Although she was already successful in the world of food and business, Prue Leith had a secret craving before her TV fame came along. “I wanted to be like Delia and Nigella by losing their last names,” she says. “I’m here, but now I’ve added a name that kinda spoils it.”
She became a lady at the Queen’s Birthday Honors in June – for which she was “thrilled, delighted and grateful” – but she is rarely referred to as Dame Prue, and certainly not Dame Prudence. “Prudence … terrible name,” she says.
Her mother, an actress in their native South Africa, wanted three more daughters she would call Faith, Hope and Charity, but Prue was her only girl. “My mom thought I’d make it happen, but I’ve never been the least bit careful,” she exclaims, seemingly horrified at the idea.
It’s certainly not a name that conjures up visions of fun, and Great British Bake Off judge Prue is the biggest fun, laughing at herself the most. Nowhere is that shown better than in her new series for More4, Prue’s Great Garden Plot.
Prue Leith, 81, and her husband John Playfair, 75, (pictured) share their efforts to create a garden for their Oxfordshire home in a new four-part series on More4
She and her husband John Playfair have been together for ten years and three years ago they decided to build a new house on land already owned by Prue in Oxfordshire. They moved last December and invited the cameras in as they began to plant a garden on a two-acre site filled with buried bits of farm equipment.
They even found a 1936 Massey Ferguson tractor carrying the roof of an outbuilding, and a combine that hadn’t been used in 50 years but worked perfectly.
And what a ride the series is. Prue, 81, and John, 75, have flashes of inspiration: There’s a custom arbor decorated with fragrant yellow climbing roses to hide their septic tank. “It’s an attention grabber,” says Prue. “Let’s hope no one is inside!”
But they also make mistakes by planting cherry trees in wet clay soil that causes the roots to die. Their land is full of “beautiful round stones,” says Prue.
‘We put them around the bushes in borders to anchor them, then an expert came and said it was the worst thing we could do, because plants need air. I’m not Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh.’
In any case, she’s known for her cooking, not horticulture, though her former home—an 18th-century nine-bedroom mansion—had a beautiful classical garden and more that she opened up to charity. But the beauty of this four-part series is that, despite their mistakes, she and John pick themselves up, sometimes literally, and keep going.
First John attacks Prue’s trapped hair with clippers, then attacks the jungle outside with an electric grass trimmer strapped over his body. He makes a spectacular fall over old tires – luckily the grass trimmer is off.
Later, Prue pulls on a rope attached to one of the six-foot-tall silver birch trees she’s planting because the windswept spot bumps into the “grovelet,” as she calls it. Another mistake, she admits.
Prue said John’s eyes lit up when she showed him a 1920s map showing an orchard on their land. In the photo: Prue in front of her new home
“We should have bought smaller trees and waited for them to grow.” Due to the effort with the rope, she falls over. She hoisted herself on all fours to slowly push herself up.
‘Did you see that? That’s funny,’ she says, not caring for dignity. “If this show was about old wives’ gardening, that would be a good order.”
Prue’s answer to most things – be it accident or the idyll of watching the sun set over their partially completed garden – is, “All we need is a margarita” or “I’m dreaming of a drink on the patio with view over the landscape’.
Caution? Horrible name. I’m not remotely careful
She is often away filming, and she and John have a new tradition. “When I’m almost home at night, I text him and he shows up on the curb with a glass of red wine. The Bake Off gang teases me all the time like I’m an alcoholic.’
As they began to think about the garden, Prue showed John a map from the 1920s showing an orchard on their land.
“His eyes lit up,” she says. They had 167 rare breed dwarf fruit trees, and they all did well except the cherries. They decided it would be a perfect place for wildflowers.
“But the grass grew to a height of five feet,” she says. They have instead “pinched a patch of field within sight of the kitchen” for them.
Prue revealed that her favorite plants in the garden are euonymus and weigela. Pictured: Prue and John in Episode 1
Among Prue’s favorite plants in the garden are euonymus (or burning shrub) and weigela, which has bright, funnel-shaped flowers and is low-maintenance. “I don’t like kneeling,” confesses Prue.
Their ultra-modern home was designed after they rejected plans for traditional mansions. “Boring,” says Prue. A large yellow kitchen fills the modern two-bedroom section above.
“We sleep together, but there’s an exile bedroom – we haven’t had to use it yet. I don’t care what mess John has there, or in his dressing room or study.’
She is aware of the ticking of time, but also knows that gardening takes patience. “We’ll finish filming in July, but part of the garden has only started to look great since then.”
They still have two hectares to take. The perfect challenge for a new series? Let’s hope.
Prue’s Great Garden Plot, Wednesday, 9pm, More4.