BOB HAS ALL THE ANSWERS
70th birthday of gardening classic
I’ve presented The Garden Party on BBC Radio Norfolk for many years, and it’s always a treat popping down to see what the postbag has in store. Rarely are these manilla missives, delivering twigs and leaves (and once a live caterpillar!), addressed to ‘The Garden Party’. Rather we get something along the lines of ‘Gardening Club’, ‘The Gardeners’, and most frequently of all ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’.
I don’t mind the latter misnomer at all. I take it as a compliment that we get confused with this most illustrious of planty programmes. Over the years the show - whether it’s broadcasting from a village hall, garden, moving train or 10 Downing Street - has not only entertained its green-fingered audience, but provided them with solutions to the most taxing horticultural conundrums.
This year it celebrates its 70th birthday and for over a third of that time one infamous panelist has lent his expertise - and organic prowess - to the programme. Bob Flowerdew, whose family has lived on the Norfolk/Suffolk border for generations, says he’s been involved with the show for 24 years, or 25 “if you include the recordings where I went as a guest and harangued the old team from the audience”.
In that time he’s become wellversed in the ways of the show: “If you see someone sitting in the audience looking pretty excited with an Aspidistra in their lap, then it’s a fair bet there’s going to be an Aspidistra question!” But Bob is adamant, aside from using their wiles, the panelists have no prior warning of the questions coming up.
“It’s the producer and the chairman who go through all the questions submitted, looking for a selection of topics we haven’t answered recently, or at all. They take into account the various assets on the panel, like me with my organic and old-fashioned methods, and people like Pippa Greenwood with her pest and disease expertise. When they’re done we’re allowed to look at the surplus questions. And they give you some idea of what may be coming up - that the area has an acid soil, or a muntjac invasion.”
Some problems follow the panel up and down the land. “Think of the ornamental cherries planted on estates in the 1960s,” says Bob. “They’re all falling over now. If you’ve got an ornamental cherry out front, don’t be surprised if it’s not long for this world!”
So, as Bob puts it, “the questions are all a surprise, but not necessarily surprising”. But do any stand out?
“The best ones are where you get that turn-around, like in a good novel, where suddenly everything looks completely different. One of my favourites was a woman who came in with some lovely apples. She wanted to know why they’d cropped so well this particular year, when previously they’d been rubbish. The panel started off talking about the season, how certain weather will suit certain
varieties so that eventually even a miffy fruiter will have a good year.
“Now, I was looking at these apples and asked if the woman had had a bonfire recently. She said I must be psychic and that the fence had burned down. And there was the answer! Old apples, especially the kind of dual purpose or cooker that these looked to be, have a high requirement for potash. That washes out of the soil really easily. The fence burning down would have put in a sudden load of potassium, leading to a better crop. Sometimes you think ‘Yeah, I got that right’.
“It’s a bit like being Sherlock and Poirot all rolled into one. You can cross-question people, but they won’t always tell you everything. Not because they’re being deceptive, but they don’t know to tell you that a plant is in a pot, not the ground. You have to tease it out of them.”
All things considered, I put it to Bob that it’s a pretty neat job to have.
“The cream teas are great!” he replies. “And it’s wonderful to see so many gardens, from The National Trust to hospitals, prisons, zoos. Where haven’t we been? Everyone looks forward to us coming and makes a real effort, though we don’t want a threecourse meal. We were given chip butties once and I can tell you we weren’t very lively that evening!
“And of course it’s great fun to do it. I remember listening as a child - not that I chose to, but my aunt was listening. If you’re a gardener it’s the bees knees. There’s no commercial interest; noone’s trying to sell you anything. If anything we’re all trying to sell each other out!
“And while we may joke and josh a bit, we do rely on each other, because everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. And we really are the best of friends off stage. It’s funny...in gardening you meet some pretty wicked old ladies and some cussed old boys. But they’re all really lovely people. There’s a kindness that comes from gardening. The audience is always very warm. And they laugh at my jokes! What more can a man want?”
BBC Radio Four’s Gardeners’ Question Time came to Lavenham Village Hall in Suffolk, with panelists (from left) Matthew Biggs, Pippa Greenwood and Bob Flowerdew.
Bob Flowerdew, when he visited Norwich FarmShare.
When Gardeners’ Question Time was recorded at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, near Dereham, in Norfolk, the broadcasters were (from left) Peter Gibbs, Chris Beardshaw, Matthew Wilson and Bob Flowerdew.