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‘Go on, have a go’ - BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge

PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 April 2014

Fern Britton and the judges on the Big Allotment Challenge

Fern Britton and the judges on the Big Allotment Challenge


‘Go on, have a go’ Says veteran gardener Jim Burtress from BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge

Festival details

Dates: Friday 2 May 10-5 and Saturday 3 May 10-6

Price: Adults £5. Children under 16 go free

Venue: Powderham Castle, Kenton, near Exeter, Devon EX6 8JQ


Tickets: or 01626 891133


Twitter: @tobygardenfest

With the Great British Bake Off the BBC turned cake making into a national obsession and Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood into household names. Now the same formula is being applied to gardening in a new BBC show, The Big Allotment Challenge, which starts in April.

And that means gardening expert Jim Buttress, who appears on the show alongside Fern Britton, will be a very familiar face to many when he appears at the Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival at Powderham Castle in May. Jim, 69, spent 25 years as a superintendant of the Royal Parks and was once dubbed ‘Judge Dread’ by the Daily Telegraph as a nod to the power he wielded as a judge in the nationwide Britian in Bloom competition.

He’s loved working on The Big Allotment Challenge and sharing half a century of horticultural knowledge.

He explains: “It’s amateurs, people that are keen gardeners who want to try to improve what they are doing. It’s people working on their allotment that suddenly find ‘Oh God, I’ve got greenfly’ or whatever it is and finding a way round it. I just found it a challenge and it’s hopefully going to appeal to a lot of people when it comes out.”

"Not everything is going to be prize-winning vegetable. Gardening doesn’t work like that"

There’s a competitive element to the show, as contestants are whittled down to the finals. But Jim enjoyed the opportunity to educate and enthuse viewers.

His advice to novice gardeners is straightforward: “Nobody must ever kid themselves that everything they put in is going to be a prize-winning vegetable. Gardening doesn’t work like that. But whatever they get out of it has got to be a success over something they’ve never done before.

“Don’t set your sights too high. Work on the plot. Concentrate on the things you really enjoy.”

Jim says people should make the most of garden societies, run by volunteers, who organise the local shows.

Toby Buckland at Powderham CastleToby Buckland at Powderham Castle

“In the past people would say ‘Oh no, I’m not putting in for it because Fred’s going to win it.’ But no, have a go. There’s nothing to lose by it.”

Jim left education at 15 after what he describes as a ‘chequered school career’ to become an apprentice with the Royal Horticultural Society at their RHS Wisley garden in Surrey.

He’s seen the interest in keeping allotments and growing food for the table wane after the post-war austerity years and now enjoy a new popularity.

He gives much of the credit for this to TV chef Jamie Oliver and his vocal campaigning to see children eat better. This was followed by the growth of allotment societies taking ownership of plots from local councils.

Toby Buckland at Powderham CastleToby Buckland at Powderham Castle

He says: “Allotments now are very big business – you can’t get an plot for love nor money. It’s not rocket science. The wheel has gone all the way round. If we go back to the end of the war it was ‘Dig for Victory’ and everyone was doing it because there was a real need to supply their own food because they couldn’t afford to buy it. Then it became passé and ‘Oh forget it’. Now it’s all gone back again.

“I think people suddenly thought ‘Well I can go down the supermarket and buy this and that and the other’ and then people like Jamie Oliver and one or two others said ‘Hold on a minute, you are being forced into buying something that’s not really what you want. Try doing it for yourself.’

“So now a lot of kids, mums and dads are doing what I did with my father 50-odd years ago. They can see a potato comes out of the ground as a potato, not as chips.”

Jim is delighted that children today are taught about gardening at school: “When I was a kid in school the playground was tarmac and at one end was the goalpost painted on the wall. Now they are using gardening as part of the curriculum. At a school I went to last year the kids were learning about Egyptology and they were growing in their pots the plants that come from that country.”

Jim is passionate about gardening and is helping young people who don’t want to be stuck in a classroom or an office: “I’m building my third garden at Chelsea this year with Homebase, who have just started their own apprentice scheme. They are the first of the big corporates to realise they need to actually encourage and get their staff working the right way.”

So is he prepared for the fame that the Big Allotment Challenge could bring?

He laughs: “Unfortunately it got off to a bad start because someone blabbed it to the media and they have likened me to the horticultural Paul Hollywood, which I think is the kiss of death!

“But at the end of the day I’ve done several bits of telly and at 69 coming up 70 you think, well it’s a bit late to start getting fame.”

Jim will be one of a number of gardening stars at the new festival created by celebrity gardener, horticulturist and author, Toby Buckland at Powderham Castle.

The event will be a celebration of all things gardening, plus food, live music and entertainment.

Other experts at the garden festival include:

Charles Dowding is a no-dig and organic vegetable gardening specialist, author and lecturer. For over three decades he has been growing organic vegetables, winning him a national following.

Dr Todd Gray is a historian and author of 40 books on the history of Devon including five on Devon plants and gardens. Dr Gray is known for his lively and informative talks.

Anne Swithinbank, a highly respected and popular horticulturist, broadcaster, author and regular panelist on Radio 4’s Garden Question Time. Anne has a large garden in East Devon and says: “A clay soil with flints, wind blowing up from the sea, deer, rabbits, squirrels, badgers and a husband with ideas of his own present plenty of problems.”

Neil Lucas is well known around the world for his knowledge of and passion for ornamental grasses of which he has a great collection at Knoll Gardens and Nursery in Dorset. He has won 10 Gold Medals in 10 consecutive years at RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Kevin Croucher is owner of Thornhayes Nursery in Devon and produces one of the broadest ranges of trees available in the UK. He is internationally renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of trees around the world.


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