Although Sharon Fisher is delighted to find herself at the helm of Gardeners’ World, she had no great masterplan behind her rise to the top of gardening television. “I have a significant birthday coming up and so I have been thinking a lot about how I got here, but the truth is it just wasn’t planned at all.” She grew up in Kings Heath, Birmingham (near to the park from where Gardeners’ World was broadcast in 1996) and studied Communication Studies at university. After graduating she took on a voluntary position answering phones on Good Morning with Anne and Nick at the BBC’s Pebble Mill Studios. A subsequent job as a researcher on the show led to her first piece of horticultural serendipity, working with Stefan Buczacki on his practical gardening demonstrations. by chance, she went on to work in daytime television and on the garden makeover show Real Rake-Overs with Diarmuid Gavin and on Housecall with Chris Beardshaw. It was this experience, she says, that first got her interested in gardening. “It’s also where I learnt my craft producing and directing. When you produce fast turnaround telly you have a tight budget and a lot of programmes to make, so it gave me skills that I still use today.”
When Pebble Mill closed in 2004 she moved with the BBC to the Mailbox i Birmingham city centre and had the opportunity to work as a director on Gardeners’ World and then, from 2011 to 2016, as a live producer and then series producer of the televised RHS Chelsea Flower Show, further honing her skills in a highly pressured environment, making 13 hours of TV a week. In 2017, the programme’s 50th year, the opportunity arose to become series producer of Gardeners’ World.
Making on average 30 programmes a year is always going to be a challenge, and the nature of the programme – being filmed mainly outdoors – adds its own problems. The weather is the main source of havoc that Sharon and her team have learned to negotiate, “particularly in the spring when it’s cold and muddy and flowers haven’t opened. On grey, wet days I truly appreciate the talent of the crews we work with. They create floral magic.”
Sharon’s love of gardening has crept up on her as she has spent more time around gardens and gardeners, and she now finds herself a bit of an addict. “My grandad George was a real gardener. He grew roses and wallflowers for my nan in their terraced garden in Selly Oak. And my mum is always in her garden, she spends hours out there. I picked up the green gene from them.” Three years ago, she moved to a new-build in the Cotswolds and has been enjoying designing her garden from scratch. “It was daunting being face with a 6m-squared blank space,” she says, “but I deliberately didn’t ask for advice, because I wanted the chance to make it my own. I knew I wanted some trees for privacy and I invested in three good-sized crab apples.
The birds started to visit straight away and the space began to take shape.” She is particularly delighted by her worms, having started with typical barren new-build soil, filled with rubble. “Now it is rich and deep and there are lots of worms. I am proud of that.” She considers this success a part of a gradual increase in her knowledge and enthusiasm. “I didn’t know anything about gardening when I started at Gardeners’ World, but I am surrounded by the best. I’ve had 16 years at the best gardening college in the world.”
The programme generally develops organically year on year rather than any one person making any big decisions about new direction, and Sharon doesn’t yet know what the new season will hold. But the viewers’ films – which were new to 2020 – have become a big hit and she already knows that these will definitely stay. “We were sent over 8,000 films, from viewers all over the UK and Europe and as far away as New Zealand, Canada and the USA. It’s incredible how much love there is for the programme across the world.”
Last year the programme gained half a million viewers and so the challenge this year is to hang on to every one of them and this means attempting to give all of them what they want. “It means having plenty of varied content, as we need to cater to everyone: the people who can only grow houseplants, the real expert gardeners who have been doing it for years, the people who just tune in to see [presenter] Monty [Don] and the dogs, and everyone in between.”
Sharon feels a huge sense of responsibility for the programme. On Friday nights she watches it along with the rest of us, following along on social media (#gardenersworld, if you want to join in). “There is so much reaction, it’s always a good reminder that even though we all work so hard on it, the programme belongs to the nation. I am just one of its current custodians and that is wonderful. I just want to do my best because I want it to still be going strong in another 50 years.”