Jo Whiley is having difficulty articulating her excitement. The day we meet, she tweets as much to her 306,000 followers with the single shriek: “WAAAAHHHHH!!!!!” It’s the sound you might expect from a guru of rock knowledge, doyenne of Glastonbury and all things musically cool, delivered on the discovery of a sensational new song, perhaps, or watching a gig by some hitherto-unknown band. But this time the prompt is not quite so rock ’n’ roll. The Jo Whiley Scent Garden is to be unveiled at the Chelsea Flower Show, and the woman herself is finding it all a surreal thrill.
“Gardening is in my top three things I need to stay sane, along with music and family,” she says, gazing out across the undulating lawn at the 1750s converted barn in Northamptonshire where she lives with her husband, four children, two dogs and two cats. “I’d be lost without it. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. It calms me when there’s chaos in my head. I think about it all the time. I’ve been going to Chelsea for years as a punter, with my mum and gardening friends. It’s the pinnacle of gardening, with huge mystique for me. And I love the quintessentially English feel to it. To have a garden there myself… I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Hers is one of five Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens, each designed to demonstrate how plants can enrich and indulge one of the five senses. Other Radio 2 stalwarts involved are Chris Evans, Zoë Ball, Anneka Rice and Jeremy Vine. For 51-year-old Whiley, the bountiful flowering borders and walled vegetable plot in her half-acre of land are living testimony to her passion.
With Steve Lamacq at BBC Radio 1 studios in 1994
“I just love the escape of gardening, being out there on my own, and the satisfaction at the end of a day when you’ve transformed one area. The pride is a great feeling. No part of it is a chore for me. I really enjoy weeding. I had a whole day recently attacking ground elder in a corner where it’s rife. Great time.
“Mentally it’s so cathartic. When I know it’s a gardening day, I wake up so excited. Rain or shine makes no difference. I’ve had as many great gardening days in wellingtons and a mac as I’ve had really nice days in a bra and shorts.”
Wait. A bra? Just… a bra?
“My mum always used to garden in a bra, and now I can really understand why. It’s so good to feel unfettered and just work in the sunshine. I don’t have a particular gardening bra. My mum has always had a great bosom so when she was gardening in her bra, it was quite impressive. I think I may look rather underwhelming.”
One way or another, family is a powerful influence on Whiley. She grew up a few miles from where she now lives. Her parents Martin, an electrician, and Christine, a postmistress, and her younger sister Frances are close by.
With India and husband Steve Morton at the Radio One Christmas Party in 2007
“My first gardening memories are of the succulent tomatoes in my maternal grandad’s greenhouse at their house in Northampton town centre,” recalls Whiley fondly. “It was growing fruit and veg that fascinated me, as it does my eight-year-old daughter Coco now, although none of the other kids are interested.
“Even at seven or eight, I liked the growing process and the calm that came with it. Mum would work outside all weekend and look around at the end with an appreciation for what she had achieved. That’s how I feel now. I have a strong memory of helping her in the garden with Wimbledon on the radio, the year that Virginia Wade won , when I would have been 12. To this day, I prefer listening to tennis on the radio rather than watching it on TV, because it takes me back to those days with Mum.”
Her teenage years diverted Whiley towards other interests, and gardening remained forgotten while she studied applied languages at Brighton Polytechnic.
But by the time she married band manager Steve Morton in 1991, and was working as a researcher on Channel 4’s music show The Word, the lack of outside space at their north London flat was “suffocating”. She was already established as a Radio 1 DJ when their daughter India arrived, and the family moved a few miles to a house with a 20-foot garden, where Whiley graduated from planting up pots to crafting borders. She has never looked back.
“I don’t care if gardening isn’t very rock ’n’ roll. That’s a bit of a silly concept actually. It’s certainly creative, and I’m not remotely creative in any other way – I can’t draw, dance, paint… My singing voice curdles cream, and I can’t play an instrument. I tried clarinet at school, and my teacher advised my parents I should give up. I have a musical instinct in that I know a good song when I hear it… and I have a gardening instinct, too.
“I’ve just learnt through trial and error. I had years and years of bitter arguments with Steve getting really angry, going: ‘How can you spend so much money at a garden centre?’ Now he has a real appreciation of how great the garden looks.”
The converted barn where they’ve lived for nine years is a gorgeous place, filled with quirky touches – a huge cerise velvet sofa, a glitterball stowed under a side table, a silkscreen portrait of Debbie Harry by street artist Pure Evil, draped incongruously in the same fairy lights that ring the entire half-acre garden – all combining into the antithesis of styled-to-death featureless perfection. No wonder all who come here love it. London’s showbiz party scene is sterile by comparison.
“We party here,” smiles Whiley happily. “My daughter’s 25, my sons are 18 and 16, and my husband thinks he’s 19. So many friends count this as their second home and us as their second family, which is all I could ever dream of. I don’t need or want to go to London and fall out of a nightclub. You’d be amazed how much adults love playing limbo here. And we play Family Fortunes and Mr & Mrs, with my husband as the quizmaster –
Derek Batey, yes! It’s
hilarious. We put up a
volleyball net in the garden,
and my husband will DJ, and I’ll be the one who’ll eventually go to bed while the party’s still going. The rest of my family are way more rock ’n’ roll than I am.
With her children India, Cassius and Coco in 2013
“Everyone who comes to our Saturday parties wants to stay for ever. It’s so idyllic. They all stay over, with sleeping bags and bodies everywhere, and on Sunday morning about 30 of us go en masse to Super Sausage, a transport caff just down the road. [Signature dish: the Famous Full Monty breakfast for £11.60.] Then everyone comes back here and they don’t want to leave. They all say, ‘Can’t we just live in a commune here?’ And I think: ‘Yeah!’ I’d love that.”
Whiley’s gift for wearing life so lightly is rare. She is the stuff of which everyday modern heroines are made, a professional achiever in an über-cool field, but with a rich hinterland – a lasting marriage and four children; a wonderfully uncontrived home where all are welcome; and a love of running and yoga that keep her in marvellous shape, allowing her to indulge her taste for expensive clothes yet look artlessly great when she answers the door in pink T-shirt and dungarees, feet bare on the barn’s stone floor. And if I tell you that close up you can see the normal lines of half-a-century’s living on her face, I say it not out of bitchiness but celebration.
Of course, she stares and then laughs at hearing herself described as a heroine. “Being on the radio allows people to create fantasy perfect versions of you,” she reasons. “Maybe if they knew the madness inside my head… My son Cass turned 16 the other day, and I decided it would be hilarious to repeat something I did for his sixth birthday, which was to collect him from school dressed as Spider-Man. So there I was, being Spider-Man and throwing webs all over the place, and he said to me: ‘You’re such an embarrassment.’ He was mortified and hated me. He walked past and wouldn’t speak to me. I felt so deflated. Me, cool?”
She is laughing, but it is clear that both professionally and personally, whether it’s plants or people, nurturing is what she’s about.
“I was explaining to Coco yesterday who Terry Wogan was and that he was a really great man who enhanced people’s lives. I want to do just a little of what Terry did. I feel that same sense of friendship with the individuals listening that he did… I’m quite aware of people travelling back from hospital visits and feeling quite lonely. It’s good to know you’re keeping someone company in a low moment, giving comfort either by what you’re saying, or just your tone of voice. It’s not a grand ambition, but it’ll do me.”
Jo Whiley is on Radio 2 from Monday to Thursday at 8pm
RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on Sunday – Friday on BBC1, Monday – Friday BBC2