How gardener Katie Rushworth became TV's Queen of Spades
Television gardener Katie Rushworth was 25 when she was first invited to 'shake hands with a shovel' and start digging. It was, she says, a revelatory moment: 'I had never done any gardening before but it felt like the most natural thing in the world and I loved working outdoors. I just knew that's what I wanted to do.' She may have been a late bloomer but, within a couple of years, she had abandoned a career in fashion retail, retrained in horticulture and garden design and landed a prime role alongside Alan Titchmarsh on ITV's Love Your Garden.
“I can hardly believe it myself. I have been so lucky,” says Katie, an energetic go-getter who is clearly made for telly. Viewers love her chatty, warm personality and her enthusiasm.
The person who sparked the transformation from fashion maven to green-fingered TV personality is her gardening mentor Jean Hall. Jean planted the seeds of a new ambition, taught her about plants and encouraged her to enrol on a garden design course.
Katie, who lives near Bingley, left school at 16 eager to throw away her textbooks and earn some money. Keen on fashion, she ended up managing a clothing store in the Victoria Quarter in Leeds before travelling all over the country as a visual merchandiser for a shoe company. She began to reassess her working life after giving birth to her daughter, Polly, now eight.
“I’d worked in retail for nearly 10 years but being away from home and working weekends, bank holidays and Christmas isn’t child-friendly, so I was trying to think of something else to do,” she says.
Maternity leave didn’t suit her either. So when gardener Jean asked if she would like to help her out for a couple of days a week on a property she was looking after, she said “yes”.
“I was going stir crazy and I thought it would get me out of the house and doing something active,” says Katie, who credits Jean in her new book, Plants, Beds and Borders – Create and Maintain Your Perfect Garden.
The acknowledgement reads: “I hope my passion for gardening is still as fierce when I have been doing it as long as you have. You rock.”
“Everything I am doing now really is all down to Jean. She is 70 this year and she has the spirit and energy of a 32-year-old,” says Katie.
“She is an enthusiastic and passionate gardener and always gives me constructive criticism. She has encouraged and supported me all the way.”
Until the day they met, Katie had absolutely no interest in anything horticultural. Although she grew up in a house with a garden, she says her mother “wasn’t the best gardener” and all she can remember is a traditional border of alyssum and lobelia and a single gladioli.
She thinks her green fingers may have come from her grandparents who lived in a terrace house in Harehills, Leeds. Their back-to-back didn’t have a garden, just a front yard crammed with plants and a palm tree they brought back from a holiday in Torquay.
“It was a beacon of green in that urban area and they won a Leeds in Bloom prize for best container garden. At that time I had no interest in it. I was at that age where I was more embarrassed about the palm tree, which stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Katie, who studied for a City and Guilds certificate in garden design at night school in Shipley while running her own garden maintenance business. She soon became despondent at the endless weeding and lawn mowing, which is why she decided to boost her CV and upgrade to a garden design degree through Craven College.
She discovered that the skills she had learned in the fashion world were transferable and her book reveals a great sense of style and colour. It is an excellent read for anyone who wants fresh, contemporary ideas on redesigning their garden and on planting plans. It works for both novices and those who know the difference between a dibber and a daisy gubber.
She also hopes it will help change attitudes. One of the biggest issues, she believes, is that people see gardening as a chore rather than a pleasure. “Being in the garden is not just about sitting in the sun drinking a glass of wine. It’s about planting, growing and cutting back. There is so much to be gained from the act of gardening but a lot of people see it as hard work rather than something to enjoy.
“It’s not instant pleasure but planting something, watching it flower and seeing it doing well makes you feel fantastic.”
Removing the fear of turning a garden into a plant graveyard was another motivation for writing the book.
“I worked in a garden centre part-time and met so many people who were terrified because they didn’t have a clue what to buy. The same questions came up: ‘What do I plant and how do I look after it?’
“What often happens is that people see a nice looking plant, they buy it and they stick it in the garden and hope for the best. What they should do is check what kind of soil they have. If they buy a lavender and put it in clay soil it could die within a week. The key is to check your soil and the label on the plant, which will tell you what it needs. That bit of research sets you up for success.”
Writing was a daunting prospect for someone who admits to having “terrible spelling” and she admits it was hard work.
Equally daunting was the first time she did to a piece to camera, although Titchmarsh was a great help.
“He is a delightful man and so encouraging. He has given me lots of advice. We have a lot in common, not least that we are both from Yorkshire and he says I bring out his Yorkshire accent,” says Katie, who got the TV role after spotting an advert for auditions. She was among 90 people selected.
“It said no previous experience necessary so I gave it a go. I was amazed when I got the job but I think it was the fact that I am so passionate about horticulture.”
She will soon be working on her sixth series of Love Your Garden, which takes her all over the country. Filming is spread over four months from April to July each year and she works three days on and four days off, which means time away from Polly, husband-to-be Andrew Edwards and her stepdaughter, Schyler. She also juggles filming with her garden design business, Queen of Spades.
When she does have some spare time, she enjoys cooking “healthy meals using fresh ingredients”, washed down with some quality real ale. She is a big fan of craft beers, especially stout.
While Katie has no time to devote to her other great love, coarse fishing, she is planning to have a busman’s holiday in her own garden.
“We only bought the house fairly recently, so I haven’t had time to plan anything properly. I can’t wait to get out there. For me, gardening is relaxing. It’s my idea of time out and I love it.”
•Plants, Beds and Borders by Katie Rushworth is published by Kyle Books; www.queenofspades.com. For more tips on how to turn your garden into an oasis see our special Homes and Gardens section, which starts on Page 45.