Martin Fish is one of the UK most respected and loved Horticulturalists. He has been a regular on Tv and Radio for nearly 30 years, while at the same time a prolific writer in National Magazines and Books. He is active on all branches of Social Media. And is always on hand to guide the newcomer or old hand with down to earth and practical advise. His new book Gardening on the Menu is out now.
Dan: Hello, Martin, how are you? How have you been coping with the current situation?
Martin: I’m fine thanks, but I must admit, it’s all been a bit strange over the past few months. As a result of much of my summer work being cancelled I have been at home all the time instead of rushing from flower show to flower show judging and giving talks! Fortunately, we have a large garden that’s kept me busy all the time and I’ve managed to catch up with all the jobs in the garden that have been on my waiting list, plus some DIY projects which I always enjoy! Being in the garden every day means you can really appreciate the range of plants and it’s been great to take my time and garden at a slower pace!
Dan: Almost all flower and garden shows have been cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19 How do you think it will affect them long term?
Martin: The cancellation of all flower shows came as a blow to the industry, but it had to be done for obvious reasons to prevent the spread of Covid-19. As for 2021, it’s still a little uncertain and already some shows have been cancelled for financial reasons, so I think the show scene will be very different moving forwards, but I think people will attend in 2021 as long as it’s safe to do so. I’m sure most shows will carry on, but because of financial implications they may be scaled back a little for a year or two to give them time to build back up. I think we’ll still see a good range of specialist independent nurseries, who are also a font of knowledge to visitors, but I suspect that we will see less large show gardens and installations! During the pandemic many people have taken to gardening for the first time and I hope that show organisers embrace these new-found garden lovers and provide for them. What people seem to want is down to earth, practical gardening advice to help guide them along the road of gardening discovery. This can easily be delivered at shows with practical gardening talks and demonstrations.
Dan: So, Martin where did it all begin for you and your green fingered ways, can you remember the thing that just captivated you and started you on your journey.
Martin: It’s a bit of a cliché but it started in my Grandma Smith’s garden when I was a young child. She was a proper country woman and she loved to potter in her old cottage garden growing flowers. I remember spending lots of time with her and my uncle who grew vegetables and kept hens. We also used to go on long walks and she taught me about nature and wild flowers. That led on to me getting a part time job when I was 13 on a small nursery in the village which confirmed that I wanted to grow plants and be a gardener. I left school at 16 and got an apprenticeship on the Newark parks department which started my career in horticulture and the rest as they say is history!
Dan: Martin do you have a favourite season in the year?
Martin: I like all seasons because they are so interesting and provide us with a fantastic range of plants, but I particularly like spring simply because it signals new life in the garden after winter. I don’t mind winter if it’s cold, frosty and sunny, but when we get weeks of thick grey cloud and rain, I do start to feel a bit low! Fortunately, we are lucky enough to be able to go to New Zealand for several weeks most winters to stay with our daughter and grandchildren. It’s their summer when we visit so we get the best of both worlds and as well as spending quality time with family, I get to see some of the amazing plants they grow out there and we miss the worst of the British winter. I can be a bit of a shock when we get home in February, but at least the days are starting to draw out and spring is just around the corner.
Dan: Martin apart from any books you have written, what is the best Gardening book you have ever read?
Martin: I’ve got bookshelves of gardening books that I’ve been collecting since I started gardening that cover a range of gardening and plant subjects. I’m more into practical text-books rather than glossy coffee table books and many are well thumbed with years of use. One that I’ve referred to for over 40 years is one by the late Percy Thrower. I grew up watching him on the telly and when I started my apprenticeship in June 1978 I bought ‘In Your Garden with Percy Thrower’, which is basically a gardening calendar through the year, week by week. It sits on my bookshelf at the side of my desk and I still pull the tatty old book down occasionally to see what Percy would have been doing in his garden. Although first published in 1959, most of what he says is still applicable today! I also had a much prized copy of his autobiography that he signed for me at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1979, but years ago I lent it to someone (I can’t remember who) and never got it back! If you are reading this, can I have it back please?
Dan: Martin we all have a veg/plant that grows well for us and some that just never seems to happen what is your Veg/Plant Heaven and Veg/Plant Hell?
Martin: I love the blue Himalayan poppy, Meconopsis, and always admire them when visiting RHS Harlow Carr where I’m a Garden Advisor. Although I only live 18 miles away the soil conditions are very different and I really struggle with them on my well-drained soil. Asparagus on the other hand grows really well in our garden and we get a good crop every year between April and late June.
Dan: Martin your 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?
Martin: I’m a James Herriot fan and lucky to live in the part of North Yorkshire where he practised, so my book would be “All Creatures Great & Small” which is about his early life as a vet in Yorkshire. I’ve read it several times and it always makes me chuckle. My song would be “Heartbeat” by Buddy Holly because it’s so uplifting and good to sing along to. It’s a great one to play when driving through the Yorkshire Dales! As for a packet of seeds, I’d go for sweet corn which I’m sure would grow well on the island and keep me fed!
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 when they get the chance? And why?
Martin: We have some fantastic gardens in North Yorkshire such as RHS Harlow Carr, Newby Hall, Castle Howard, Thorp Perrow Arboretum and Harewood House to name but a few. There are also some great private gardens that open as part of the NGS, so anyone passing through or staying in the county are spoiled for choice. Why visit? North Yorkshire is a beautiful place and because of its size and geography the gardens differ in style and what they grow depending on where you are in the county
Dan: You have a fabulous new book out, Gardening on the Menu, which excellently combines not only all the aspects of growing the veg, but how to make some delicious meals with what you have grown. It’s a real family effort with your wife, what gave you the spark to do the book?
Martin: Jill my wife is a great cook (and also a very good gardener) and everything we grow in our fruit & veg garden is put to good use. Several years ago we started giving talks to groups about growing and cooking fresh produce and as a result of people saying, “why don’t you two write a book”, we did! It’s based in our garden and I cover the growing side with lots of hints and tips on getting the best from your fruit & veg and then Jill follows on with a really good selection of recipes and quick cook tips. Jill loves adapting recipes to suit our taste and many also came from our mums who were both very good cooks. The book has gone down well and we’ve just had a re-print which we sell through local bookshops, our website www.martinfish.com, Amazon or when working at flower shows & events where Jill and I often do a joint veg growing and cookery demonstration.
Dan: You are a regular on social media and have a great channel called “Pots and Trowels” which you regularly update with videos, showing things to do in the garden and the veg plot, and handy hints and tips. What made you start this channel
Martin: For many years I did regional gardening programmes, including 10 years as a gardening presenter for BBC East Midlands Today, where I worked with a director called Sean Riley. We kept in touch and a few years ago started working together again on promotional films. While chatting over lunch one day we hatched the idea to do a few practical gardening videos just like the old days! Pots & Trowels was born last summer and we do one or two videos a week that are shown on Facebook and YouTube. They are great fun to do and for me it’s all about encouraging people to get out and enjoy their gardens, large or small. We cover a wide range of gardening subjects and try to cater for the more experienced gardeners as well as those starting from scratch.
Dan: You write, are active in social media, do talks with your wife and lecture on horticulture. But which medium are you happiest doing and believe delivers your messages best?
Martin: I’m very lucky that my work is so varied and I’ve been writing for Garden News and broadcasting on BBC Radio for 27 years! Fortunately, I like everything I do, but having direct contact with people via live radio answering gardening questions or taking to groups at garden clubs or flower shows where you can converse, is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I’m never happier than when in front of an audience or holding a microphone talking gardening!
Dan: Martin are you much of a follower of principals of Permaculture?
Martin: I would describe myself as a traditional hands-on gardener. I had an excellent training in the principles of horticulture and that’s stuck with me. I can’t call myself organic because I do use some man-made fertilisers and occasionally fungicides on ornamental plants. Having said that I never spray anything we eat and if I do need to use any treatment on ornamental plants, I try to use one based on natural products. Where possible I always work with nature and encourage as much beneficial wildlife into the garden as possible, which helps to maintain a balance. Even down to having my chickens roaming in my small orchard to control insect pests! I’m a great believer in giving back to the soil and I use lots of manure and compost to keep the soil healthy and fertile. In the veg plot I use a rotation system that works well for me.
Dan: Martin we share a tenuous link, we both attended the same Horticultural College namely Merrist Wood in Surrey. Much has changed since we both attended ( I was back at the start of the 90s) but do you fondly remember your time there?
Martin: After my apprenticeship and day release college in Nottinghamshire I went off to full-time college at Merrist Wood College to study Nursery Practices. It was the first time I’d lived away from home so was a big thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Back then my brain was like a sponge and I soaked up the information and all things horticultural. 40 year on I’m still in regular contact with Bill Simpson who was vice-principle when I was there. We often judge together at shows and Jill and I have become close friends with him and Mary his wife.
Dan: And for any for any younger readers, would you recommend enrolling yourself on one of these courses as a good starting point for a career in Horticulture? There are certainly many more options in Horticulture than there were when I started out.
Martin: For me my apprenticeship and college set me up for a career in horticulture. Admittedly I’m doing different things now, but that solid grounding in gardening techniques, plant and soil science is essential to get started. Lots of people want to be garden designers, but we also desperately need qualified and experienced gardeners that know how to properly maintain plants and gardens. Unfortunately, most colleges don’t tend to teach ‘gardening’ as such, which is a real shame, but there are course out there if you search around to get you started.
Dan: The challenging situation Covid-19 put us in has meant that Gardening and Allotments have become v popular again with all ages, but how do you think the industry as a whole can make sure we keep as many of these people of all ages engaged in the great outdoors?
Martin: One of the positives of Covid-19 is people have gardened more and many are going it for the first time, which has got to be good. I think magazines, tv and radio programmes need to make sure that they deliver the correct content to keep these new gardeners interested. Likewise, flower shows may need to adapt some of their content too. That’s what we try and do on pots & Trowels – I always say I’m there to hold your hand through the garden!
Dan: Martin can you tell us a bit more about how your garden at home is laid out? The soil you have to work with? And any plans for any new aspects to it?
Martin: We live in a North Yorkshire village and our plot is around ¾ acre in size. The soil is a sandy loam, which drains well and also retains moisture, so I’m very lucky. It’s laid out informally on the whole with lawns and sweepings beds and borders full of trees, shrubs and perennials to provide colour and interest all year round and it flows into the countryside beyond! Seasonal colours tends to be in pots closer to the house and in the courtyard garden. I also enjoy growing fruit trees and have a small orchard of 16 trees and a productive vegetable garden that does have a more formal layout with a four-bed rotation system. A polytunnel for fruit & veg and greenhouse where I grow tender ornamental plants keep me occupied all year round. We’ve no major new plans as we’ve only just finished some areas, but I’m always tweaking and changing things.
Dan: Who has been the biggest influence in you in horticultural journey so far, and who do you if anyone aspire to be like in their influence over a certain field in plants and horticulture
Martin: Early on in my gardening career Geoff Hamiliton definitely influenced me because he was very much a practical gardener. From the late 1970’s until his death in 1996 he was the main television gardener and I loved his relaxed, down to earth style that inspired so many people. I never wanted to design gardens for a living, but I love creating gardens and for many years I grew plants, landscaped and maintained gardens. I was lucky enough to meet Geoff on several occasions through my BBC Radio work and he was always so encouraging and happy to give me advice as a young gardener and broadcaster.
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?
Martin: Nothing new on the horizon! Under normal circumstances I’m kept busy with my writing, radio, gardening videos, group talks and working at shows. I’m also involved in committee work for the RHS and the Great Yorkshire Show, so life is full! And of course, I try to fit in as much gardening as possible! I have enjoyed spending more time in my garden over the past few months and it does make you think about a slightly slower pace of life. Having said that, I think I’ve got one more garden in me, so watch this space!
Dan: The Queen wants all her Windsor Castles grounds and The Great Park to be re-designed and she wants you Martin to oversee it! As luck would have it she has unearthed a time machine in the basement at Windsor! So she has said you can have 3 assistants from the past or present to help plan and do the work. So Martin who will you chose to make up your Garden Dream Team? And why?
Geoffrey Smith, one of my gardening heroes, was best known as a television gardener and a panellist on Gardeners’ Question Time. He landscaped much of RHS Harlow Carr in the 1950’s & 1960’s and he was also a brilliant plantsman. I had the pleasure of working with him on a couple of occasions and he was a true gentleman.
Margery Fish, (no relation) was a self taught gardener turned garden writer who created an informal style cottage garden at Lambrook Manor in Somerset using self-spreading and self-sown plants. Her first book written in the 1950’s called ‘We made a garden’, is an interesting read and I think she’d be fun to work with and would be great at creating some naturalistic areas.
Alf Wight, author of the James Herriot books was a keen gardener in real life. He loved the Yorkshire countryside and knew the natural landscape like the back of his hand.
I’d let him show me some of his favourite beauty spots so that we could create areas with a Yorkshire twist in the Queen’s new garden!
We could call our new gardening partnership – Fish, Fish, Smith & Wight. I think that’s got a certain ring to it don’t you?
Martin with all this excitement surrounding your work for the Queen, you are seriously in demand but what do you choose. Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, Great British Bake Off, SAS Who Dares Wins or Britain’s Got Talent?
This is a difficult one to answer! Certainly not BGT, but the others interest me. I think I’d go for Strictly Come Dancing as I’d love to learn how to Tango and Jive. A few years ago I interviewed Anton du Beke at the Malvern Autumn Flower Show and after our 45 minutes on stage we ended with Anton giving me a Foxtrot lesson,so I feel I’m already part way there!
Thanks for coming Whos On The Grapevine Martin and we will indeed watch this space?
You can follow Martin on Twitter: @Martinfishhort
And Pots and Trowels on:
You Tube: Pots & Trowels
You can get all his books from www.martinfish.co.uk and any Amazon
He writes regularly for Kitchen Garden Magazine and Garden News