Arthur Parkinson is the fresh-faced social media sensation hailed as the rising star of the gardening world. Caroline Donald went to meet him.
When he’s not posting portraits of his beloved bantams or the glorious abundance of jewel-coloured, wildlife-attracting annuals, half-hardies and bulbs that he grows in metal troughs and dolly tubs at home in a tiny courtyard in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, Arthur Parkinson treats his 25,000 Instagram followers to selfies wearing a head-dress he has made from hydrangeas or giant dahlias, or clutching a hen.
His posts are accompanied by captions that are full of information and engaging opinions about gardening for wildlife (hens included — they’re very good at weeding between paving cracks). Last year, an appearance on BBC Gardeners’ World whetted his appetite for presenting and, this year — coronavirus permitting — he will be making his first garden for the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, postponed to September from July. The stage is set for Mr Parkinson to step into the limelight.
‘Arthur has a seam of spectacular flamboyance, which I absolutely adore,’ says the flower grower Sarah Raven, with whom he works on a regular basis. He’s not only a handsome face, however, but a talented gardener, too: ‘He is an intensely creative person and has a genius for making a flower border feel as rich and intense and integrated as any arrangement in a vase,’ says Sarah.
‘It’s an exceptionally difficult skill, which is a product of great instinctive understanding, with a lot of hard work and knowledge of how plants behave.’
We meet on a bleak winter’s day at Perch Hill in East Sussex, Sarah Raven’s home and business hub, as Arthur is here to help with a photoshoot. Together with Deborah, the late Duchess of Devonshire, and the actress Joanna Lumley, she is one of Mr Parkinson’s heroines, possessing the refined qualities he admires: ‘Ballsy meets elegance meets intelligence meets creativity. None of my idols are men,’ he declares, as we huddle in the corner of a chilly staff room.
Arthur is pretty ‘ballsy’ himself: if he admires someone, he will send them a handwritten letter covered in drawings telling them so, however grand they might be. He first wrote to the Duchess aged seven, having visited Chatsworth when on holiday with his grandmother, Nana Sheila, and they corresponded until her death in 2014. ‘When you’re a child, you don’t know who anyone is, so I just sent her a letter addressed to the Duchess of Devonshire. It was purely based on hens; I had no idea who she was, really.’
Were he to have taken another turn in his early life, he would have headed for the stage. Instead, because he left school with few qualifications, his father insisted he learn a trade and down the gardening path he went, training first at Nottingham Trent University and then at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
It was at Kew in 2012 that he wrote to Sarah, in admiration of The Bold and Brilliant Garden, her 2001 book, which was filled with claret, fuchsia, tangerine and rust cottage-garden flowers, such as the sweet peas, dahlias, tulips and cosmos that she has made popular, and which Arthur uses so effectively in his own garden.
After Kew, he came to one of Perch Hill’s open days. ‘Sarah was surrounded by the usual crowd of ladies, but said: “Let’s talk at the end of the day”.’ She and her husband, Adam Nicolson, were immediately taken by the quirky young enthusiast; he ended up house-sitting for them for six weeks and has assisted her ever since.
Simultaneously, he created and worked for four years on a public garden made from raised beds — and populated by hens — for their friend Emma Bridgewater (another ‘ballsy’ woman) at her pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, which became the subject of his first book, The Pottery Garden: Flowers and Hens at the Emma Bridgewater Factory (it was published in 2018; a new edition is set to be published later this year).
He’s writing a second book, provisionally titled The Flower Yard — a Floral Jungle in Pots, which is due out in the spring of 2021; that is, ‘if I get my writing brain in gear. The photos are done, apart from tulips, as last year’s show was too pink’.
Then there is the Hampton Court garden to sort out, a wildlife-friendly cutting garden for the RHS. ‘There’s going to be lots of millet for the birds and things that are good for bees as well; that’s being designed at the moment. I am fine with the plants, but knowing how much brick I need for a path is a bit beyond me, so Adam and Sarah are helping with that. We’ll have to lay it out on the lawn.’
Between this and looking after his chickens and his 93-year-old paternal grandmother, Nana Min, and the garden (he’s going for sunflowers as a bird-friendly late display this year, as he’s bored with dahlias — ‘everybody is doing them’), and zooming up and down to Perch Hill, Arthur is a busy man.
As a gardener, he says, ‘you feel quite lonely. It’s nice to go on Instagram and see what people are doing — it’s a community. I’m not really using my account for a social thing. I am thinking, well, hopefully people will grow lots of Rubenza cosmos next year and have lots of bees, or someone will grow red millet for their chickens. That’s what I get out of it.’
He swears, however, that if he dropped his phone in a cattle trough, he wouldn’t miss it. His loyal band of followers might think otherwise.
Arthur Parkinson’s The Dyeing and Cutting Garden, designed for the RHS on behalf of Sarah Raven, will be at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, September 10–15 — www.rhs.org.uk
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