70th birth­day of gar­den­ing clas­sic

Let's Talk - - Contents -

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 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.

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