a conversation with TV's Frances Tophill
What is gardening? That’s a question I asked myself a few times while reading Frances Tophill’s new book, The Modern Gardener. Tophill’s photo-filled, recipe-packed book feels very different from other how-to gardening books which can often feel very prescriptive and usually include a long chapter about lawn maintenance.
I first became aware of Frances Tophill early in the pandemic, when Brooke and I discovered Gardeners’ World, a show that’s been airing on British television since the late 1960s. We’d watch an episode of the show every night and – in those confusing early days of quarantine – we were comforted by its pleasant pacing, friendly British-accented hosts and the many, many shots of native bees pollinating flowers. Frances Tophill quickly became one of my favorite presenters on the show so I was delighted to see that she had a new book out and even more delighted when she agreed to a phone interview.
Here’s our chat (edited for length and clarity) from a few weeks back, which covered a range of topics from the wonder of hummingbirds to the trouble with fast fashion.
BF: I was so delighted to find this book. In some ways, it feels revolutionary because so often, in these kinds of books, plants are treated as objects in a garden – here’s how to prune roses or add a hit of color to your back patio – but this book is all about how to live well with plants. That includes using them in every part of your life including how to share your yard with wildlife. When did you realize all that gardening could be?
FT: I'm not sure I ever had a kind of a realization other than just following my own interests. Gardening is something that I've often found challenging because it makes you question what it is that's important to you. And I've had training in ornamental horticulture and botany and conservation. I actually have as much of a love for the countryside as I have for a garden. So I think I've always just sort of questioned why I'm gardening. And there has to be a purpose for me, whether it's conserving plants or growing food for myself. And as I've got older, I've explored more native plants of the UK and realized how much – even as a gardener – I don't know about how we historically used our plants. It got me thinking more and more about plants and people and how they’ve worked together. I'm really flattered, actually, that you say it's revolutionary. That's really cool. But it's not a conscious revolution. It's just the way that I work, I suppose.
BF: In addition to information about creating a garden, the book is also full of recipes which can seem daunting at first but in fact, these recipes are so simple. I followed your recipe and dyed some shirts with blackberries.
FT: And it went well? Has the color stuck?
BF: I still have to give them one more wash but so far, they look great. And it was so fun.
FT: I'm really glad that you did that! I've always been so interested in all of these things and I felt that making medicine or lip balms and infusing oils was unachievable. I have a really good friend who is Swedish – she has been such a big influence on this – and I remember going around her house one morning at 7AM. She already had on the go a rosehip vodka and a hawthorn berry jam – she was just in the middle of all these things – and I asked her for her recipes and she was like, “oh, I don't know, I just kind of do it.” It always felt like some people just know how to do these things and I am not one of them. So I've slowly explored all these things and the more I do them, the more I realize they're really easy. And they're really instinctive and they're not just good your well being – it's like you're reclaiming some lost power. We used to know this stuff and do it without even thinking about it. And now we don't and we’re led to believe that we need to buy everything. Actually, we can do this on our own and it's easy and it's fun. And it really enriches your garden if you can grow all these things for a purpose.
BF: And I heard that you’re a head gardener for the year?
FT: Yeah, a friend of mine is on maternity leave and she said that they were looking for someone to replace her. And, as you can probably imagine, life is quite busy so I thought I couldn't fit it in. And the more I thought about it, I was like, “you know what – I need to do it!” So I'm doing it for a year and it's been so nice. In fact, as we speak, I am chopping dahlia flowers to go and put in a vase
BF: That sounds delightful. So what does being a head gardener entail?
FT: It feels a bit overwhelming. I am not a natural manager type. But it's really, really good practice for me. And like lots of people post pandemic. I've been reassessing what's important and what I want to be. I love doing the work I do on TV, and especially writing books – that's my favorite thing to do – but I also feel it's really important for me to keep gardening as well. I don't have my own garden. I'm in the process of buying my first house so I'm hoping that soon I will have a little tiny garden of my own. But at the moment the only way I can really garden is for other people. Last year, I got a job working in tree conservation and replanting woodlands on the moors here. And then this year, the head gardening job. I really wanted to try my hand at both of them to see how they go and which ones I like and which ones I don't like so much. So it's part of my reassessment of what life will look like in the future.
BF: And who knows what the future looks like for gardeners and people in this kind of work – especially with climate change?
FT: Yeah, I think that's always part of it. You know, there's farmers, there's gardeners, there's veg growers, there's ecologists and conservationists. Historically, they've never really spoken to each other very much. They've all been very separate jobs. And I think as the world changes, and we see more and more challenges in the climate, we'll all have to start speaking to each other more. I think the whole gardening landscape is changing quite quickly.
BF: Did you do a lot of gardening when you were growing up?
FT: No, I didn't. My mum and grandma did. And my granddad on my dad's side was a gardener by profession but I never did any gardening. It just didn't occur to me as something to do. I spent all of my time outside so maybe it was a natural thing that was going to happen. Now I do lots of work with school kids here in the UK because I really wish that somebody had said to me, when I was 13 or 14, that I could have been a gardener. I think I would have been really interested in that as a career path. I'm very lucky because I found it when I was 19 so I was still really young. I think it's really great that kids can start when they're young and have an appreciation for nature – even if they don't go on to be gardeners – because really understanding nature and feeling part of nature is really important to kids.
BF: I feel like if I knew, as a kid, that I could plant certain flowers and attract certain butterflies or hummingbirds then I would’ve gotten a lot more into it. This summer we’ve had so many hummingbirds visit the cardinal flowers in the backyard.
FT: That's amazing! Hummingbirds! Oh my god, that would be so nice.
BF: You don’t have hummingbirds over there?
FT: No, no, we don't get them. We get hummingbird hawk moths, which sort of look a bit like hummingbirds. I have seen them when I went to North Carolina. They're amazing creatures. I’m jealous.
BF: What kind of things have you been making from your garden this summer?
FT: This year for the first time I tried using St. John's Wort, which I've written about in the book, but I had only written about that from being told about it. I've never actually tried it myself. Do you have it in the US?
BF: Yes, we have a native St. John’s Wort here.
FT: Yeah, so the one that you use is called Hypericum perforatum – it’s called that because it has little perforations in the leaves. It's really, really good for muscle aches. Here in the UK, you traditionally pick it on St. John's Day, which is the 24th of June. And that's why, apparently, it's called St. John's Wort. And you infuse it in the oil fresh. Mostly when you infuse things in oil you dry them, but with the St. John's wort, you use it fresh and you stick it in the sunshine and it has this kind of photo reaction with the sunlight and the oil turns bright red, and then you know you've got the good one. Then you can use it as a muscular rub on your skin. I've done that for the first time this year and it's gone bright red and I'm so proud of it. It's magical. They’re these little yellow flowers and then suddenly it's this bright red oil which is so cool. So that's a first for me this year. But to be honest with doing the head gardener job and the TV presenting and building a show garden – I haven't had nearly as much time as I'd like to make all the things.
BF: Wow, that sounds like a lot!
FT: It’s pretty busy. Although I'm taking all the swatches of my dyes from the book and I'm turning them into a quilt. I didn't know what to do with all these little experimental patches that aren't big enough to make anything proper with so I'm sewing the patches together to see what that becomes, which is quite fun. I have done some quilting – my mom taught me – but I'm not very good at it. The lines never match up. But on this one I'm going to really try and make them line up because it's taken such a long time to get the fabrics. Making things for yourself gives you a massive respect for the processes involved in everyday stuff. Do you have Primark in the US?
BF: We don’t have one in town but I know that it’s sort of a fast fashion store.
FT: Yeah and you can buy a jacket there for a few dollars. You think about all the skills of somebody sitting somewhere in the world making that jacket for you and you pay nothing for it. You realize the time and the skill that goes into all of these things that we've come to take for granted. So this time, with my quilt, I'm going to try and make the squares actually line up because I feel like I've spent such a long time making these fabrics, growing the plants for them, infusing the dye, you know. It takes ages. It gives you a new respect for the materials and the things that you use in your life. And I think that has to be a good thing. Because we take so much for granted in the world that we live in.
BF: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much, Frances, for taking the time to chat!
FT: Thank you so much. Whereabouts in America are you?
BF: I’m in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
FT: Oh, nice! And I can't believe you've got blackberries already. I'm just looking at some here and they are just about to turn, which is like a good month early.
BF: And I’ll let you know how my blackberry dyed shirts look when they’re all done.
FT: Oh, please do! I hope it works well.
How has your idea of gardening changed over the years? And have you experimented with any plant medicines or dyes yourself? I’d love to hear about it!
Also, if you want to learn more about plant-based dyeing, you should check out Dan Masoliver’s recent post all about natural dyes.
And one more thing: A squirrel has been building a nest right outside our bathroom window. It’s a pretty popular spot – a pair of mourning doves raised chicks there earlier this summer. The squirrel slept there for two nights but it didn’t show up last night.
Now we can’t help but be a bit worried about it. Hopefully it shows up tonight!
If you want updates on this squirrel’s nest, you should probably subscribe here: