From gliding high in the sky for the start of his life working in the airline business, it’s certainly been an exciting few years for BBC Big Allotment Challenge winner Rob Smith. Now a veritable globetrotting veg hunter although never happier than on his plot in his hometown of Sheffield. He is now more used to working at below ground level introducing us to the wonderful world of heritage vegetables and how allotments should be a harmonious mix of veg, flowers, wildlife and quite simply anything else that you want to grow on your patch.
Dan:It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for you Rob and you’re a busy man now with your own range of Veg and Flower seeds and a fine range of tools, but could you pinpoint a moment or occasion when you looked about you and just thought “I’m here but I can’t quite believe I am?”
Rob:There are loads of occasions when I have to pinch myself, from presenting a talk on ‘The History of Heritage Veg’ at the edible garden show, to getting asked to be a columnist for numerous national gardening magazines. I still can’t believe people are so interested in what I have to say!
Dan: Rob 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?
Rob:That question can’t be legal!!!!
Dan: Afraid so there can be only one packet
Rob: How can anyone choose just one veg?
Dan: Hard I know but there must be one that just edges it for you
Rob: I’ll have to go for onions, I absolutely love them and we use them every day, from a cheese and onion sandwich to curry, to pasta, soup, the list is endless.
Dan: And your favourite song
Rob: No laughing now its Dolly Parton 9 to 5
Dan: Nothing wrong with the Dolly, Rob! she’s a real rose
Rob: And my books are the Harry Dresden series total escapism
Dan: Rob, 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?
Rob: Veg heaven has to be tomatoes, I’ve had so many this year. I’ve made lots into soups and sauces, with a few dozen bottles of ketchup too!
Veg hell, celery. It’s doesn’t really help that I hate the stuff, but I wanted to challenge myself to growing some from seed. Needless to say, I wasn’t enthusiastic, so didn’t trench it properly, resulting in tough, stringy stalks of nasti-ness!
Dan: I use a lot of raised beds on my plot as it’s very sandy soil and prone to flash flooding, it also helps as I’m a follower of the no dig mentality so it suits that perfectly. What type of soil is your plot on and how do you deal with the little quirks that all plots have?
Rob: My soil is dense clay, in fact I say I can make crockery up there if I had a kiln. My method for dealing with it, is to add lots of manure and spent hops. There’s a micro brewery down the road, and they give me all the hops after they’ve finished with them. This results in my plot smelling like a pub at certain days of the year as I mix the hops into the soil. Needless to say, my fellow plot holders always have something to say about my boozy beds.
Dan: You suggested to me to try `Heinz 1370` tomatoes next year on my plot, and I’m also going to grow far more flowers. What plans do you have for your plot for next year? and is there a veg you are going to try for new or try again after a break?
Rob: Heinz 1370 is definitely one to try as it’s a great tasting tomato and brilliant cropper. Personally, I’ve got a couple more exclusive veg and fruit I’ll be trialling which will blow your socks off. It’s just a shame they are too secret so far. The one I can tell you about is a fuzzy cucumber. The cucumber (which is actually a melon) starts off life looking like a green cucumber with peach down on the skin. Just wipe the skin and the fuzz comes off, then slice like a normal cucumber, it’s really crispy and fresh.
Dan: You seem to be quite competent cook with all the veg you grow, but what is your favourite veg/fruit to munch on fresh from the ground of plucked from a stalk as you toil on your plot?
Rob: It has to be peas. There’s no need to wash any dirt off and they are so sweet, I love them.
Dan: Rob, as a modern-day plant hunter, what veg/plant that you have discovered or rediscovered in the case of heritage veg/plants, and brought back to us are you are most proud of? and what is it that fascinates you about heritage veg?
Rob: I absolutely love the story of the ‘Fish’ chilli.
It’s one of only a handful of variegated chilliest and it’s recognised as a veg of significant culinary importance by the ARK of taste (an organisation who try and keep rare food available to the masses). It has its roots in the slave trade of the Deep South of America, and it’s also an amazingly good tasting chilli.
Dan: So, you’re a well-travelled man Rob, but apart from your glorious plot where have you been in this country? and around the world? where just for a second you thought this is a place you would love to work the soil and why?
Rob: My favourite garden isn’t far from me. The walled kitchen garden at the national trusts ‘Clumber Park’ is absolutely amazing. From the glass houses bursting with peaches and grapes, to the national collection of rhubarb plants, they have it all. Plus, Shirley the head gardener is a fantastic lady, who knows everything about plants.
Dan: From your many articles and appearances on tv we can tell you have a strong passion for veg growing but who/what do credit with giving you your enthusiasm for veg growing? and who if anyone have you admired/respected most over the years for their contribution to the world of veg/plant growing?
Rob: My passion for growing started with my grandad. He has a huge back garden which was given over to growing fruit and veg, with the odd flower to keep my gran happy. I was given an old fishing net and told to catch the cabbage white butterflies, and for every one I caught, I was given a boiled sweet. So basically, child labour hahaha. To be honest, my grandad was my inspiration and hero as a gardener. He knew it all and could grow anything, he was a true grower.
Dan: You have a new range of tools that have come out and look very nice but do you have an old trusted tool you use on the plot or a peculiar piece that you have picked up on your travels?
Rob: My grandads spade, which is almost 70 years old, is the tool I still use every day. It’s handle is worn so well, it actually fits my hand. The other tool I always use, since I discovered it in the states, is the wiggle hoe. It’s a simple hoe which weeds on the push and pull, making it twice as quick to weed your plot. Plus, there are no sharp edges like a Dutch hoe, so you don’t damage your crops.
Dan: Having seen allotments of all types around the world what do you think is it about British allotments that make them so unique and quintessentially British?
Rob: I think it’s the fact that we needed our allotments to feed the nation during the war, showing us we can do anything if we put our minds to it. Allotment’s also embody the ‘made do and mend’ mentality of the British population, letting our creativity flourish when it comes to ideas of how to use items on the plot.
Dan: Allotments are seemingly riding high now with full to the brim waiting lists but we have lost so many sites to various reasons of the modern world. How do you see the future of allotments in this country and what more could be done to push on and get more sites available?
Rob: To be honest, I can only see allotment sights declining. If they are on a bit of land that a developer wants, they will push the council to sell it, and in these economic times, unfortunately I think most councils will accept. I think that we need to start using unkept spaces for growing. We can put raised beds almost anywhere, plus they can be moved around if needs be. I also think that land share and people who let others use their unloved gardens is a great idea.
Dan: And Winston you are Robs faithful sidekick but what’s your favourite part of being down the allotment with Rob? And are you partial to any veg fresh from the plot?
Winston: I love to dig, dig, DIG! Plus I’ll eat anything I can get my paws on, from tomatoes to cucumbers, even pumpkin leaves are a tasty treat for me.
Dan:Hi Rob how are you doing? How have you been coping in these troubled times?
Rob:Touch wood, everyone is safe and sound. Like so many of the nation, I’ve been finding solace in the garden and making sure to make the most out of every bit of growing space to allow me to grow lots of food for family and friends. It’s become a standing joke that Shirley next door is 1/2 rabbit as she’s always sticking her head over the fence and shouting “any chance of a lettuce Rob?”, or offering to take a bag of courgettes off my hands.
Dan:So since we last visited, you have a new garden with a fabulous Veg Plot. Do you miss the old plot and the people on it? Tell us about the layout and how you decided on the finished garden?
Rob:I loved my allotment plot and the folks on it, we used to have some great times and put the world to rights over a cuppa while weeding, but sadly due to me moving house and the fact my plot was targeted by thieves and vandals on multiple occasions, I decided to let my allotment neighbour take on my plots and she loves it! The new Kitchen Garden is in my back garden, its a 1/4 acre veg garden on a pretty steep slope so I’ve had it tiered into 3 levels to grow veg on and the small inclines between them is now filled with flowers, so there is a flower border between each veg level – this makes it a perfect way to bring colour and beneficial insects into the garden. The garden was just a sodden grass slope with a few dead apple trees on it when we moved in, so after removing them and tiering it, we fitted land drains to keep the water away and decided to grow in raised beds due to the soil been clay and rock, plus the fact that all the ground works meant the top soil had been moved around and wasn’t good enough to grow in. I have a mix of metal and wood planters which are filled with topsoil, compost,manure and sand, with a layer of wood chips in the bottom to slowly rot down.
Dan:I know you are as much a fan of Flowers as Veg, so do you have designated areas for each or are you more of a potager style gardener?
Rob: Apart from the flower borders between the levels, I like to add flowers to the beds as well, mainly for companion planting, but sometimes for looks as well. I love to have calendula in the veg beds, it adds a burst of colour nearly all year and they are edible too! I also like to grow nasturtiums at the edge of the raised beds as they soften them and make it look better, plus they are tasty in salads and make great ‘Poor Man’s Capers’ when pickled.
Dan:Almost all flower and garden shows great and small have been cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19, How do you think it will affect them long term?
Rob: To be honest, this time has been difficult for the majority of the horticultural industry, with many small growers and nursery who depend on flower shows going bust or at least struggling badly. RHS Chatsworth 2021 has already been cancelled and many other shows are either going to be smaller or less days next year, so it is time to try and support the smaller growers as much as we can, even if its by buying just a few plants from them; like the saying goes “every little helps”.
Dan:You are the champion of heritage veg and how they are still relevant nowadays more than ever. With the ever-increasing pressure of our food supply chain, Do you think we need to look to our past to plan for the future?
Rob: I love heritage vega and I think everyone should be growing as much food as they can, not just to save the older varieties from going extinct, but to cut down on air miles and to teach our kids where food comes from and how its produced. You can be forgiven for not knowing that a luffa grows on a plant like a cucumber and isn’t from the sea, or that peanuts grow under ground and not on a tree, but our children should know a chip comes from a potato and a par comes from a pod! It’s amazing how many kids ‘don’t like veg’, yet you get them growing or picking their own in the garden and they suddenly LOVE veg and been outside in the garden! Teaching kids about food will improve our future, even if they only grow a few veg in what ever space they have. I’d love us to become more self sufficient, but with gardens becoming smaller and smaller, there is no way we can grow enough food in our own gardens to feed ourselves, therefore I think we should be creating more allotments and community gardens all throughout the country.
Dan: Rob do you have a favourite season in the year?
Rob: I love Autumn when harvesting is in full flow and so is pickling, preserving and preparing for next year. It’s a great time to look back at whats worked for you and plan for next year, plus its time to start relaxing from a busy year in the garden and planing what you want to change and how in the garden
Dan: With the situation we are in Gardens have become evermore important, and allotments are on the up again. But how do you think we can best hold on to all the new people who have found their green fingers, especially the younger ones?
Rob: I always say you have never done anything wrong in the garden, you have just learnt a lesson! After all, if you’re told what your are trying to do is wrong or not good enough, why would you carry on? Therefore, its up to us seasoned gardeners to encourage our new members to the community and reassure them that we don’t know everything and not everything has gone right for us, after all we were in the same position when we learnt from family and friends in previous years. There is never a stupid question, there is only a stupid answer!
Dan: Rob you’re a well-travelled man whats your view on permaculture and its workings and principals?
Rob: I must admit I’m growing more and more perennial veg plants as they don’t take as much work in the garden, they just take a little longer to get cropping. I still think the principal of permaculture is a little less well known in the UK, but many gardeners already have aspects of it in their gardens, especially if you grow fruit, asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes and perennial kales etc.
Dan: Rob do you have one tip for everyone on how to grow a certain veg/plant that people often struggle with?
Rob: Cauliflowers, always, ALWAYS cover them with enviromesh and not normal netting as butterflies and whitefly can still get through and ruin the crop. Keep the plants moist and firm them in as well as you can, then you should be able to grow the perfect cauliflower!
Dan: Rob you won’t believe it but Louis XIV has just turned up in a time machine looking for you! He wants you to design and plant up The Palace of Versailles, you have the time machine and you may have three people on your team from any time you chose. So Rob who is on your Garden Dream Team?
Rob: Well, I would have to turn the entire garden into a kitchengarden, so I’d have to bring my gardening buddy Darren Lakin as we just laugh our way through the day in the garden and he comes up with some great ideas. I’d also have to bring Thomas Jefferson because of his love for veg and that fact that Monticello Garden in amazing, and finally I would love to garden with my grandad Albert as he died before he saw my love for gardening realised; and he is the reason I love my garden as I used to spend hours with him on his allotment when I was small. I hope he would be proud of what I’ve achieved and what I’ve learnt along the way!
Dan: With all this excitement about your fabulous work at Versailles you are in demand! But which show will you choose?
Rob: Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celeb Get Me Out Of Here, Great British Bake Off or SAS Who Dares Wins? Got to be the bake off, I love a bit of baking and ‘Sammy’ my sourdough bread starter is used all the time!
Dan: And Finally, whats next for Rob Smith any books planed or forays into new fields?
Rob: I’m working with a few breeders on new, exciting veg varieties and some secret squirrel stuff to do with how we think about veg, but its all very top secret at the minute, so you’ll have to wait and see…..
You can follow Rob on Twitter: @robsallotment on Facebook and Instagram and his own website www.robsallotment.com
His ranges of seeds and plants are available from ‘Dobies of Devon’ www.dobies.co.uk and all good suppliers
His range of tools are also available from Dobies
He is a writer and appears in ‘Garden News’ and ‘Kitchen Garden’ magazines, and he is reining BBC ‘The Big Allotment Challenge’ Winner
You can also follow Winston on twitter @winstonsplot