An Interview With Pippa Greenwood

Posted on: 01 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The gardener discusses slugs, garlic and her life in horticulture with 50connect.

Known as a plant pathologist or 'bug lady' to viewers of BBC's Gardeners World and listeners to Radio 4's Gardeners Question Time, Pippa Greenwood has been on our sets for 20 years.

She started gardening as a child, thanks to her mother.

"My mother was a very keen gardener and I trailed round after her. I enjoyed all the positive side of gardening, which I still do now, but I must admit there is a fascination with the 'what's gone wrong' side. I'm definitely interested in anything that creeps, crawls or makes holes."

Pippa's fascination with pests began at a young age, when a caterpillar munched through some prized plants purchased with her father.

"I must have been five or so. I remember bringing back a set of marigolds, which I was proud of because they were bright orange and wonderful. There wasn't time to plant them that evening so I put them on the windowsill overnight. There must have been a leafy caterpillar hidden underneath, which I hadn't noticed during the day, and they ate my marigolds."

However Pippa has since been able to wreak a lifetime of revenge on pests.

She trained as a botanist at Durham University and then specialised in ecology and diseases, gaining a Masters in crop protection at Reading University. In 1985 she started working for the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, Surrey, where she ran their Plant Pathology Department for 11 years and their garden advice desk, answering many queries.

Pippa always finds herself answering questions about perennial pests such as slugs. However pests do come and go.

"The proportions of what is number one versus number three, five or whatever does change over the years. It was interesting to do a talk on the celebrity stage at Gardeners World Live and get the audience to put their hands up if they had problems with vine weevil. If you'd asked that question five or six years ago, 80 to 90 per cent of the audience would have done, but this year it's more like 10 per cent. It might be that people don't grow things in containers although I doubt that. Things tend to go in cycles, but the real pests like lime or ants are not going to go away. Slugs and snails of course is at number one pretty well every time."

Pests are not the extent of Pippa's gardening expertise. She can also advise on other common issues, such as pruning.

"One thing people have a habit of doing, and I would say it tends to be men more than women, is to be a bit over zealous with the secateurs. They prune things too much and sometimes prune out the essential flower. So someone might have a lovely plant which flowers on the root of the growth of the previous year, and they think that needs tidying up, then they cut it back and cut out the good bits of flower for the next year."

On the more positive side of gardening, Pippa doesn't just deal with problems. In her own garden she experiments to see what works best.

"I've been doing a lovely series for Gardeners World magazine comparing different varieties of vegetables. For instance I had seeds growing for more than 15 varieties of garlic. Luckily I happen to love garlic! I started of my own volition as I thought this would be really interesting. Then they decided they were going to do a second year of the trial. The idea was to see which ones grew well and cooked well. Some varieties would go down with bugs while others would be absolutely fine. Then we found out what the flavour was like and whether you could store it in a garlic pot."

Of course it's not just garlic that Pippa grows in her vegetable patch.

"Over the last few years I've done all sorts of things like tomatoes, potatoes, chard, raddichio, spinach, beans and all sorts. It's been great and an eye-opener for me, because you'd never normally grow more than a couple of varieties of something even if you particularly liked it, because you just haven't got the space and you can't justify it. So I had wonderfully small quantities of a lot of things."

Again, a love of vegetables goes back to her childhood.

"As a kid we always had a veg plot so I grew up thinking that was something that was normal to do. In my first garden I didn't have enough space to grow any vegetables at all. It was terribly small, very shady at the back, extremely sandy, and too soggy at the front. But then in my second garden there was space for veg growing. Now luckily I have the luxury of having a bit more space and so I can really grow what I want which is great."

Many people are currently discovering the joys of growing your own produce, as lengthening waiting lists for allotments testify. Pippa believes once people try it they are likely to become hooked.

"I hope it isn't just a passing trend, but I have a feeling it probably isn't because it's rather addictive. A lot of people who've been doing it because it's the thing to do will find whether they like it or not and want to carry on. It's lovely to sit down to a meal and know that you have produced a high percentage of it yourself. It invariably tastes better. All the people eating round the table are really pleased to be having it. It's a very gratifying and self satisfying feeling."

Vegetable gardening is also healthy and can save money.

"Growing your own vegetables is a terribly good way of spending your spare time. It's good for you physically and mentally. Particularly if you want to eat organic which I tend to, there's no doubt that it is so much easier and cheaper if you can have your own home grown stuff."

On growing organically, Pippa is glad that more people are advocating this way of gardening.

"I garden organically, and I am pleased that a lot of people who perhaps hadn't really thought about whether it was a good thing to do or not are finding themselves almost having to think about it, because the number of chemicals available is so small. That isn't a disadvantage. Some people say if you garden organically everywhere's going to be full of vegetables and your cabbages are going to be full of caterpillars. That needn't be the case. When you garden organically you have to think a bit more but once you've thought and worked it out and sought advice it tends to be very efficient."

It's an essential technique for vegetable growing.

"Organic is a lot more appealing. Even if you can wash a chemical off, which you can't always, it's much more fun to look at your strawberry patch and see a beautiful, plump, juicy strawberry that you can just put in your mouth. To me that's the ultimate luxury. It's also better environmentally because you're not putting junk into an environment that's got too much junk in it already."

In her own garden Pippa has many ways of protecting her plants.

"I use whatever it takes. We use fleece and very fine mesh to stop pests getting to the crops. I do that mostly to edibles rather than ornamentals, as you can cover a row of calabrese with fleece and it doesn't matter because it doesn't need to look lovely. "

She doesn't believe in companion planting, but in growing things logically.

"On the whole I don't think a lot of it works, but there's what I call logical planting. So for instance carrots get carrot root fly which detect the carrots by smell, so if you plant something very pongy in amongst your carrots, like a row of garlic or onions, then it helps mask the presence of the carrots. At the same time it can mask the presence of the onions to the onion fly, so you can do two things at once."

Pippa also uses one insect to combat another.

"I use biological controls as well, and I'm a great advocate of them, but it's not the only thing I use because I use what's appropriate to the problem. For things like slugs there are lots of barriers of one sort or another."

For those who are contemplating retirement and looking forward to having time to develop their garden, Pippa advises doing some groundwork and getting help.

"It's always worthwhile reading up a bit about things you don't know about, and talking to other gardeners because on the whole gardeners are a really communicative bunch, very friendly and always willing to give advice. If you start an allotment you can guarantee that you'll have plenty of helpful heads offering advice - often different advice but helpful advice none the less."

It's also important not to be afraid to make mistakes.

"Just experiment. Follow the instructions but use your common sense as well. If something does go a bit wrong don't regard it as the end of the world because what do you do that's always right first time? Very little. It's the same in the garden. But you can always get some sort of result with gardening, and it's usually pretty good, so just keep on at it, enjoy it and don't feel bad if things haven't gone quite to plan."

Although she worked for the RHS for many years, their Wisley garden is not necessarily her favourite.

"I have a lot of very positive things to say about Wisley, it's tremendous and there are some lovely parts to it, and I love the new glasshouse. I'm not sure it's my favourite garden. It's become too signposted now, so although I admire it and like to go there it perhaps doesn't rank in my top few anymore."

Instead Pippa enjoys discovering all sorts of little hidden gardens in the country, and recently she enjoyed a trip to the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park.

"I haven't been there since I was a child. It's renowned for azaleas and rhododendrons, and it's a good year for rhododendrons and things this year, but it was absolutely stunning. It was breathtakingly in-your-face colourful and totally gorgeous, with lots of wild areas planted up as well, and I looked at it and thought this has actually surpassed by miles now the rhododendrons and wild garden at Wisley. I thought that was a bit ironic because one's much more famous than the other, but it was beautiful. It's not trumpeted about or well used enough."

So the appeal of gardening is clearly not limited to her own patch.

"Gardening is a national obsession. The great thing is you can indulge your own passions easily and enjoy looking at other people's too."

By Cherry Butler

You can purchase Pippa Greenwood's latest book 1001 Ways To Be A Better Gardener from all good bookshops or online at Amazon.

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