What could be more English than a marquee in the grounds of a stately home garlanded with bunting, bursting at the seams with cakes and presided over by Mary Berry? Well, how about an allotment fragrant with fresh produce and Fern Britton in wellies swinging on the gate? Filmed over five months in the stunning walled garden of Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire, The Big Allotment Challenge promises to be horticulture’s answer to the hugely popular Great British Bake Off.
Each week nine pairs of amateur Monty Dons face challenges testing their horticultural, flower-arranging and jam and chutney skills. Judging the cream of the crop are former royal gardener Jim Buttress, floral designer Jonathan Moseley and preserves expert Thane Prince. But will the show also dig its way to ratings victory? Only time – and green fingers – will tell.
Superintendent of the Royal Parks for 25 years
How long have you been gardening?
Since I was a nipper. My first school was a convent and I didn’t like the nuns and they didn’t like me, and the only way they could keep control of me was to put me with the gardener. I still remember getting commended in the children’s class at my first flower show.
What were your responsibilities as Superintendent of the Royal Parks?
I was in charge of Hyde Park, St James’ Park, Kensington Gardens, Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. All the Queen Mum wanted was flowers, flowers, flowers. But when Charlie took over at Clarence, large areas were turned into an allotment because he’s a vegetable nut. He used to come and ask advice. Her Majesty took after her mother: more colour than veg.
Are you a prickly judge?
Someone said I was a cross between Ray Winstone and Paul Hollywood! I am just myself and I try to give lots of advice. I hope this is going to inspire people. No disrespect to makeover programmes but one minute it looks like a jungle and the next you could be at Chelsea Flower Show. That’s not gardening. Gardening is all: “Oh no, the greenfly’s got the roses,” or “Jack Frost’s destroyed the beans”. A lot of that happened and there were tears.
What should gardeners be doing right now?
The biggest mistake people make is to jump too soon because the weather at the end of March, start of April can really kick you in the wotsit: a cold wind, a sharp frost and you’re back to square one. That doesn’t mean you can’t get things ready in a cold frame or a greenhouse or on your window sills.
What should you do if your garden was flooded this winter?
There’s no point planting if it’s soaking wet still. If your soil is always wet or you’re battling with a heavy clay or chalk or sandy soil, build a raised bed and fill it with compost. Create the soil that you know will nurture the plants you want. And remember, even the most seasoned soil needs to be worked. Add compost to make the ground more friable and encourage more worms into the ground. Add grit or straw to break up that solid, thick mass if you’ve got a heavy clay soil.
What’s your top advice for allotment novices?
If it’s not been well maintained, don’t try and clear the whole lot in one go. Do a bit and get some crops in that are going to give you a quick return – the salads, beetroot, carrots. Go slow. Go small. Don’t plant a bloody great row of lettuce, because after you’ve eaten the 21st you’ll look like a rabbit! Crop rotation is more manageable, more productive and makes you more disciplined.
And if you want to get the family involved?
Kids want to sow it today and pick it tomorrow. So start them off with spring onions and radishes – seeds that produce a crop very quickly. When the they’re convinced they’re the next Alan Titchmarsh, move onto brassicas.
Won his first flower competition aged 12. Created Chatsworth’s annual Florabundance festival
How long have you been arranging flowers?
From the age of ten I was obsessed by flowers. My family were keen gardeners but not pickers: I was the one who loved the creative side of putting them in vases. On Saturdays I used to help in a flower shop and I would dread being spotted by any of my schoolfriends. Flower-arranging was not the done thing for a teenage boy, especially in a mining town in South Yorkshire!
Is there still stigma attached?
Oh yes, especially for men. People associate it with the WI and middle England. It’s a shame, because to gather and arrange flowers you’ve grown is a quick, inexpensive, feel-good fix.
How often do you need your fix?
If I go away and there are no flowers in the hotel, I have to go out and buy a bunch. I think rooms look sterile and lifeless without them – flowers are the beating heart of a house for me.
What advice would you give to novices?
It’s essential that you cut in the coolest part of the day – early morning or late evening. Always cut on a 45-degree slant and place immediately in a bucket of water so there’s never a chance for an airlock to form. Put flower food in there to replace the nutrients from the parent plant, which will allow the flowers to ripen fully.
And when it comes to arranging them?
When you’re doing a hand-tied bouquet, it’s crucial to hold it in one place – we call it the binding point. Hold the stems tight but not so hard that you squash them. Work in a clockwise direction, feeding the stems in the same direction each time.
What are the common mistakes?
The less you handle flowers, the longer they’re going to live, because you’re not bruising them. Another common mistake is to kill them with kindness: drown them with too much water. You need to think about where you’re placing them: avoid any radiators or electrical products that emit heat and sunny window sills.
Any floral ideas for Easter?
Your archetypal Easter flower is the daffodil. Even if Easter’s late, you should be able to find the Scottish ones, which are the last in the season. Pair them with fluffy yellow mimosa – it always reminds me of spring chicks and has a fabulous fragrance.
How did the contestants fare?
I could see them thinking, “What is this mad floral addict talking about?” They were used to growing potatoes and I was expecting them to create something pretty-pretty. But they really embraced it and were talking about enrolling on flower-arranging courses by the end.
Cookery Writer, author and founder of Aldeburgh Cookery School
When did you pick your first raspberry for jam?
I was probably two or three. I was born on the Norfolk coast and one of my earliest memories is gathering samphire to pickle it. Back then, of course, it was partly from necessity: if you wanted to have raspberries in winter it was in raspberry jam.
What’s the kick of making your own?
One of the best-kept secrets about preserving is that a lot of these things are really, really easy to make. Even better, instead of spending all day making something that’s devoured in minutes, you can enjoy something for months – and share it with your friends and family. I rarely take wine to people; I take a jar of jam and a jar of chutney.
When it comes to flavours, are you a traditionalist?
There is a reason why things become traditional and that’s because they work and taste good. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. That’s another reason for starting small. There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of time and effort cooking up a vat, only for it to be rubbish. It’s particularly awful if it’s preserves, because you’ve ten jars of it sitting on the shelf gazing back at you.
What equipment do you need?
Spoon, scales, clean jam jars and a big saucepan.
What are the commonest mistakes?
When you’re making jam, it’s important to pick the fruit before it’s fully ripe. People forget that the third thing you need – in addition to sugar and pectin – is the acidity in the fruit. So if you picked ripe strawberries and just added jam sugar (which contains pectin), your jam wouldn’t set.
When it comes to judging, are you more like Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood?
Mary’s much more traditional than I am and Paul is much cheekier! I invented Paul Hollywood. I was doing a programme in Cyprus that he appeared on. A producer back in England saw it… and that was Paul Hollywood.
The Big Allotment Challenge is on tonight at 8:00pm on BBC2.