A Sustainable Gardener

Posted on: 18 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Garden designer Hannah Genders talks to 50connect about vegetable growing and why sustainable gardening is in her blood.

Two-time Chelsea medal-winner Hannah Genders was at the BBC Gardeners' World Live 2008 Green Clinic, to talk about sustainable gardening. In between discussing how we use water, making compost and growing your own vegetables, she found time to chat to 50connect.

At Gardeners' World Live and RHS Chelsea Flower Show the number of sustainable and vegetable-growing gardens has increased in recent years. I asked the garden designer whether growing your own was just another trend.

"A lot of people get hooked when they've actually started growing their own stuff and tasted how amazing the flavour is. Some people give up because it is hard work, though it doesn't always come across like that on the telly."

The key to making vegetable growing work is to keep it manageable, suggests Hannah.

"I think once people have started they really will keep it going as long as they don't take on too much space. If you take on a whole allotment it's so big and produces so much veg that it can be a problem. Do it on a small scale and you'll keep going with it."

Vegetable growing virgins should begin with a small raised bed system.

"Build beds and then put gravel paths and membrane down so you're not weeding everything in between and you're literally just walking on the path and reaching into the bed. Those should be about 4 by 4 feet. Maybe just do three of those and no more, then rotate the crops in there."

Even if you don't want to go to much trouble Hannah has a grow-your-own suggestion.

"Just grow stuff in a pot, even salad leaves, what's called 'cut and come again'. You can keep cutting and they keep coming back, for the whole summer."

Novice gardeners should not be discouraged if not everything they grow thrives.

"Don't lose heart when you lose a crop. I've been growing vegetables well over 20 years but I get things that fail all the time. It's really about getting out there and having a go, to see what grows well in your soil. If you can get a soil test done, then you know your soil and you're working with nature instead of against it. There are certain ways to treat clay soil as opposed to a light sandy soil, for example."

In her own garden, recently Hannah has been investigating vegetable varieties from the past.

"I love growing heritage vegetables. I try to research what the old vegetables were that were growing in my area. Are they tougher than the new varieties that have been bred on? Where can I get them? How will they produce crops? I've put some in again this year and they're doing fantastically. Plants are amazing things, they adapt to their local climate, so if you can keep it local it really works effectively."

Using organic gardening methods is important to Hannah, but she believes in keeping it simple.

"Organic is a fantastic word but it can put people off if they think, oh gosh have I got to get certification? You haven't at all, it's just about, 'I don't want to spray my plants if I'm about to eat them'. So organic means trying to grow vegetables in such a way that's friendly to nature and friendly to you because you'll be eating them."

The time-honoured battle against slimy pests is the subject of Hannah's latest garden experiment.

"I'm always trying to get rid of slugs and snails, as I'm sure every gardener is. At the moment I'm trying spraying things with garlic to see if that'll work."

Hannah's own passion for gardening, with a sustainable approach, began in childhood, but it wasn't until after raising a family that she turned it into a career.

"I grew up on a farm that was a sort of sustainable smallholding, where we produced all our own milk, cheese and meat and grew all our own vegetables, so it was really in the blood. I wanted to do gardening when I was about 17 and got talked out of it. Then I had kids really young. When the children went to school I thought, it really is gardening and horticulture that does it for me."

Hannah now has a degree in Landscape & Garden Design, but the allotment is where she learnt everything about growing vegetables, from the old hands.

"We were living in the city and because I'd grown up on a farm I felt so out of place that I went and got an allotment. It was seriously untrendy then, nobody was doing it. I was the only woman down there and the blokes taught me everything."

Although the allotmenteers were happy to pass on gardening advice, they would not share their beer!

"In the shed they had this special barrel of beer and because I was a girl they didn't think I should drink any so I was never allowed it. They kept this barrel of beer going from what they made on selling seed potatoes. They thought it was inappropriate for a woman to drink beer - it was funny."

Now Hannah has the opportunity to ask all sorts of gardeners for advice thanks to her most recent career development, which has seen her become a TV presenter of shows such as Heaven's Garden and Digging For Victory.

"I've found I love interviewing people. Gardeners are really interesting, great people. They've got their own quirky ways of doing things and my favourite bit is finding out what that is."

For someone who ended up as a TV presenter by accident, Hannah seems to have found her vocation.

"It happened in a very strange way. I wasn't looking for it at all but it came along and I found that I could chat to the camera - I think shutting me up was the problem! It's actually similar to gardening in that you have to be really patient. It takes a long time, for each half-hour programme that I make I'm probably doing about three or four days of filming, and I have to re-plant things and re-do things as the director wants. It's been great."

By Cherry Butler

Web Links

Hannah Genders' website: www.hannahgenders.co.uk

Heritage Seed Library: www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl

Gardeners' World Live: www.bbcgardenersworldlive.com

What's Your View?

Need advice on growing vegetables? Want to share snaps of your prize potatoes? You can discuss gardening in the 50connect Forums.

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