Zoe Ball on the Radio 2 Big Bee Challenge, Monty Don and how gardening is "life-changing"
Zoe Ball talks about Radio 2's Big Bee Challenge and how gardening has become so important to her.
By: Alice Vincent
All told, this spring has been a rather confusing one for gardeners: low temperatures and the long-overdue April showers climaxed in storms on what would have been the weekend before the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. As Zoe Ball calls me, minutes after her Radio 2 breakfast show ends, 60 mile-per-hour winds batter the country. Her enthusiasm for gardening, however, is undimmed. “The greenhouse this year,” she tells me, a little breathless, “it’s ridiculous! I go in and I can’t believe how much a plant can grow in 24 hours!”
Ball, 50, is a self-confessed new gardener – but she’s pouring plenty of energy into her growing journey. Her Instagram feed is increasingly home to shots of an envy-inducing potting shed and smart raised beds, full of brassicas, that show the inevitable trial and error that comes with tending the soil. “Something’s been eating my cauliflowers and kale, so I asked on Instagram for tips and it’s been wonderful – everybody’s been giving me lots of different ideas,” she says.
These green fingers make her a perfect choice to front Radio 2’s Big Bee Challenge, a three-year-long initiative to highlight the existential crises faced by our bees. First, a competition with a fantastic prize: children aged six–12 are invited to design a bee-friendly garden (closing date 5th July at 6pm); the winner will have their design brought to beautifully buzzing reality at an NHS Trust mental health site for young people.
“We can do something, but we kind of need to do that now,” says Ball, “so this is the perfect competition. The kids are always so passionate. I feel like they are our protectors. They care so much about recycling and climate change.” And with good reason: the impact of the climate crisis on insect populations can’t be underestimated. Since 1900, the UK has lost 13 species of bee, and a further 35 species are considered to be under threat of extinction. From July a BBC Sounds podcast, Bees in a Pod, will explore their vital role in our food supplies and plant life.
Ball admits that she’s called upon some more experienced friends to help: the Springwatch team are being consulted for their experience while entrepreneur and apiarist Deborah Meaden has educated the broadcaster in the sheer variety of bees around. Chelsea Garden Show-awarded garden designer and friend Jo Thompson, meanwhile, has been on hand to warn Ball against using pesticides on her plants. “I said, ‘What do you do with all the bugs on the roses?’ and Jo told me to pull them off with my fingers. ‘Don’t start using things that are going to harm the rest of nature,’ ” Ball explains.
As she points out, a lot of information about pesticide use in the garden can be confusing. “We hear about how simple it is to change certain behaviours in order to make a huge difference, but this is stuff that some of us don’t know. This is a great time to learn about it.”
As part of the campaign, there will be a nationwide Big Bee Challenge Weekend on 31st July and 1st August. “National Trust properties will be having bee-friendly activities and doing bee gardens. There are some really beautiful gardens around where we are.”
Ball moved from Brighton to the Sussex countryside last year – for the first time since growing up near Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire. “Getting back to the countryside, I suddenly thought that it’s been calling to me,” she says. “I think in a way that’s part of getting older, appreciating the simple pleasures of being in the garden.”
Last spring, Ball opened up about the therapeutic benefits of gardening at a time when much of the country – locked down and anxious about the effects of COVID – were discovering them for themselves. Speaking to Gardener’s World magazine about the death of her former partner, Billy Yates, she said: “Lots of my loved ones bought me roses to grow in his memory. He loved roses and I found the hours tending to these new plants so therapeutic.”
“I’ve found it quite life-changing, to be honest,” she says of the garden. “I get up quite early, it’s quite hectic. I’m quite a busy-headed person, I’m quite manic and what I really found during lockdown was having that 15 minutes every evening, just outside. For me, that was getting home of a day and pottering around, talking to my plants, making some mistakes, watching things grow. If anyone needs me, if the kids are like, ‘Where’s Mum?’ They’ll find me in the garden, just having some lovely moments of calm.”
Ball joined in with No Mow May, a campaign to encourage people to see what wildflowers pop up when the lawnmowers are left alone, and has been trying to encourage meadow flowers. “We’ve bought a couple of bee hotels and have been leaving piles of logs around for the insects,” she says. “I’m understanding why it’s important to leave those corners be, rather than having your neat little set-up.”
And it seems like the Sussex wildlife is appreciative. “We’ve got nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers.” Ball has even lined up the bird table so she can watch such ornithological activity from the loo (“With the seat down,” she specifies). Springwatch, she says, has helped her and the family tune in to seeing what else enjoys the garden. Having picked up a pair of binoculars on Chris Packham’s recommendation, she’s got plans to set up cameras in an attempt to see the “noisy owls” that frequent the area.
But it’s Gardeners’ World that has become the highlight of Ball’s week. Her fondness of Monty Don isn’t a secret: a few weeks ago she told the programme host that she is “constantly trying to get [her partner, Michael Reed] into one of those blue jackets that you often wear”.
“I absolutely love Monty and Adam, Joe, Carol, the whole team!” Ball says. “Whatever has gone on in the week, Gardeners’ World marks the end of it. Everyone in the family knows that I will be on the sofa with a cup of mint tea and a snack by eight o’clock on Friday night; after that, I usually go to bed!” she laughs. Transforming the former party girl into an early-night GW addict? Truly, a testament to the power of gardening.