Bob Flowerdew is undoubtedly Britain’s foremost expert on growing Fruit and Veg. His practical, Organic, approach, and relaxed view on gardening mores has garnered him countless followers over the years. A regular on our screen (should appear more in my opinion), a prolific writer, a popular public speaker, and a stalwart of 26 years and counting on BBC Radio 4`s Gardeners Question Time (which has a regular audience of over two million listeners). He is equally at ease presenting Britain in Bloom prizes and talking at your local gardening club. Know throughout the land for his legendary plaited ponytail and his mellow calming voice. Never afraid to discuss difficult subjects or to experiment with different approaches in the garden.
Dan: Let’s start with who first got you into gardening, and where did you get your passion for organic gardening from, and who if anyone is your greatest influence?
Bob: It’s in my blood I guess, countless generations have worked the land round here, even my family name is horticultural! Although addicted to reading I also loved being outdoors, tending stock and growing plants (once I found a four leaved clover plant, took it home, where it was drowned in a bucket awaiting a ‘place to go’ despite my pleas), and helping with the seasonal chores (and just loved cider making with grandfather, not for the cider but the fresh pressed juice- gorgeous stuff).
Coincidentally as a child I encountered the Organic movement at it’s farm and Soil Association headquarters at Haughley which lay only a few villages away. Despite rumours they did not seem any ‘odder’ than any other locals and it was not till a student I realised the significance of their research. My influences early on were garden and natural science authors, all I could find, particularly William Cobbett who recommended personal trial and experiment, and Laurence Hills founder of HDRA now Garden Organic.
Dan: Bob we all have a veg that grows well for us and some that just never seems to happen what is your Veg Heaven and Veg Hell?
Bob: Heaven has to be Asparagus, for years I’ve selected from Kidners strain for female plants with huge sized spears but other than that and a bit of weeding it grows itself, and is so welcome early in the year, I now fry the tips rather than boil or steam.
Hell has to be New Potatoes, I love these with super early crops in tubs under cover I get the first meal at Easter (when I am planting the outdoor batches), followed by more from tubs, then from the polytunnel border, before lifting the first outdoor crops. But the effort; those tubs need filling, watering, moving, to say little of tending the crops in the ground, the litany of pests and diseases, I’d save huge amounts of labour If I’d settle for buying the imported sort instead, no way!
Dan: You have been working your garden for over 38 years now, over those years many new principals and techniques have come and gone, are there any you have adopted over time and have become a regular feature in your garden? And how have you adapted your gardening style over the years?
Bob: I am now far starting off more crops in small cells and pots and planting out rather than sowing in-situ even though the latter gives the better results the former is so much more reliable and allows for better weed control for longer. This fits in with incorporation of weeds and green manures from mid-winter till spring under woven ground covering geotextiles which can stay in place longer when planting not sowing.
One development is that I’ve always welcomed wild lives on every scale with the intention they would control each other, and for the fertility their proliferation engenders. I now strive to encourage these even more. I realised we were misled thinking that merely providing various habitats and growing flowers was sufficient. If we want our native fauna to burgeon we need look at their whole life cycle. If we want more Butterflies then growing more flowers is as pointless as making the North Sea bigger to help the Cod stocks. If we want more native butterflies then we must support more native butterfly caterpillars and these eat native plants! We must grow far more native plants especially as more than 200 butterfly caterpillars are able to survive eating only certain scarce wild plants. Thus I wrote my unbelievably boring but important ‘Really Help Butterflies’ book listing caterpillars fed by each plant to help make more genuinely useful choices.
Dan: You are East Anglian born and bred but have worked all around the world in your younger years, in some interesting jobs, grape picker, nude model and a cleaner in a brothel! And at one point lived on a boat on the River Thames? What made you finally move back to the Waveney Valley?
Bob: Roots of course, but also the climate. Friends wanted me to join them on holdings in the West country and Wales, and I’d even contemplated Eire. However I love fruits more than veg and if you want to grow fruit then sunny dry East Anglia is more sensible than the damper west. And opportunity, I was able to rent then buy this ¾ acre from my family (at full market rate I may add, that’s family for you) but at least without having to raise a deposit. This provided the space for me to trial my methods and see whether, as I intended, I could grow and eat absolutely anything I wished successfully, Organically, and in my spare time- well I’ve managed the first couple but I’m still looking for that spare time…
Dan: How is your garden at home laid out? And tell us about your double polytunnel?
Bob: I spent months planning on paper before commencing so that everything would be in the most suitable position, so I would have places most often visited closest to the kitchen and vice versa, and most importantly to have my veg. beds (40 each 4’x15’) exposed to full sun and aligned North/South. However this is not a show garden but a laboratory so some areas have changed many times, for example outside my garden room /shed/ office window is the meadow garden where I’m investigating ways to establish wild flowers in grasses easily (using paving slabs moved six monthly to make bare planting sites). This was once a large banked herb garden, before that a raised bed and polytunnel and before that a hen run and shed.
The double tunnel arose from putting a cold frame in my first polytunnel and noticing how effective this was. Scaling up, three times, I now have a generous tunnel covered with a huge industrial one. This gives me the usual advantages of cover overall plus the enclosed second tunnel which stays much warmer year round as the outer tunnel takes all the weather. The inner tunnel has a bay at each end and an inner area where sits the pineapple pit which has the only heating as such. With the help of a home made propagator I use this double covered area to grow more crops more of the year- without much significant input of heat.
Dan: Bob you’re marooned on an island in the middle of nowhere, but luckily you have one book, one song and most importantly one packet of seeds with you what are your choices for your Desert Island Veg?
Bob: The book has to be Columella, the Roman writer on horticulture, 12 volumes, fascinating reading. But I also need my laptop with my ‘Web of Life in the UK’ a compendium of interactions between our native and garden plants, each other and all the other co-lives big and small, this I’ve been working on for forty years or more and need to polish.
The song, mine own, my Good Life Song, a one minute rap, says it all.
And the packet of seeds- sensibly it would be French beans as so productive, and good fresh and dried, but I’ll choose strawberries and spend my time selecting for better ones.
Dan: If you had to what is your favourite season of the year? and why?
Bob: The next one coming, always…because time slips by so rapidly, you need to plan before you get there
Dan: I know you have released several books over the years, but I like how your latest book concentrates a on the growing, preserving, storing and processing off your produce. An often overlooked and underappreciated principal of grow your own. Tell us a bit more about how you approach this art?
Bob: It’s easy to grow your own to eat fresh, almost anything is not that difficult. But as soon as you become seriously into GYO then spreading out your harvest to cover the whole year becomes the question. I think we have overlooked this whole area- cookery books and programs concentrate on meals whilst gardening is mostly on making it look ‘good’ with little GYO. And neither deals with storing methods, nor preserving and processing with the choices of freezing, drying, bottling, juicing, jamming, jellying, candying, pickling, salting, and brewing, all now easier with modern equipment. I grew up with the traditional methods and have updated these to fit our current tastes and means. However my approach is quality not quantity, I’m not selling my productions but eating them so I make the very best I can.
Dan: You have courted controversy over the years, but I believe you speak a lot of sense. Peat in compost being one subject. The general move is for a total ban, but you believe a small amount should be used, tell us more about this? And plastics in gardening certainly needs looking at but I wonder whether the problem lies in the fact people tend to throw and buy new, rather than re-use and get a few seasons worth out of it?
Bob: Yes my suggestion for a massive reduction in peat usage rather than a total ban has annoyed a few less thoughtful folk who cannot see a nuanced position is more likely to be successful,
Just remember how well Prohibition worked!
And as to plastics- I hate waste and re-purpose everything possible, even using tape to repair plastic pots, indeed another of my books is ‘Re-use and re-cycle stuff in your garden’ which is ways to do so; a Venetian blind cuts up into more, large, plant labels than you’ll ever need,wire clothes hangers become giant pins to stop moles pushing up plants and a flat radiator makes a good bench, several become a hard wearing path.
Dan: Bob, Permaculture are you an active user of the moon as your planting and harvesting guide?
Bob: I have trialled lunar planting, and even conducted a national experiment on this, I am convinced there is something going on. But it is not at all understood and most writing on the subject is full of conjecture not science. None the less it has a core of truth, just try sowing a dozen seeds each day over a month and see for yourself. BUT far more important in practice is hitting the right window with regards to conditions and micro-climate thus I recommend three batches three days apart for any sowings, bracketing the astrological day as you wish.
Dan: Do you think that to much emphasis is put on the finished look of produce and plants, whether that being cooking programs or the sculptured landscaping of a Chelsea Flower Show. Without much emphasis on the growing, tending and variation of it all?
Bob: Far too much, but that is a problem of and made by visual media, aggravated by their insatiabe desire for instant effect. Chelsea is interesting but as relevant to most gardeners as are the cat-walk fashion shows. There is little attention to real gardening as practiced and all to the appearance. Worse, instead of having more gardeners commentating we are subjected to every out of work luvvy and soap-star at a loose end (and no it’s not sour grapes, I really don’t want that job okay).
Dan: As a master on compost bob are there any areas you think we are missing a trick on? I know we have spoken about Petal Mould?
Bob: Many tricks. Compost is THE secret of successful fertility and also health as good compost provides both the fuel and gamut of plant nutrition required to build up their resistance. We do not make enough nor use compost enough- it is best applied to almost everything and as a tea to those you cannot mulch.
And we should also be looking at ancillary ways of increasing soil micro-flora with leaf-mould, ground rock dressings, seaweed, specific inoculants and yes, petal mould. I suspect we may improve some crops by applying dressings of petals from certain plants, only a hunch but worth pursuing (after all they breakdown much like leaves only quicker, perhaps the plants have ‘planned’ phyto-stimulant substances from their decay?).
Dan: We have heard about your double polytunnel Bob, but there are not many practical guides on how best to use them and their advantages and disadvantages, is this a subject you may venture into in the future?
Bob: Yes, I’ve been suggesting this book for years but publishers won’t do it till they see another the same succeed… So I’m working it up myself for self publication on Amazon though it’s vying for time with my other current books, the ‘Web of Life “ alluded to above and especially by my Autobybobraphy, I’ve completed my first dozen years and am now working on the next couple of decades (changing names to protect the guilty).
Dan: My allotment is on sandy soil and I use raised beds as well so although it’s easy to work it doesn’t hold moisture and nutrients as well so copious amounts of compost are required along with feeding and watering regularly over the summer (if we get one that is!) What is the soil like on your plot and have you any good tips for compost making and improving the soil on a plot?
Bob: My soil is sandy silt so very similar, dries out quickly, sets to concrete and eats as much compost as I can throw on it, plus green manures, and grass clippings as mulch and for worm food. I’ve gone for minimum tillage with the only time I dig is to plant potatoes and again to lift them, so every fourth year and I keep it either under plants or under geotextiles wherever possible (mostly for water conservation as it is so arid here).
Dan: We are blessed in this country with many beautiful gardens, estates and areas to visit all around the country. Where would you recommend people to visit once if they get the chance? And why?
Bob: Any and every garden is worth visiting, however I am particularly interested in derelict gardens- the plants surviving telling exactly the conditions they prefer. But I guess that’s not every ones taste, so for a day out, when you can, just visit your nearest Botanic Garden, it will be wonderful.
Dan:Bob you write, present on TV, lecture, tweet and appear on the radio but which medium do you enjoy most? And which one do you feel delivers your message best?
Bob: I love to stand up in front of a live audience, regale them with wit, humour and erudition, take them on a journey in the joys of gardening, then leave them wishing it was still early morning so they can immediately put into action the ideas I’ve led them into. However the current crisis has had me recording GQT from home, and you know, I really do not miss all the travelling, perhaps I should do more online.
Dan: Finally, what’s the future hold for you? Are there any projects or plans you hope to get off the ground in the near future?
Bob: On my desktop are the near finished ‘Web of Life in the UK’, my ‘Autobybobraphy; part 2 Sex, Drugs and Violets thro’ the ‘70s’, ‘Growing under plastic and glass cover’, ‘A history of my Dickleburgh garden and experiments over four decades’, a collection of odd coincidences, a file full of inventions, designs and projects waiting for an angel, an outline of several more books, including two novels and a film script in the worst possible taste…
-meanwhile down the garden path there always awaits new seeds to grow, plants to observe and critters to understand, the very best place to be…
You can buy new and pre-owned copies of Bobs books from any good book retailer or online store
You can follow Bob on Twitter @bobflowerdew
You can catch him on Radio 4s Gardeners Question Time most weeks
And he regularly writes in Amateur Gardening magazine, answers questions for Gardeners World Magazine and has monthly articles on growing under cover for HartleyBotanic.com
His website is www.bobflowerdew.com