24.05.23 Plant People

Did your parents or your grandparents garden? Is this a family legacy or are you the first?

I'm one of a mum, dad, two sisters, and three brothers. Going back before the age of the supermarket, just climbing out of the Second World War, when times were incredibly hard, if you didn't grow something, you didn't eat it. Gardening was less of a hobby then, more of a necessity. My father was very ill throughout my life; he passed away when I was only 19. We all mucked in together to help mum and dad grow vegetables so we could eat. At times you couldn't even go to a butcher, because the meat was too dear, so we used to catch rabbits and things which are naturally wild to give us protein.

So you became self-sufficient pretty early on. Was the gardening on an allotment style plot back then? Or did you have a backyard garden with your parents?

When I was very young, my father was a farm laborer, and most farm laborers were given a property to live in as a part of their payment. Most of the properties you lived in had really big gardens, big enough to grow lots and lots of vegetables. You even had a pig at the bottom of the garden in a pigsty – it was a way of recycling, because you fed the pig with all your scraps and he repaid you when he was big enough with meat. You know, as time goes on, life has got better and better. Supermarkets have come along and all of a sudden people don't really need to garden. But it made a mark on me in my young age and it stayed with me.

What do you think people are missing out on when they don't garden?

We are just coming out of a bad period of social problems with regards to COVID. Just to be in the garden doing something is so therapeutic. This morning when I was planting in my parsnips, I didn't think of anything else. Not even doing this interview. My good lady Elizabeth had to give me a shout. That's what gardening does to me.

And six, seven years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was one hell of a shock to the system. Last year the oncologist phoned me up out of the blue and said, “I don't want to see you anymore.” I’m cured.

He broke up with you.

And that was fantastic. I think gardening helped me through that. If it can help me through my problems, I'm sure it could help other people through their problems. It's very hard to explain, because I've never experienced not having a garden. It's been with me all my life. But there's just something nice about having your hands in the soil.

Has gardening made you more creative with your cooking and your eating?

Well, I've been involved in food all my life. When I left school, I was an apprentice butcher. I stayed with that for a few years before I went on to other things. But that skill which I trained in stayed with me, you know. I can't speak for the young but when I was an apprentice we were taught not just about how to cut and present food. If a lady came in and said, “Those chops look nice. How do I cook them?” you would be expected to explain to her the best way. You know, to encourage her to buy two and then come back for some more. Plus, being in the center of Oxford City, with all the universities around me, it's a hub for food. Some of the greatest chefs in the world come from the universities, and all those little things rubbed off on me.

I think, as a young person, it's a little trendy now to talk about farm-to-table and nose-to-tail philosophies with food. But it sounds like you grew up just very practically needing to use and eat all parts of an animal or vegetable. Is that how your parents raised you?

Yes. Because we were from a poor environment, you know, and that sort of situation made you not waste anything. I can remember my mother slicing a loaf of bread on a winter Sunday at tea time. There was no toaster or anything like that, you just held it in the open fire. We had the homemade toasting fork and you put a piece of bread on the fork. My brother, he dropped his piece of bread in the flames. He got it out and it was burned. He pulled that piece off and threw it on the fire and my mother went ballistic. So I do not waste anything. We don't waste anything.

We don't have the allotment system over here in the United States; we have community gardens, but those are different. Could you explain how an allotment works?

Roughly: just after the First World War, in 1918, soldiers were coming back from Europe. There was a shortage of means to feed their families. So the government of the day decided that it would be a good idea to set up our soldiers with land in every community around the United Kingdom. Each soldier could apply and get a small plot of land to grow vegetables and fruit, mainly vegetables, and chickens for eggs. That was the beginning. It's gone right the way through. But it's lost a lot of its popularity as the United Kingdom becomes more affluent. Just after the First World War, I think there was over a million plots of land in the U.K. And that went right down to 300,000. Then a few years ago, allotments started to become more popular and since COVID they’ve become very popular again, because people could actually do something outside on their own without the threat of being sucked in by COVID.

Are you out in the garden from dawn till dusk? What's your routine like?

Every day. Elizabeth and myself, we're not holiday people. We don't feel the need for a holiday, we just enjoy our gardens. When the weather's right we spend a lot of time outside. Last winter I built a gazebo with a patio area and that's going to be used a lot this summer. I'm working on a nice barbecue area.

Have you learned about a lot of new vegetables through gardening?

Going back when I was young, the vegetables were pretty basic. We grow all those basic vegetables but now also aubergine, chilies, sweet peppers, tromboncino – do you know those squash? That long snaking one with a bulb at the end? Every year, I try and grow something different, just to see how it performs and what it tastes like. I like to investigate lots of things about vegetables, like how some vegetables and fruits were used for other things other than eating.

What's an example of that?

Two years ago, I managed to get some seed for a gourd from southern India. It was shaped like a champagne bottle and you could eat it but you could also dry it and it goes very, very hard. You cut the lid off and take out all the insides and you can make a container to put things in.

To put your champagne in!

In Southern India they would use things like this in their cooking area to put knives and forks in. And I've just found out that it can be made into a musical instrument.

That's incredible.

Parts of the world are still living how me and my brothers and sisters lived sixty years ago.

Do you hear from people in other parts of the world often?

Well, since – I don't like using the word – but since finding this sort of “fame,” yes, I'm getting people from all over the world messaging me. You know, I try my hardest to answer most of them.

Is it mostly people asking questions about growing vegetables, or are they writing to say they're dazzled by what you’re growing?

It's everything. You know, I suppose two thirds are gardening-related questions, “How to do this, how to do that,” you know, “I have a failure with this. Can you help me?” The other percent is just niceness. And I'm a positive person, I don't do pessimism.

Yeah, who has time for pessimism these days? I can see you're wearing your veg on your sweater. What is the fashion element of your gardening life?

I get so much positivity coming out of what I wear. Just because you're in the garden or up the allotment doesn’t mean you should wear scrubby, horrible clothes. Shouldn't you look nice? I think some vegetables can be as pretty as the prettiest flower.

What is your favorite beautiful vegetable?

The flower of the potato is very nice, really nice. Whatever the color the potato is, that is the color of the flower.

So you bring Elizabeth home a bouquet of potato flowers?

Well, she can see them growing and she's got more than enough of her own. The flower garden is a picture at the moment with daffodils and primroses. Let me just twist and show you through the window.

Oh my gosh. Wow, it is so green there compared to here. Do you have people who write to say, “I'll come help you garden,” or “I'll move in and be your intern?”

Oh, all the time. My favorite is, “Can you be my grandpa?”

What do you say?

I say “Oh, I’m everybody's grandpa.”