Learning Horticulture In A Virtual World with Andy McIndoe

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How To Learn Horticulture From Home


Andy McIndoe

Andy McIndoe is managing director of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres in Hampshire, England. He is the designer of the gold medal award-winning Hillier exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show for more than two decades.  Andy is an author, lecturer, broadcaster and keen gardener!

You might find him in his 2 acre meadow garden, or working on his computer on his newest book.  You might find him teaching passionate students around the world in his virtual university.  Andy has an eye for creating beauty in the garden!


In This Episode You Will Discover:

  • why you should attempt to grow a Diascia Personata in your garden!
  • the immense difficulty in predicting garden trends
  • how the internet will attract a million new gardeners
  • orchid strategies for chilly climates



Royal Horticulture Society – https://rhs.org.uk
Timberpress – http://timberpress.com

This is the book Andy mentioned!

Interview Links

Follow Andy on Twitter: @andymcindoe
My Garden School: http://www.my-garden-school.com/

Andy’s NEW book: The Creative Shrub Garden



Watch the Interview Podcast here:


Interview Transcript:

Dave:  Today, buckle up, take notes, take out the pad and pen.  Now if you’re driving you won’t want to take notes until you get home.  Just a wealth of information today.  The gentleman joining us on the podcast is from the United Kingdom.  He’s the managing director of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centers.  He’s an author, lecturer broadcaster and extremely keen gardener.  He is a Gold Medal winning Chelsea designer for 22 years and he has two new projects that are on the cutting edge of the teaching world of gardening.  I’d like to welcome to the podcast Mr. Andy McIndoe.  Andy welcome to the call!

Andy:  Dave, thank you very much and thanks for such a wonderful introduction, I’m completely humbled.

Dave:  I want to start with your big project, your blog but before we do, I want to get to know you a little bit, and so do the listeners.  Just take a minute, share with us a little bit about yourself.

Andy:  Well I live in Hampshire in the south of England.  I’m married to Ra, my wife we’ve been married for over 25 years.  We have two children who now both left us and are living in London.  We have here in Sandhill Farm, a 2-acre garden, which we started from scratch 14 years ago.  And it’s a naturalistic garden.  It has a big area of wildflower meadow.  We do grow a few vegetables, we are reasonably self-sufficient in the summer.  And we grow a wide range of trees, shrubs, perennials, and we have a massive amount of plants in pots and containers.  We also add seasonal color to those with things like flower bulbs and bedding.  And certainly people often ask us “what else do you do apart from gardening?” and we don’t, we garden!  That’s sort of what we do for a living and for a hobby as well.  Which is really rather nice, and the thing is we both do it.  It makes life a lot easier because you share each others’ interests.

Meadow Flowers


Dave:  My goodness!  There’s a TV channel over here in North America called “Home and Garden” and there’s a British show called “Escape To The Country”.  I think you are living the dream!

Andy:  Well in some ways yes!  I mean it’s quite interesting balancing.  We have a 2-acre garden, and I do write a bit, and I do some radio work, and I do quite a lot of writing on the blog and My-Garden-School site.  It’s quite interesting balancing that with a full-time job as well as I’m also Managing Director of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centers which are known worldwide for their reputation in the world of horticulture, and also for our reputation at Chelsea Flower Show.  And, in fact, we’ve been around for 150 years!  I might add I’ve not been around for all of that, just 36 of them.

Dave:  Now a lot of our listeners are driving in their cars and they took a deep breath because they can’t even picture what 2 acres represents, but you didn’t start there.  Can you take us back before you were in the country?  What was your early gardening life like?

Andy:  Me?  Well I’ve been gardening since I was a kid.  And I grew up in the Midlands, sort of in the heart of England in Warwickshire.  And I grew up in a very typical semi-detached house and gardens were very different back then.  You know back in the 1960s a typical suburban garden was a strip of land with maybe a couple of shrubs, a few rose beds and a bit of a vegetable plot and a couple of apple trees.  I was very lucky in fact that my mother was quite keen and she had a small greenhouse which she let me take over when I was probably only about 10 or 11.  And I was crazy about growing anything exotic or tropical and I was passionate about orchids.  I hadn’t had a lot of experience with tropical things because you didn’t really unless you went to a botanic garden or found somewhere with a glass house and you found things like that.  But I did manage to collect 1 or 2, and that got to 3 or 4, and that got to quite a lot.  And I joined the Birmingham and Midland Orchid Society, and I started competing and I was really quite successful as an orchid grower in my 6 foot by 4 foot greenhouse heated with paraffin and lined with polyethylene.  I suppose that really gave me the bug to get into horticulture in a bigger way.  And then I went off to university and I did horticulture at university which was very little known at that time, and that, sadly, is still today as a career choice.  During that course I worked in a parks department in Birmingham, and I worked for an export nursery in West Germany, and I worked for a garden centre in Bristol.  I really rather liked the garden centre world because I liked dealing with public and advising people on their gardens and what they were going to grow.  I quite liked the buying and selling plants thing.  And that was when I left university I applied for this job I saw as Assistant Manager of a garden center in Winchester which was Hillier’s, and I got it!  And that was really the start of my career with Hillier.  So that was actually how I got into horticulture.  

As far as gardens go, I have to admit my first home when I bought on my own was a studio flat and there I didn’t have a garden at all, but I had a lot of house plants.  And then when I got my first garden that was tiny it was only about 15 feet by 35 feet.  And it was very exciting because that was a new build and I started from scratch and I had the opportunity to design the garden and grow what I wanted to grow and it was absolutely crammed with plants and pots and anything I could possibly get into it.  So I did start really from quite a small space to actually a much bigger one.

Dave:  I’ve had this conversation with a friend of mine recently and we believe that you’re about half a decade ahead of the North Americans when it comes to gardening trends.  And I can’t think of anybody better because the UK is literally on the cutting edge of popularity and fashion … what do you see coming down the road in Europe?  What can we expect over here in a couple of years in North America?

Andy:  That’s a really difficult question Dave because people often ask me about trends and where we are going in terms of gardens, and it’s a tough one because there is such a wide, amazing difference between the basic average garden and the garden that people aspire to through the media, through magazines, through what they see on television and everything else.  I think what we had was a bit of a “Grow Your Own” revolution here in the UK, everybody a couple of years ago was into growing their own produce, vegetables, and what sadly has been a bit lacking is the basic know-how.  I think we get to the stage sometimes where you glamorize something but forget to tell people how to do it.  And I feel that actually a return to basics is the direction we need to be going in.  People need to know the basics of horticulture and how to make things work.  And sometimes I think we sort of get inspired by an image of something we’d love to have but actually can’t attain it.  So I do think the trend is going to be very much towards plants that really work hard in your garden, things that are solutions which give you pleasure but don’t require an enormous amount of input.  Now generally people these days are quite time poor, aren’t they?  Particularly early in their gardening life.  We have jobs that are quite demanding in terms of time, long hours, quite a lot of travel.  We spend a lot of time travelling actually to and from work and getting through the day.  I think the garden, if people really make the right choices, offers the most amazing opportunity as sort of a place to relax, to unwind, a bit of a refuge.  But that’s only the case if, actually, you see it in that way!  I think sadly people often see the garden as something that involves an awful lot of work.  It’s a bit of a chore because they’re not guided into those right choices.  So I feel the trend is going to be very much towards things that actually work in gardens, good hard-working basic shrub material, putting plants together, achieving powerful planting combinations.  And also doing a bit of grow-your-own on a smaller scale, things like vegetables in containers, growing a few essential ingredients like salad leaves and herbs when you can produce them easily.  I think that, I hope that, it’s the direction that we’re going to see gardens going in.

Dave:  You triggered a memory!  If it wasn’t for my parents and grandparents being gardeners I would never would have been exposed to it.  In my twenties and thirties in the big city it was just another stressor, time-starved and more work.  But it wasn’t even an option in school, other than the wet paper towel with the kidney bean in Grade 6 experiment, I can’t ever remember taking anything regarding horticulture in school … which is the lead-in here why your new website is so brilliant.  It’s the educational component, the distance learning without having to drive to a university.  You can take education and horticulture from anywhere in the world now through your website right?

Andy:  Yes, that’s right.  That’s the whole point of My-Garden-School concept, that you can do a course online, and you can do it when it suits you.  When you have the time to do it.  You’re only committing yourself to a month at a time, so it’s 4 weeks.  And during that time you can have access to communicating with your tutor and the other students through a virtual classroom situation at any time that suits anybody, both the tutor and the actual pupil.  And where people are using that they’re really finding it incredibly beneficial, and interestingly some of the students we have on the course know absolutely nothing, they’re maybe just like you were, sort of with a bit of an interest but living in the city and thinking “gosh I’d quite like to know more!” about this.  Other people on it are really professional gardeners.  I’ve had landscape architects, garden designers, garden contractors who basically just want that know-how and the really basic horticulture information and plant selection.   I think that’s the great thing about it.  It suddenly equalizes the students because it’s a funny thing, there’s a mystique about anything you don’t know about.  That’s very true about gardening.  I’m always quite amused sometimes when I go to the gym in the morning, particularly after a weekend and people sit around having a coffee and they say “I had a really tough weekend, I had to do gardening!”  Really hard work … you think you just paid a personal trainer quite a lot of money to put you through  an hour of hell and you’re complaining about cutting a hedge!  It just doesn’t make sense.

Dave:  Fantastic!

Andy:  They see it in a different light.

Dave:  For those of you driving in your cars or jogging with your earbuds in I’m going to put a link in the shownotes, it’s My-Garden-School dot com.  And it’s brilliant.  Think of it as the Harvard of Learning To Garden.  But think about this Andy, if this was 15 years ago, I would have to drive down to the library, take out the book, read the book, and hope the gardening answer was there.




Andy:  What I’ve realized is that people still love books.  People like paper, they like to have a book they like to hold something in their hand which they can pick up and refer to.  But certainly if you’re looking for information and also you’re looking for immediate stuff, you look on the internet.  And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do with the blog on My-Garden-School site which I’m known as the Chief Blogger, the title sounds rather odd, but basically I do most of the blogging on the site and I also invite guests to blog on the site.  What we try to achieve through that really is a bank of information, and you haven’t got to enroll on a course to access that.  And of course you can interact with that, and what’s fascinating with it is it does actually highlight what people are searching for, the information that people are looking for.  For example, I did a blog on “evergreen climbers” which to me is something I get asked about, evergreen climbing plants, a lot because it’s something that people look for, they want something to cover a wall, screen.  Something that looks good throughout the year.  And I mean that blog went absolutely crazy, and the amount of comments and questions we’ve had on it is phenomenal.  And it’s fascinating actually, you never stop learning and I think that’s one of the things that’s great about gardening.  You never stop learning, you find different ways, you learn different things, learn different plants.  It’s almost infinite knowledge.  That’s one of the fascinating things about it.

Dave: You’re one of the most experienced gardeners I’ve had the privilege of interviewing.  And a lot of people might be intimidated with your wealth of knowledge.  I’d like you to kind of expose though, a challenge or a failure that you’ve had in gardening, and maybe with some humor to it.  Is there anything that frustrates you or that you kill?

Andy:  David, there are so many things that frustrate me in the garden!  Every year there are things that you can’t explain.  For example I have quite a number of peonies in the garden and the peonies that I have came from a fellow gardener who was a very, very experienced gardener.  She was actually the Honorable Mrs. Ursula Kitchener and she was Lord Kitchener’s grand-daughter, and she lived very close to me here where I live just outside Romsey, and when she eventually had to sell her house and retire to a smaller property she phoned up and she said “Andy I want you to come round and dig up whichever peonies you want, and have them because I know whoever is coming doesn’t know what they are”.  So I naturally obliged because the offer of peonies from someone’s garden was incredibly exciting and they have been amazing here.  They’ve bloomed every year, they’ve been fantastic!  This year for the first time I did the right thing, by the books, which was I mulched them extensively with organic matter.  I fed them with a slow-release fertilizer.  And I really did actually put a bit of love in, and they’re the worst this year they’ve ever been!  I’ve had fewer flowers, poor performance and I could never explain that.  I’m a bit like that with vegetables, this year I’ve made a much bigger effort with growing veg.  I still can’t get beetroot to grow here.  I can’t get them to perform they are just a disaster.  I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong.  They just don’t like me, they don’t like my soil.  I think that’s one of the great things is there will always be the curve balls in gardening, believe me.  However experienced you are, there are some things which just won’t work.

Dave:  The angry flower story.  That’s going in the blog for sure.  Royalty, fantastic.

Andy:  Don’t you find that though yourself?  You must.

Dave:  Well see I’m what you call an “enthusiastic amateur” I’m in my third season myself.  My wife is in season 15, she’s taking the Master Gardener course in school.  I’ve gone from unpaid help to something we do together and so I’m in total learning mode all the time.

Andy:  Well that’s good!  That’s an advantage.  I’ll tell you another one this year is I never grow tomatoes from seed.  I usually buy one or two grafted plants and grow them half-heartedly in the conservatory and get a few tomatoes and I’m quite happy.  This year I grew tomatoes from seed and I grew a variety called “Rosella” which is supposed to be this gorgeous dark purple and it’s supposed to have flavors of raspberries and redcurrants and it’s supposed to be totally amazing.  Do you know that the first flower they produced is 4 feet off the ground?  I ended up moving them up the front drive and they’re up 8 foot canes and I only have 2 trusses on the things and they’re the worst I’ve ever had.  So it’s all an experience.

Dave:  When you described the flavors I thought of the wine tasting.

Andy:  That’s what i thought when I read the packet.

Dave:  It’s all imaginary and it’s all sophisticated.  Growing heirlooms, I have to tell you.

Andy:  Heirlooms are really big with you, aren’t they?

Dave:  My wife picked it up, she’s part of the Seeds of Diversity program where it’s a seed sharing program.  And I understand why the pioneers were so skinny because North Americans want every tomato perfectly round, perfectly colored, no blemishes.  And these heirlooms are grotesque, and there’s 2 on a vine, but the flavor is extraordinary!

Andy:  Is it good?

Dave:  We had the number 1 tomato from Siberia this morning, it’s called a “Sasha Altei” and it’s big in Siberia because they have such a short season.  So it’s our first tomato of the season.  Until you’ve had an heirloom tomato, if you’ve been eating store bought, it’s not even the same food.

Andy:  Yes, and that’s one of the great pleasures, isn’t it?  Actually growing your own stuff is that occasionally you get something and you think “Gosh that was really worth it” you know?

Dave:  That’s been my shift is you need a message, and my message is “Grow Something”.  Food does not come from a big store that you drive to.  Food comes from your own labour.  Start with lettuce and a tomato and a radish.

Andy:  But I think that’s one aspect isn’t it?  I don’t disagree at all, I think there’s great pleasure in producing something and eating it and actually experiencing a different flavour.  But I also do think, for me, the aesthetic aspect of gardening is incredibly important.  I’m very much into ornamentals, I’m into putting plants together and realistically I suppose, in a way it’s sort of painting with plants.  Experimenting with what things look like together in combinations and I think that’s something that’s sometimes underestimated the impact of it.  We have quite a big Cotinus in the front garden, Cotinus Grace, which is a variety of Smokebush, which has quite a big leaf, and this time of year the foliage is wine-red and it goes flame in autumn.  And this year it’s just covered in these smoky plumes which they are at this moment.  When I left the house this morning, and it was a lovely morning very early, and the thing was covered in dew so the plumes were just pure smoke, it was just amazing.  I sort of dashed out and got the camera and photographed it.  And it was interesting I came in tonight and my wife said “Gosh, did you notice the Cotinus when you went out this morning?  It looked absolutely amazing!”  And it is those moments you get in the garden where something to do with the light and the color and the foliage and the flowers and the whole thing is just sort of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.  That’s really where we underestimate the effect it has on us.

Dave:  I love it!  There’s obviously something in our eyes.  Why else would we have such giant green lawns for centuries now, and golf courses?

Andy:  Yes!  The green space is very important, isn’t it?  It’s very powerful.

beautiful field of flowers


Dave:  I just looked at the clock and our half hour is just whipping by.  And now is the time in the podcast where we get to play my favorite game, it’s called “Five Quick Questions”.  And this is where you get to drop your wisdom and experience and share it with everybody.  You ready to play?

Andy: Ok.

Dave:  Question number one.  What do you think stops most people from getting into gardening?

Andy: I think it is probably thinking they’ll fail.  Fear of failure.

Dave:  As an adjunct, when you got into orchids, what was the learning curve like on that?

Andy:  Fascinating, when you lived in a house which actually got ice on the insides of the windows during the winter!  You didn’t have central heating and you had to track down to the garden and heat your greenhouse with paraffin.  I mean that was a challenge!  And also getting them.  Now you can buy them in a supermarket, but then you had to send away for wild-collected stuff.  It was very different.

Dave:  It’s good that you like a challenge.

Andy:  Yes, I liked the challenge, I wasn’t going to fail.  Because I’d seen these pictures in a book I wanted it.  I just wanted to see it.  I wanted to see that happen.

Dave:  Question number two.  What is the best gardening advice you’ve ever received?

Andy:  The best gardening advice I’ve ever received is probably  “if you want to grow it, have a go because plants haven’t read the book!”   And that actually is so true because so often you will see things that say “prefers acid soil” or “well-drained fertile soil”, you know nobody has that, you know?  I’ve discovered over the years that most things you can make to happen.  There’s a few extreme fussy numbers like when you’re growing on chalk, but I do think that’s true, I think plants haven’t read the book so if you want to try it, give it a go.

Dave:  Nice.  Question number three.  If you had just 2 websites to share with a beginning gardener, what would they be?  Let’s take the easy one, My-Garden-School.com is where we start.

Andy:  I’m going to have to recommend that because that’s why we started it really was with exactly that in mind.  It would be for everybody.  And it would be something that if you knew nothing about gardening you could still enjoy.  The other one probably would be the Royal Horticultural Society’s website, although it has far too much on it at times, and sometimes it’s quite confusing.  I still think it’s a bit like diving into one of those big gardening books where you sort of flip from area to area and think “gosh, I didn’t know it involved that” and “gosh isn’t that amazing?” and ” yes, I’d like to go there” so for us it’s really important.  I still think RHS has relevance on a global scale, the Royal Horticultural Society does have a global reach.  I think that I’d still recommend you have a look.  It does give you an idea of almost the diversity of what horticulture is about.


Diascia Personata Hopley's


Dave:  Good.  Question four.  I’m in my third season of gardening.  Obviously vegetables, and now we’re getting into shrubs, succulents, a lot more into the flowers.  What is a good book that you can recommend that I read this summer?

Andy:  I can’t recommend mine can I?

Dave:  Please please, recommend yours and one other.

Andy:  I’ve got a new book just coming out.  It’s called “The Creative Shrub Garden” and it’s published by Timber Press on the first of August.  I hope actually that you would find that an inspiration.  Because I tried to gear it not into the straightforward of right plant aspect of right plant, right place although it covers all of those aspects, but a big part of the book is all about creating moods, atmospheres and styles with shrubs.  I’m talking about completely shrub-centric gardens which has appeal throughout the year.  It’s really based on the one thing that I found is that everybody chooses a plant on its individual attributes and rarely thinks about how it can associate with two or three other plants to make a planting combination.  I think at your stage what you’ll find really amazing is how much more impact you can get by putting three well-chosen plants together rather than just choosing all of them just for their individual qualities.  That really is what the book is about.  It’s about creating different styles, different moods, different looks just by taking three plants.  If you only have a tiny garden or a balcony or a courtyard, adding three plants if you’ve got a bigger space, adding three more plants if you have an even bigger space, adding a few enhancements if you want to.  And also within the book I give you all of the basics you need to know on pruning, watering, cultivation, planting, choosing.  So I hope that is something that will inspire gardeners, whether or not they’re new gardeners or an established gardener.  

Am I allowed one more book?  The one book that got me really inspired and it’s quite an old book actually.  But a book that got me very, very inspired was a book by Penelope Hobhouse called “Color In Your Garden”.  Penelope Hophouse managed and lived in one or two of the National Trust Properties in the UK.  That particular book, somebody bought it for me, and I spent months, maybe years just picking it up and looking at it, thinking “Yes, I want that!” because it included beautiful photographs of good, basic use of color, and the power of plant material.  I think if you feel the aesthetics of gardening I think that’s one I’d definitely recommend.

Dave:  Brilliant.  If you haven’t been to Timber Press, you won over a lot of listeners right now Andy, when you talked about balcony gardens and patio gardens, there’s something for everybody.  Your book is called “The Creative Shrub Garden” and it’s going to be out, and if you haven’t been to Timber Press it’s a virtual cornucopia of resources.  If you’re going to take an online course through Andy’s university it will fit in right there with your gardening library.  Let’s transition into Question Five … in your opinion Andy, what’s the number one thing every gardener should attempt to grow next year?

Andy:  Obviously that’s a toughie isn’t it?  It depends where you are.  If I was going to recommend one perennial, which I am completely taken with at the moment, its a Diascia Personata.  And there’s a hybrid which is similar called Diasia Hopleys.  The reason that I’m completely blown away with it is it’s quite a tall Diascia, it’s a herbaceous perennial stature Diasia, rather than a container plant.  And it flowers in my garden from early June, sometimes starting in late May, and last year I photographed it in late October and it was still looking fantastic.  The clumps of it certainly have grown this year.  I had a lot of people through the garden, we take groups through in June, and I can tell you that has been the one plant everybody has gone crazy for, it’s a wonderful, glowing salmony pink.  If you like things like Verbena Bonariencis, Digitalis, Lupins, Foxgloves, tall, airy perennials, you will go crazy for this.  Its a really good performer, really good with grasses.  If sort of fulfills the role of an early-flowering Kniphofia.  I did a book a few years ago called “Losing The Plot” which was all about downsizing or growing a tiny garden, and I did a section in it called “if you only had one”, and I look back on it now, and I wish I had put the Diascia in it.

Dave:  There you go folks, it’s the showstopper!  Diascia Personata, the visual appeal, a lot of people in small spaces want that.  Make sure you pick up Andy’s books and share his links.  Do you have a note of encouragement or a pearl of wisdom that you can leave us with today?

Andy: That’s a difficult one isn’t it.  My word of encouragement to everybody is … if you have a space where you can start growing something, have a go.  You’ve heard of James Wong, he’s an ethnobotanist, he said it’s very easy to fall in love with growing even if you’re not in love with gardening.  Get into the fascination of growing something, seeing it perform, seeing it flower, seeing it fruit … that is your first step to getting into touch with gardens.  I think sometimes people go at it from the wrong angle.  They get somebody in, they get the garden done, and they expect it to look like that forever.  Anybody starting with a new garden, my first question is “how much time are you going to spend on it?  Because a garden needs nurturing, it’s a bit like having kids, you can’t just have them and then that’s it.  You’ve got to grow with it and look after it, and it’s the same with gardens.   You’ve got to make it happen.

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