Killer heels, yogic chanting, llama manure – they’re just some of the secret weapons rival gardeners resort to in BBC2′s Big Allotment Challenge
- A new series on BBC2 will put gardeners to the test
- The green fingered contestants will demonstrate skills from veg growing to flower arranging
- Contestants on the show warn that there will be a few tears and tantrums
By NICOLE LAMPERT
PUBLISHED: 22:30, 4 April 2014 | UPDATED: 22:30, 4 April 2014
We’ve had The Great British Bake Off, now it’s what you might call The Great British Rake Off as a new BBC show pits more members of the public – this time gardeners – against each other in the hobby they love.
And The Big Allotment Challenge is not for the weak-willed, insist the competitors – there are plenty of tears among the tomatoes and turnips.
‘This is the tough end of reality television,’ says Edd Curbishley, a Northamptonshire sales manager who competes in the show in partnership with his yoga teacher wife Harshani.
‘It’s nothing like those namby-pamby bakery programmes. This was four months of solid graft, and everyone rose to the challenge.’
In the six-part series, presented by Fern Britton and filmed last year during the growing season, nine pairs of gardeners are given a patch of ground in the scenic gardens of Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire.
MEET THE JUDGES
JIM BUTTRESS A Royal Horticultural Society judge and former head of Royal Parks Greenwich, Jim’s a huge fan of grow-your-own and is a regular sight around the country judging allotment produce in his trademark bowler hat.
THANE PRINCE Cook and author Thane used to appear on Ready, Steady Cook and is best known for her books on chutneys and jams. She spent ten years running a cookery school in Suffolk and now lives in London.
JONATHAN MOSELEY A resident of the Peak District and one of Britain’s leading floral designers, Jim has been inspiring and entertaining audiences with his demonstrations, workshops and classes for more than 20 years.
They each have 15 weeks to work on their allotment for up to 30 hours a week in a bid to come up with prize-winning fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs. Most of the contestants spend their entire weekends there after a week doing their day job.
And not only do they have to be green-fingered – they must also show culinary and flower-arranging skills.
Each week the contestants face three challenges, ranging from showing off their radishes and making bouquets from flowers they’ve grown to coming up with delicious conserves made from their produce.
There are three expert judges: the Royal Horticultural Society’s Jim Buttress, who looks at the quality of their produce, floral designer Jonathan Moseley, who gives the verdict on their flower arranging, and celebrity cook Thane Prince, who tastes their curds and jams.
Silver-haired Jim has already been dubbed the Paul Hollywood of the gardening world, and several contestants go a bit dizzy over him.
‘Oh, I’d start a Jim Buttress fan club,’ says Michelle Stacey, a mother-of-two from Bexley in Kent. ‘He has a way about him you just can’t help loving. There’s an attraction there that most women will get. He has the highest accolades in horticulture but he’s never condescending.’
But the real stars are the great British public, as assembled by the producers. Take Edd, 53, and Harshani, 45, who as well as trying to grow produce on a weekly timetable have the extra headache of trying to time their planting in tune with the moon’s phases.
‘We’ve gardened bio-dynamically as a hobby for quite a few years now,’ says Harshani. ‘There’s a two-week window when you can plant every month, and you’re meant to plant different things – flowers, fruits, roots – on different days. It’s all plotted out with science, looking at the light levels and energy to give them their best harvest.’
But that isn’t an easy system to follow when you’re living more than an hour away from the patch you’re tending.
‘For the TV series, we only managed to do about 50 per cent of our growing bio-dynamically,’ says Harshani sadly.
‘We both work so we weren’t always able to get there when we needed to.’ However, the couple have a secret weapon: Harshani’s yoga mantras, which she chants to the plants to give them good energy. ‘It’s something I do in the greenhouse at home,’ she says. ‘Plants are living things and they like that energy.’ And what did their rivals think of this Prince Charles-like behaviour? ‘Erm, they thought it was a bit different,’ says Edd.
But they aren’t the only unconventional allotment growers among the show’s contestants. Michelle Stacey and her mother-of-four sister-in-law Sally Green, both 44, are blonde, glamorous and like to wear vintage dresses and heels while gardening.
‘We use our heels as diggers and false nails to scoop up seeds. We’re certainly not stereotypical gardeners – when we first turned up on our allotment we got some funny looks’
‘We use our heels as diggers and false nails to scoop up seeds,’ says Michelle, laughing. ‘We’re certainly not stereotypical gardeners – when we first turned up on our allotment we got some funny looks, but once people got to know us they could see that we knew what we were doing.
She continues, ‘There are lots of stereotypes about gardeners; on TV they’re usually men wearing flat caps. We want to prove a point – that anyone can garden. I get sick of the shows where only middle-class men are allowed to have an opinion on gardening.’
Their passion for gardening started when Michelle’s parents got an allotment. ‘When they first started we all said, “What have you got an allotment for?” But then we fell in love with it. It’s a brilliant way of getting organic fruit and veg without paying supermarket prices.’
They admit to having been among the teariest of the contestants. ‘There were lots of tears, especially when someone had to go,’ says Michelle. But she adds, ‘We know we look a bit fluffy but we knew we could use the fact that people would underestimate us to our advantage.’
Others have secret weapons of their own. For teacher Kate Bennett and her best friend of over 30 years, retired university lecturer Eleanor Waterhouse, it’s llama droppings. The pair, from Winchester, Hampshire, both 63, each have a llama: Latimer (named after the character Lumpy Latimer from a Joyce Grenfell sketch) and Llama (pronounced ‘Yama’, in the Spanish fashion).
‘I found out the properties of llama droppings when I went to a llama farm and the farmer collected some, saying it can sell on the internet for a fantastic price,’ says Kate.
‘A few years ago my husband and I got the chance to buy a neighbour’s field so we thought we couldn’t do better than buy an aesthetic lawnmower – a llama. So we bought two boys, and Eleanor and I collect their droppings and use it on our garden. It’s good for everything from root vegetables to roses and was our secret weapon; we knew no one else would have it.’
Meanwhile, IT specialists and best friends Gary Murdock, 46, and Pete Taylor, 42, have more of a game plan than a secret weapon. The pair, who share an allotment in Hove, East Sussex, admit their main aim is to not come last.
‘We specialise in doing as little as possible but having successful results,’ says Pete. ‘We have our own website which shows our successes and our mistakes; we’re open about how rubbish we are.’
Rather than working, they enjoyed the social aspect of the show; all the contestants have come away as firm friends after spending so many weekends together. ‘The closest we came to hard work was watching everyone else doing it,’ adds Pete.
The pair are a contrast to the duo the others deemed the most competitive: teacher Ed Bond, 37, and his wife’s best friend’s father Alex Lomax, who’s retired.
The Wiltshire pair had never gardened together before the show – Alex, 68, stepped in when Ed’s first partner pulled out because of the time commitment needed – but they quickly found a common love in organisation.
While other contestants jot their plans on the backs of envelopes, these two have whiteboards. ‘Why would you enter a competition and not want to win?’ says Alex. ‘We were competitive in an open way and if anyone asked us about our plans we’d generally tell them. And we helped another team out when they lost some seedlings. I’d say a few of the teams were probably even more competitive but with a more covert style.’
Even these two had their teary-eyed moments, though. ‘Erm yes, when we realised we were candidates for elimination and also when some of our friends went,’ says Alex.
But despite the rivalry and tears, this appears to have been a peculiarly friendly competition. ‘Yes, there were 18 of us and we were all very different in many ways, but we had one thing in common,’ says Kate. ‘We all love growing.’