Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark draws inspiration and solace from her garden in Scotland.
Where do you live and what kind of garden do you have?
I live in a double-fronted terrace house built in 1875 on a crescent in Glasgow. It looks out over public gardens, which were built across the road at the same time and are full of wonderful mature trees and shrubs. At the back is a high-walled garden, 70ft by 40ft, that would have originally been used by the house’s domestic staff to hang out washing.
When we arrived, which was more than 20 years ago, it had a laurel, a climbing rose and an ornamental quince on the back wall. But we wanted to turn the whole thing into a proper garden with a lawn in the middle and shrubs and flowers all the way round.
What does the garden look like now?
One of the first things we did was to drain it and create a patio area using reclaimed cobblestones from Broomielaw, on the River Clyde, and Caithness flagstones. Summer, of course, is one of the best times to see the garden. The roses came out in June, including a deep-pink climber we have by the back door.
Beside it are my pots of sweet peas, which I sow every year using the same cane wigwams, and moving round to the right, in the ground are rhododendrons, a magnolia tree, yellow lupins, orange California poppies, a purple Japanese maple and a philadelphus, which has a wonderful scent.
Where do you like to sit?
Every morning, which is when the sun hits the back, I’ll go out with my coffee, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes, look at the garden and, as I put it, feel the day. When we were children, my mother would tell us to go out and wash our faces in the May dew – an old tradition in Scotland. In the far-right corner, we’ve got a small summer house, which was installed just before lockdown.
My friend Rob Casement, who’s a brilliant garden designer and has given us so much advice over the years, built it for us and I love it. I go in there to write or read with the doors wide open so I can hear the buzz of bees. But I also love it in there when it’s pelting down.
When did you first fall in love with gardening?
It goes back to my childhood. There’s actually a funny photo of me when I was two, standing in a wooden playpen with my coat on in the back garden, probably watching what my mother was doing. I grew up in Kilmarnock, where both my parents, but particularly my mother, loved gardening. I get my passion for growing sweet peas from her, only she’d have them climbing all over our greenhouse.
They also grew veg, like peas, spring onions and leeks, and lots of rhubarb, which I’ve tried to grow and never had any luck. When I was just a few years old, I was given my own patch of soil to grow seeds, and it was my grandfather who first showed me how to use a riddle to sieve out lumps. My first flowers were nasturtiums and to this day I still grow them, collect the seeds and have a riddle – just like he did.
Can you tell us about your family’s link to the orchards along the Clyde Valley?
My great-grandfather’s family were originally fruit growers with orchards along the Clyde Valley, which is famous for its fertile land. They then built lots of greenhouses to grow tomatoes and that business was passed down.
As soon as I was old enough, I would join in with the picking, and one of my highlights was when my grandfather would take me into a greenhouse to see if the tomatoes were ready. The smell was phenomenal. Halfway in, he would stop, pick one and break it open. He’d then reach into his waistcoat pocket for the salt he carried in a poke – which is a little bag – sprinkle it onto the tomato and give me half. There was nothing quite like that taste.
Did you bring home a lot of produce from the orchards?
We’d often come home with boxes of tomatoes or fruit – Victoria plums, raspberries, strawberries – so I can remember us eating everything from Mum’s tomato soup to her wonderful jams. Looking back, all these things were big social activities in our family.
Even when her sisters and brother came round, they would always be talking about their gardens and what was about to be picked in the orchards. Mum also had a small conservatory where she kept all her geraniums, and was forever propagating them so she could give them to everyone.
Is the business still in your family?
Sadly, the Opec oil crisis in 1973 made it difficult to keep the tomato houses heated, so that whole side of it was discontinued. The fruit farm carried on, with my uncles running it, but sadly there is no one left in the business now. A lot of the area has been redeveloped for housing.
Having said that, there are still quite a few pick-your-own strawberry and raspberry farms along the Clyde Valley, and I carried on doing that with my kids when they were little. I still do it now. There’s nothing quite like homemade jam.
Are there other green spaces in Scotland that you love to visit?
Glasgow has lots of great parks and, during and after lockdown, I did more walking around them than I’d ever done before. We’re also close to the Botanical Gardens and, in the spring, I always go down by the Clyde to collect wild garlic. It makes wonderful pesto.
Two of my favourite public gardens in Scotland are at Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran, and the walled garden at Culzean Castle on top of the Ayrshire cliffs. When I’m working in London, I have an apartment in Fitzrovia, and I’ll often walk through Regent’s Park on my way up to Sam’s Café in Primrose Hill for breakfast. Even in a big city, just listening to the birds and seeing the trees change colour brings you that bit closer to nature.
What does having a garden mean to you?
Many things: a place of peace and beauty, and a space to clear my head, breathe, think and reflect. It can fill you with joy and excitement, but it’s also a place we turn to when we are searching for something to give us solace. I remember when my father died, my mother’s garden was a huge solace for her. For my own bereavement, too, when my father and then my mother passed away, the garden was there for me.
Do you have a favourite flower in the garden?
As well as my sweet peas, that would have to be my hellebores – growing them is another family tradition that goes back to my mother’s mother, who used to wrap the flower heads in tissue and send them to friends. I love that sense of passing down the things we grow. No matter how cold the winter’s been, I know these little friends of mine will soon be out to greet me.
Newsnight airs weeknights at 10.30pm on BBC Two