Course: BSc Horticulture with Plantsmanship
Campus: SRUC Edinburgh
Frances Tophill is a co presenter on ITV’s, ‘Love Your Garden’. She completed her Horticulture with Plantsmanship degree at SRUC Edinburgh in 2013. The young face of gardening is not only passionate about plants, but is also an enthusiast for getting a new generation of green fingers into horticulture. Having recently written two books, presented at various gardening shows, volunteered with garden communities and travelled the UK transforming backyards, we were fortunate to get some time with Frances amongst her busy schedule.
When did your passion for gardening begin?
I didn’t really have any gardening experience until I started my apprenticeship when I was 19. I was working at Marks and Spencer at the time and my mother suggested I tried out for an apprenticeship at Salutation Gardens in Sandwich, Kent, and I was selected. When I realised I’d be working outdoors most of the day, I really feel in love with it.
Why did you choose to study with SRUC?
There were a few options open to me, but Edinburgh won my heart because it’s such an amazing, fun city. I was really taken by Edinburgh, with its lovely long nights and when you see the meadows come into flower in the summer, or the frosty winters. It really is just beautiful.
I was really inspired by my lecturers at SRUC and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Having world class expert teachers working right in front of me was a huge privilege. I loved my lecturer Donald Mitchell who was the Programme Leader at the time, as well as David Walsh who taught the genetics module. I can still email the lecturers every now and then, such as Greg Kenicer at RBGE, to get advice on plants.
How did you become a ‘Love Your Garden’ co-presenter?
The opportunity actually came through SRUC. We all got an email from the ‘Love your Garden’ team saying they were recruiting and we were invited to London to interview for the role. I was with my classmates in a pub beforehand joking around about it. When we got to the interview at Capel Manor and had to present in front of a camera, we all came away saying, “That was so hard!” The interview made us all realise how difficult presenting is when you’ve never done it before. My classmates were really happy for me when I got the role.
You travel all around the country with your role, what has been the most memorable occasion and why?
During the second programme filming in Wales I was still studying at SRUC and preparing for exams and everyone was so supportive during that time. If they hadn’t been, I would not have survived. The place we were filming was incredible. I remember the night before we had all been in Edinburgh for my birthday having drinks and then the next day I was in this posh golf hotel in Wales – it was such a contrast!
Tell us about the books you have recently published
My first book ‘The First-time Gardener’ (Kyle Books, 2015) is a very general, practical book for people just getting started and explains about garden design, and how to build and maintain a backyard garden. The second book, ‘The Container Gardener’ (Kyle Books, 2017) is based around outdoor growing in containers. It’s for anyone really, but does encourage the younger generation to think ‘I can do this’ and get into gardening.
What is your experience with community work and volunteering?
The best community project I’ve done so far, was working in an ornamental grass nursery in Devon. It’s a place for adults with learning disabilities and it truly is an incredible place. They were absolutely lovely people and it was a joyous environment.
I think volunteering is really good for you. I volunteered in their garden, but then they offered me paid work. I learnt how to plough, moved plants around, did weeding and general gardening maintenance. I was only working with a small group of people at a time, but it was just lovely.
Almost all my paid jobs have come through volunteering- the only time I actually interviewed for a job and had to show a CV was for my apprenticeship when I was 19.
I’m also a massive advocate of WWOOFing, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which enables people to live and volunteer on a variety of organic properties. You don’t necessarily always get opportunities like that in paid work.
What advice would you pass on to aspiring horticulturists/students in your industry?
Be patient and persevere. A lot of students really struggle with the transition from leaving study and going into full time jobs. If you can stick with it you can keep the avenues open for your dream job. Do it because you love it. It always works in that scenario. Even if you have to start off volunteering or subsidising with a café job, to get in the right market, I believe it’s worth it. The horticulture scene is dominated by older people and is very traditional, but this is starting to change. There are actually a lot more dynamics in it. The young people in horticulture need to shout their name out more! We need to change the landscape going forward – metaphorically and physically speaking!