Simon Akeroyd is a prolific writer with over 30 books to his name covering all aspects of gardening and growing, as well as writing regularly for national garden magazines and newspapers. He has been a Garden manager for the RHS at both Wisley and Harlow Carr. And he has also been gardens manager for the National Trust at various sites.
He has worked for the BBC on the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, RHS Hampton Court and BBC Gardeners World. As a trained BBC journalist, he has worked on a wide range of topics like food, holidays, motoring, and homes.
When he is not gardening, he is also a keen beekeeper and Owner & Chief Apple Crusher at YardeCider
Hello Simon and welcome to Who’s on the Grapevine. How have you been in these challenging last few months?
Hi Dan – very well thanks. Lockdown is perfect for two of my main passions, which are gardening and writing, both of which are fairly solitary occupations. So self-isolation and having to reduce down any socialising has provided me with plenty of additional time to crack on with improving my garden and completing another gardening book. My garden in Devon has never looked so good!
Simon we all have a veg / plants that grows well for us and some that just never seems to happen what is your Veg/Plant Heaven and Veg/Plant Hell?
Probably asparagus as my heaven. It seems to thrive down here in Devon. Perhaps it likes the mild climate. And as it is a perennial, I don’t have to keep cultivating the soil, and sowing each year. It’s a bit frustrating having to wait a couple of years before it is ready for harvesting, but like they say, good things come to those who wait. And even without all the culinary benefits, the ferny foliage and red berries / pods (if growing female plants too) makes quite an attractive ornamental plant in the herbaceous border.
Carrots are my plant hell. I have heavy clay soil in Devon, which they struggle in. And lots of rocks and stone in the ground. Also, I have large, clumsy hands, making the tiny seeds hard to sow. And the seed doesn’t last long, it goes stale after a year or so, meaning I have to keep buying new seeds. And, I must admit, I don’t really like the taste of boiled or raw carrots anyway.
On a positive note….I LOVE carrot cake ! 😊
Simon you are 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?
Does it have to be a gardening book?
Any book you like Simon.
If so, then probably Russell Page’s “Education of a gardener. I remember starting a new job as a very young head gardener of a private estate over 20 years ago. At the end of the first week the owner gave me a copy of ‘Education of a Gardener’ and I remember initially feeling a bit insulted, as I assumed, she thought I needed educating in gardening. But after reading the book, I understood why she lent it to me as it is a great read. All about RP’s training and experience as a leading horticulturist and garden designer. Thoroughly recommend it to everyone, whether interested in gardening or not.
If you mean a non-gardening books, then probably something philosophical. I studied philosophy for four years at Uni, before embarking on a career in horticulture. If you are on an island, then it would be good to have something to stimulate the brain cells. Perhaps Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, as it covers all philosophy from early Greek to modern.
If I had to choose one song, it would probably be John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels. I’ve always loved Lennon songs, and I like the words of this one particularly. Sometimes, taking time out, standing back and just doing nothing except watching the cycle of life is a good thing. We all need time to recharge our batteries at various stages of life.
With regards to seeds, I would grow sunflowers, as they are such a bright, and vibrant splash of colour. And I can eat the seeds, feed the birds and easily collect the seed for sowing the following year.
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?
I’m probably slightly biased, as my two favourites are both gardens I’ve worked in. Firstly, RHS Wisley gardens, which I’ve worked at three times. I love it just because the horticultural expertise and standards are so high. There is something for everybody there, whether your passion is ground hugging alpines to pines trees higher than houses. My second choice would be Coleton Fishacre in Devon, just because it is so magical. It has sea views and is surrounded by lush, tropical gardens. Within the National Trust (who own it) it is considered to the one of the jewels in their horticultural crown, with an exceptionally high standard of horticulture and some very rare plants.
What positive lessons do you think we can learn from the situation we have found ourselves in? Hopefully, people will appreciate a simple walk with nature all around you a bit more?
I think since lockdown many people have found solace in nature, whether it is walking, birdwatching, gardening etc. Prior to that, I think many people had a disconnect with their natural surroundings, particularly those living in towns and cities. Lockdown has given people a new opportunity to reconnect with their natural surroundings and environment.
Simon do you have a favourite season of the year? And why?
Well, I used to love Autumn, as I love the colours of the foliage, the fresher air, first frosts and the lower angle of the sun casting exciting shadows and a new range of autumnal hues. And of course it’s harvest time which is nature’s way of rewarding gardeners for all their hard work earlier in the year (that’ how I like to see it anyway).
However, since I’ve started a cider business, autumn is always a bit of a blur, as I work 7 days a week, harvesting and crushing apples from Sept to Nov. So, bizarrely, I would probably say nowadays winter in my favourite season, as it is a time for me to rest and relax. And I love winter gardens. Very dramatic. All of the deciduous trees denuded of foliage, showing off their bare stems and naked structure. It’s very architectural. Glistening frost on the ground, bright vibrant dogwoods catching the winter sun, and winter flowering shrubs have the sweetest of all fragrances. There is never a winter of discontent for me.
Simon how is your garden at home laid out? I imagine that all the many gardens you have worked on and seen over the years, that it must be a struggle trying to interweave all the different styles?
Well, I’m in the middle of redesigning my Devon garden in Brixham, but I’m lucky to have a largish garden with about an acre. It probably makes me sound very spoilt, but I have a swimming pool (well I do live on the English Riviera), which I’ve surrounded with lush, sub-tropical plants such as bananas, cannas, dahlias and luxuriant evergreen foliage plants. I also have a mini orchard, herbaceous borders and a lawn area for my kids to play on. There are distant sea views over the English Riviera. So I have a bit of every style in my garden.
I’m hoping there is a veg garden somewhere?
Haha, yes of course. Around the other side of my house, I have a fruit and veg garden, cold frames, potting shed and greenhouse. But this side is battered by the winds that blow in from the sea, so I’m in the process of moving it around, so that the edible crops receive more protection.
And what sort of soil do you have to contend with?
I have terrible soil…hence why I grow my veg in raised beds when I can. It is heavy Devon clay with an underlying bed of solid limestone rock underneath it…making it very alkaline. So, no camellias or rhodos for me, although I’ve planted a few magnolias in the garden which seem to be doing okay.
You are Head Honcho & Apple crusher at Yarde Cider what made you decide to become a cider producer?
My father used to live in Normandy, where he had an orchard and a cider press, and we would make calvados. Before I studied horticulture, I studied viticulture and oenology (which is basically vineyards and wine making). I was fascinated by how the soil, climate and location can affect the flavour of something, through the minerals and vitamins in the ground, amount of sunlight they receive etc. I spent about 20 years working as a gardener, but my passion has always been fruit growing. So,when an opportunity came to buy a small, local cider business in Devon, I jumped at the chance.
What type of Cider do you produce at Cockington Court?
We mainly produce fine sparkling cider. So, basically, posh cider in a champagne bottle, using the Méthode Traditionnelle technique to get the fizz into the wine.
I also make quirky sparkling wines from products I grow in the garden, such as pink elderflower from Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’ and a ginger and pink hibiscus fizz from plants grown in a greenhouse. I love experimenting with unusual crops from the garden. I’ve got lots of plans for exiting flavours including wines made from prickly cactus one from birch sap.
And is there a certain type of Apple that is best for Cider as compared to eating Apples?
I always pick local Devon cider apples, as I always believe that the history, heritage, and story behind the fruit, is almost as important as the flavour. Also, most local varieties will be best suited to the local climate. I look for rare varieties that other cider makers aren’t using such as Paiginton Marigold and Bickington Grey. (both named after local towns / villages near us here in Devon). I use a blend of bittersweet and bitter sharp apples as it balances the acidity with the sweetness and tannins, which creates more depth to the flavour. Unlike many commercial cider makers, I never water the cider down, I do not add any sulphites and I only use wild yeast.
Simon you have been Gardens Manager for both the RHS and the National Trust two of the biggest names in the UK in terms of gardens and horticulture, they are both similar in many ways but there ethos are very different. The RHS about creation, pushing boundaries and new practises, and the NT far more about preservation, an eye to the past. But how for you as gardens manager did you have to change your outlook and practices for each role?
Both RHS and National Trust play key roles in the promotion of gardens and horticulture, but in different ways. The RHS looks to promote horticultural as its principal objective, whereas NT are a conservation charity, and although the latter have the biggest portfolio of historic gardens in the country, they have additional strands to conserve such as stately homes, collections (such as antiques, paintings) and the countryside. The two different priorities from the two charities are both important, but as a gardener you must adapt to the different objectives and their policies. It took me a while to adjust to the ‘conservation’ of gardens when I first joined the National Trust, as I kept wanting to ‘revamp’ or redesign’ borders. Or even create new borders. Thankfully, there are specialist curators and garden conservators to advise and keep us Head Gardeners in check.
From your many books and articles we can tell you have a strong passion for all thing’s natural, but who/what do credit with giving you your enthusiasm for all things gardening? and who have you admired/respected most over the years for their contribution to the world of horticulture/gardening?
My gardening career started in 1997 when I started at RHS Garden Wisley. The superintendent of my department (fruit dept) had incredible in-depth knowledge and expertise of his subject and superb teaching skills, including plenty of patience (a key skill needed, when teaching me!) It made me appreciate that if you can grow fruit successfully then you can grow just about any other plant.
This is because a wide range of horticultural skills is required to be successful. This includes grafting and chip budding, pests and disease management, pruning techniques, growing tender crops, training different shaped tress (espaliers, spindles, cordons, stepover, fans etc) harvesting periods, fruit thinning, windbreaks, rootstocks, pollination groups, frost management. There is such a plethora of skills and techniques required to grow fruit. After working in the fruit department for a few years, it made transferring to other gardening departments (I worked as a manager in Wisley’s Estate team, Trials and Woody Ornamental) easy, as the skills were transferable. So I was very lucky to learn all theses skills from the best.
Simon you’re a keen Beekeeper, something I would like to get into, do you need a large space to have the hives?
You don’t necessarily need a large space. You can keep a couple of hives in your back garden, if you face the entrance of the hive away from neighbours, and have a barrier such as mesh, or a hedge about 7ft tall, to ensure the bees’ flight path is above head height.
Do you create a wonder Cider using Honey?
I don’t use my honey for cider, but I am making mead, which I’m very excited about. It is a sparkling mead, which I am hoping will be popular at weddings. The word honeymoon is derived from a tradition in ancient history (think pagans, druids, Vikings etc) when couples would drink mead for the duration of a phase of the moon after their wedding.
We have seen a extra boom in the interest in Gardening, Growing Veg and nature in general over the last few months and years. From the young to the old, but how do you think we can best keep the interest and people involved in gardening/nature and maybe encourage more to join us?
It seems the younger generation, our future gardeners, take their inspiration (particularly during lockdown) from You tube and social media. They can then pick and select areas of interest that suit them. Sadly, TV is probably not so important or influential anymore.
I think gardening Shows, both national or local are great to inspire people.
And really good journalists and presenters are still needed to convey their passion to others.
Do you think horticulture/nature studies should be included in the curriculum for younger children?
Yes, very much so. There are so many important strands to gardening. In fact, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that gardening teaches children more about other subjects then anything I ever learnt in a classroom at school. Gardening teaches biology, chemistry, art and design, Latin, botany, history and geography, sustainability and environmental issues, health and well-being, and most importantly, gets children outdoors, in the fresh air and appreciating the wonder of nature.
We all love growing, but what is the greatest lengths or depths your love of growing has taken you too in the name of Fruit & Veg or Gardening?
Probably writing one of my books. They are a real labour of love. One of the hardest books I’ve ever written was RHS Vegetables for the Gourmet Gardener. I had to include a history of every vegetable I mentioned. You try researching the international origins of growing cabbages! I like to think that my work paid off though, as it is a fascinating book (even if I say so myself) and one that I’m very proud of.
Simon you write, tweet and appear on the radio and Tv but which medium do you enjoy most? And which one do you feel delivers your message best?
I prefer writing as I like to have time to think and chose the right words. And I never feel there is enough time on social media, tv or radio to get your point over in any sort of depth. However, writing is incredibly labour intensive and is the worst paid out of all mediums. But it is also the most rewarding. I love seeing my books in bookshops, whereas whenever I’ve seen myself on TV I just cringe.
Simon, great news Queen Victoria has just turned up in a time machine and he wants you to design and plant up Osbourne House gardens. She has said you can have three people to help you, and as she has a time machine you can chose people from the past or present. So Simon who is your Garden Dream Team?
Well, probably Laurel and hardy (if I can count them as one person), as I like people who can make me laugh. Particularly slap stick. Although I’m not sure I would get any work done with them helping me. It would probably involve a few planks of wood smacked into my face when they turned around and somebody accidently stepping on a rake…thwack, so perhaps not great from a Health and Safety point of view.
Then I would probably choose one of the famous Victorian plant hunters such as David Douglas, as he could regale me with tales of adventure and introduce rare new plants into the garden.
And finally, I would want a garden designer with an eye for detail (as I’m hopeless with detail). I love the work of Victorian designer William Robinson, and the way he married the wildness of nature within the confines and formality of a garden. So probably him.
With all this attention working for Queen Victoria you are in demand but what show will it be Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing on Ice, SAS Who Dares Wins or Bake Off?
It would be SAS. I like a real physical challenge and pushing my mind and body to the limit. I’ve done the Three peaks challenge a few times and enjoy the outdoors. Recently I did a running / canoeing / cycling coast to coast challenge from North to South Devon across Dartmoor for charity.
SAS Who dares wins would probably suit me as I went to boarding school for 9 years of my life, so I am used to living in a dormitory, early morning runs and cold showers. (not that I enjoyed that aspect of it….but I would prefer anything to Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing on Ice, shudder! )
Simon what have been your great successes and failures in the veg garden this year?
Potatoes. I grew loads of them during the first lockdown. They break up my heavy soil, and seem to grow well here, despite the sea breezes. I don’t usually bother with many potatoes (just a few earlies usually) as main crops take up so much space and are cheap as chips (if you’ll excuse the pun) in the shop. However as I had plenty of time and space during Lockdown, and I thought it would make me more sufficient as they can be stored and made into everything from chips, waffles and crisps to supplying me with a jacket potato for lunch most days. And I love Potato bread.
Simon could you give the readers any great tips for their plots for coming season, how to sow a seed, better germination, something/knowledge handed down that works for you.
I would suggest pinching out the growing tips on broad beans plants to avoid blackfly infestations, as they love the fresh growth. Pinch the tip out once you are happy you have enough flower to produce a crop. The tips can be steamed and eaten too.
What is your favourite veg fresh from the ground or pod?
Mange tout. Love the freshness and sweetness of them. Very easy to grow and are best eaten raw, so requires no preparation. The ultimate healthy fast food.
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?
Apart from building up my drinks’ businesses Yarde of Cockington / Yarde Cider, and continuing to write gardening books, my biggest ambition is to finish a novel that I’ve started. It is an adventure novel based around one of the Victorian plant hunters. I’ve written about half of it (and done loads of research), but I hope to complete it by the end of this year, and have it published in 2022. Hopefully the first of many gardening adventure novels.
Thank you for joining us On The Grapevine Simon, and we look forwards to sampling your Cider and reading you books.
You can Follow Simon on Twitter: @sagardenwriter on Instagram: simonakeroydgardenwriter
Find out more about him at his website www.simonakeroyd.co.uk
You can purchase all of his books from his Website or Amazon Page and any good bookstore
Simon’s latest book “Perfect Compost” is available from all major retailers now. Look out for his new book coming in May 2021, “50 Ways to Outsmart a Squirrel, and other garden pests” which is all about ingenious methods to protect your plants without harming wildlife.