Growing Awareness - we've got famous faces for gardeners!
Published: 09 August 2022
Our new-ish gardeners Frances and Chloe have been at Sharpham for a few months now, so after letting them get to know the place, we finally sat them down to interview them properly.
Frances Tophill is known to millions of UK telly watchers as a presenter on BBC and ITV, While Chloe has got form as a model! Both are top-notch gardeners too, of course.
Frances is standing in as Head Gardener for Bryony, who is on maternity leave, while Chloe is our permanent Assistant Gardener.
Both are a fantastic addition to the staff of The Sharpham Trust - plus they're caring brilliantly for the 10 acres of gardens and grounds surrounding Sharpham House.
Frances is a current presenter on BBC Two's Gardeners' World, alongside Monty Don and friends, while (unusually) she simultaneously appears on ITV's makeover show Love Your Garden with national gardening treasure Alan Titchmarsh.
But she was a gardener before becoming a TV star. She was 19 when she started as an apprentice gardener, then went to university in Edinburgh to study horticulture botany. It was whilst she was there, in 2012, that the college got an email from ITV asking if any horticulture students wanted to participate in a screen-test for Love Your Garden.
"We all just saw it as a jolly to go to London, and we went down and did a screen test," said Frances. "A month later I got a phone call. I was absolutely terrified. I'm really shy naturally."
She passed the audition and took the job, working alongside garden broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh, whilst studying around her filming commitments. The study paid off: she got a distinction in her degree.
More telly beckoned when Gardeners' World came calling in 2016 and she's been a fixture of the much-loved and long-running show since.
"I'm not shy anymore but I am private," said Frances, "but the job allows you to do loads of stuff and learn loads of stuff...I get to go all over the country and meet amazing people who are doing all sorts of amazing things...and I get to quiz them on what they're doing and how they're doing it. But the pay-off is that people know who you are".
Frances got even more publicity when her garden design for this year's Gardeners' World Live show won Best Show Garden & the Showcase Garden Platinum Award.
She linked Birmingham's industrial history and 100 years of the Beeb and created a sustainable garden using reclaimed materials. Even though she was a Gardeners' World presenter, the show organisers were so impressed that they gave her a medal and an award!
Frances' TV commitments have meant that she has only recently been able to work full-time at Sharpham, and her main goal is to maintain the gardens for when Head Gardener Bryony Middleton returns.
"The main thing I have to do is keep it in a state that Bryony will like and be happy with when she returns...I'm aware that this is her space and that I'm a custodian," she said.
However, daily gardening sessions with Coach House retreatants and the help of Chloe Ellis, Sharpham's Assistant Gardener, mean that she might be able to make progress with a few jobs that Bryony couldn't do alone.
"With Chloe and us together and all the retreatants coming and helping we may have time to redevelop herbaceous borders that she wanted to do but couldn't. I feel that would be a nice gift to her when she comes back that would be really nice," she said.
Chloe joined the team at the same time as Frances and has also spent time in front of the cameras.
As a young Mod dancing in night clubs, she was picked out to model the subculture in magazine American Esquire and a book by photographer Horst Friedrichs.
Chloe still loves dancing to Northern Soul in her spare time, although she may be hard-pressed to find the music she loves down in Devon!
Chloe and her partner moved South West from Salford, near Manchester, where she worked in the Royal Horticultural Society's garden Bridgewater, gaining a love of ornamental gardening.
"Because I've worked for the RHS you learn a lot about different types of plants," she said. "I got really into tropical-style jungle gardens!" If she can muster the time and energy, she plans her own jungle garden at home, she says.
Chloe originally started in the travel industry and went to university in 2009 to do a degree in international development. She became interested in food sovereignty, climate change and food production and planned to continue her learning with a Master's degree. But she couldn't afford to study longer.
"While I was trying to work out what I was going to do with my life, I got an allotment and then I decided that THAT was what I was going to do with my life: learn to grow food," she said.
She called that her 'Eureka moment' and shortly afterwards she emailed a Michelin-starred restaurant to ask for work. She got the job as a trainee in their kitchen garden.
Since then she's had various jobs in gardening, working in community gardens, working with people on growing & outdoor projects. She even looked after 23 acres on her own.
So she brings all that knowledge to Sharpham, our community of volunteers and of people staying on retreat in The Coach House.
"It's great," she says. "It's really nice working with the retreatants and having new people coming though the garden on a weekly basis."
"People are getting quite a lot out of being here in the garden and learning stuff and a lot of people have said they are going to go home and make something of their gardens," she said.
When she gets time to look up from the vegetable and flower beds (and the lawn-mowing and Woodland garden work and so on...), she enjoys the Sharpham vistas.
"It's beautiful here," she said. "Every time I walk out of the gate at the bottom of the Walled Garden and see that yew tree and the river it takes your breath away".
"It's a lovely place to come and spend time and work," said Chloe.
Find out more about Sharpham's gardens here