Gardening not for those southerners

“I am a big fan of Gardeners’ Question Time but over the years I have become more and more exasperated by the southern bias. So I decided to balance things out a bit and write for us northern gardeners, sharing advice and tips on how to get the best from the land in Lancashire”

By The Newsroom
Friday, 4th April 2014, 7:00 am
Malcolm in his garden and below, Malcolms grandfather Herbert Haslam in his gardening overalls in Malcolms first garden in Fulwood in 1959
Malcolm in his garden and below, Malcolms grandfather Herbert Haslam in his gardening overalls in Malcolms first garden in Fulwood in 1959

“I was born in Bolton at 31 Croston Street on April 25 1946. The house had (and still has) a small, sunless, back yard.

Thankfully we moved to Kirkham, again to a house with a flagged yard but at the edge of town and with two market gardens beyond the back gate.

For the summer school holiday of 1956 I was paid five shillings per week for disbudding literally hundreds of chrysanthemums and tying new growth to the supporting canes.

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Malcolm in his garden and below, Malcolms grandfather Herbert Haslam in his gardening overalls in Malcolms first garden in Fulwood in 1959

Taking the string twice round the cane, once round the stem, and then making a reef knot became automatic; I still do it without thinking.

When I was 12 we moved house to 173 Watling Street Road, Fulwood, to the north of Preston.

This had a lovely long garden with a warm, sunny, southerly aspect, but was simply grass and a few old, gnarled apple trees.

As far as I was concerned, this was ripe for cultivating and my parents, who were too busy, left me to it once they had purchased for me a new spade, fork, rake and trowel.

My grandfather, then a semi-professional gardener in his retirement, gave me a razor-sharp hoe.

‘Tha mun keep this ’andy and sharp,’ he advised.

‘Use it every day and if a weed appears, get it!’

Grandfather also instructed me in the art of compost making, and in the bottom corner of the garden I constructed two compost bins from old bits of wood, and gathered into them every bit of dead plant material, including peelings from the kitchen.

A few months later he plunged his hands into the centre of the compost and pulled some out.

‘Perfect. Just like best butter!’ he declared.

I had never dug with a real spade before and, having felled three apple trees to open up a veg plot roughly 20 yards by 10, I found the digging over of the thick turf very difficult.

Grandfather visited when I was part way through that laborious task.

He took a file and sharpened the spade’s edge.

Now the spade cut through the turf and ground easily and made the double-digging easier.

‘Keep th’oe and t’spade sharp wi’ this file,’ said my mentor, as he handed me his file as a present.

I learned a lot from my first garden.

For instance, I planted some fruit trees and bushes, including a Cox’s Orange Pippin.

That yielded only small, hard fruit, illustrating to me for the first time that what grows well in the gardens of writers and broadcasters in the south and middle of England will not necessarily grow well up here in and around Lancashire.

Nevertheless, undeterred, in 1958 I became a keen fan of Grow Your Own (GYO), producing potatoes, cabbages, sprouts, beetroot, turnips, beans and peas, lettuces, as well as strawberries, blackcurrants and loganberries, but failing to produce edible carrots.

For it was that year that I met carrot root fly for the first time.

I purchased my seeds from a long-gone store on Lancaster Road in Preston, and instead of buying onion sets I bought shallot sets instead.

I had never heard of shallots, but their sets were bigger so I assumed that they would grow bigger than onions.

You can imagine my surprise when my shallot sets simply produced lots of similar sized shallots and, not knowing what to do with them, my mother just pickled them.

That was long before the days of TV chefs and haute cuisine!

My biggest three inspirations as a novice gardener were GQT, Percy and Adam.

GQT was, and still is, Gardeners’ Question Time and in, I think, 1959 or 1960 I went to a recording of the programme in Preston’s Public Hall.

On the panel were Prof. Alan Gemmell, Fred Loades from Lancaster and the wonderful Bill Sowerbutts from Ashton-under-Lyne.

Two Lancastrians!

More than 50 years later, in 2011, I was tickled pink to be briefly interviewed by the chairman Eric Robson on this memory and then be able to ask a question in a recording at Warrington.

The panel was Bunny Guiness, Anne Swithinbank and Bob Flowerdew. GQT is still essential listening for me on Sunday afternoons.

Percy was Percy Thrower.

On Friday evenings Percy appeared in Gardening Club on BBC TV (no BBC2 etc. then), in which he demonstrated gardening techniques in a pile of John Innes 3 compost that had been tipped onto the floor of the studios in Birmingham.

Naïve by today’s standards, perhaps, but perfect ‘how to do it’ without the unnecessary celeb hype and waffle that we get today on most gardening programmes!

Adam was Adam the Gardener, a cartoon character who appeared in the Sunday Express and whose weekly columns had been brought together for the whole year in one book.

I followed Adam’s advice to the letter; for instance, pruning my bush apples and blackcurrants when he did and as he did, and sowing my Savoy cabbages when he did and transplanting them when he did.

In the summer of 1961 I even grew chicory and tried to force some the following winter. Alas, mine were tiny compared with the cartoon of Adam’s!

Since then I have had several gardens and an allotment and, while I enjoy growing decorative plants like roses, azaleas, clematis and the like, my first love has always been fruit and veg and my last love lawns.

Originally our present house in south Lancashire had a large lawn (30 yards long by up to 15 yards wide) at the side and two smaller lawns front and back.

Now the front lawn is a rose bed and the side lawn is almost entirely fruit and veg (save for maincrop potatoes, it produces well over half the requirements of my wife and I).

I also have a greenhouse for glasshouse crops on what was part of the back lawn.

Why do I work so hard on GYO?

Because I love good food.

And if you love good fresh food, grow your own.”