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A Growing Influence
Bob Flowerdew, Britain's Man In the Middle Of the Garden

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006; C01

DICKLEBURGH, England We ring the bell at a cottage called Harvey Lodge and a shadow soon appears behind the glazed door. Then there is the fellow himself. Bob Flowerdew, in the flesh. He is not quite what we expected, not exactly the image conjured by his prim and proper radio voice.

Flowerdew's face has an ageless quality to it: Not plump, but yes, fleshy, and with the radiance of a man at the top of his game. His eyes are hooded like a basset hound's, though limpid blue, and he is wearing an embroidered hippie cardigan thing. But his most striking feature is a braided ponytail that falls to his waist. A plait, they call it here.

The braid gets him noticed, as a headline once screamed in a London tabloid: "Would You Take Gardening Advice From a Man With a Plait?"

The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes.

Flowerdew is a wildly popular gardening figure in the United Kingdom. He's the preeminent organic fruit and vegetable guru and a prolific author of books and magazine columns. But his biggest gig is as a star panelist for the past 12 years on the BBC's hit radio show "Gardeners' Question Time." "GQT" has aired weekly for more than 59 years, and it still attracts almost 2 million listeners in a nation of 60 million. On a per capita basis, that would be about twice the size of the audience of "A Prairie Home Companion." Every Sunday afternoon, Britons stuffed with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding flop in front of the wireless to hear Flowerdew and his cohorts talk about pruning pears and blanching endives.

The notion that Britain is gardening mad is absolutely true, of course. It is unquestioned that the annual Chelsea Flower Show, held in May, is televised in prime time over several days. Go into a pub, and you are as likely to hear an argument over how to grow runner beans as the political fortunes of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Last year, a man in Lincolnshire was given a day in jail for trying to kill his neighbor's sunlight-stealing Leyland cypress hedge. By urinating on it.

In the uncertainty of postmodern, multicultural and rather godless Britain, gardening is not just a shared hobby. "Gardening is one of the few things holding British society together," said Sir Roy Strong, historian and former longtime director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This importance can elevate gardening personalities into public figures with a cult following, and the names seem straight out of an Edwardian farce: Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don, Rachel de Thame, Pippa Greenwood, Bunny Guinness and, of course, the redoubtable Bob Flowerdew. Trevor Taylor, who produces "GQT," says Flowerdew "is a household name, he's a big star."

And if gardening is mainstream entertainment, can sex be far behind? It soon caught up when the Beeb brought out "Ground Force" on TV in 1997 and then introduced Charlie Dimmock -- "pre-Raphaelite angel of gardening," according to one magazine -- to tackle garden makeovers. Not surprisingly, "Ground Force" is credited with reenergizing gardening in the United Kingdom, of passing the torch to a new generation of germinators.

Roy Strong thinks of the charismatic Irish garden designer Diarmuid Gavin, who's all over the telly these days. "He has the most wonderful head of chestnut brown hair. People actually want to touch him, and he exudes sex," he said. "Flowerdew probably does, too."

"The ladies love him, in fact they adore him," said Taylor, "but he relatively recently got married."

On a recent "GQT" program, a female questioner asked the panel of experts how they would pose if they were doing a nude gardening calendar a la the movie "Calendar Girls." Flowerdew said he would like to be seen emerging from a wishing well. For those in the live audience who ask (the show travels from town to town each week), Flowerdew has a stash of autographed pictures. Taylor adds wryly, "I'm sure Bob will tell you other requests he's had."

As hunky as Flowerdew, 53, may be to his adoring fans, everyone agrees that it is his unique horticultural knowledge that sustains the interest.

In the off-the-beaten-track village of Dickleburgh, Flowerdew has spent the past 23 years turning his little green three-fourths of an acre into an intensively cultivated patch of land. Hemmed in by a road and surrounding properties, it might just as easily be in a suburb of London as in a fogbound hamlet in East Anglia. But this is the village where he grew up, and there has been a Flowerdew tilling the Norfolk soil since the 1400s, though some Flowerdews made it to Colonial Virginia.

The first thing that strikes you about the garden at Harvey Lodge is that it is about as far from the archetype of the flowery, bowery English garden as you can get. Yes, rambling roses are woven onto fences, but the grapevines are out of control and everywhere, it seems, there are old car tires, sheets of plastic and bits of old carpet.

Flowerdew is a thrifty recycler, in keeping with his organic gardening persona; the tires, now planters, are but one example of this. In a greenhouse, you find yourself walking on a metal path that is actually a line of old radiators half buried in the mud. Flowerdew's potting bench is a former deep freeze, and he has rainwater and bath-water storage and transportation systems that would make the desert dwellers of "Dune" seem wasteful.

He has woven peach tree stems into contorted orbs, to see if they can be squeezed into small gardens and still yield plenty of fruit. "I really can't recommend it yet," he said.

He points to a shrub called the cornelian-cherry dogwood, whose yellow blossoms turn to bright red berries used as a preserve. "I must admit," he said, "I can't get my mouth around them, even with sugar."

"I think he's viewed as eccentric, extremely knowledgeable, interesting and entertaining," said Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening, a weekly magazine.

Think of Flowerdew's garden as a laboratory run by a mad professor. "Some of the borders look a mess," said Rumball, "but it's a charming garden once you look beyond the strangeness of it."

Unconstrained by the norms of mainstream horticulture, Flowerdew will put anything to the test, including grafting cabbages onto other veggies to prevent club root disease or seeking to extract dye from the woad plant, as the ancient Britons once did.

We enter his sanctum sanctorum, a polypropylene greenhouse inside a larger one. It is all a little makeshift and made safe against winter nights with a couple of simple space heaters. Here, he experiments with some of his oddest subjects: the tropical guava shrub, a banana tree, a bizarre fruit called a custard apple and a ring of fruiting pineapple plants on the edge of a pond. He harvests one of the fruits and twists off the top cluster of leaves. Peeling away the bottom leaves, he shows flat, orange, wormlike ridges. These are the roots of a new plant, waiting to grow. Pot them in your heated greenhouse or conservatory and, lo, after three years you will have full-size fruiting pineapples ready for the table, he says.

This is a fruit that has always captivated the English. A hundred years ago, the finest estates had special hothouses and teams of gardeners to raise them. But Flowerdew grows them with simple methods and patience in a plastic greenhouse, and he has taught the British gardening public to do the same. At events, newfound pineapple growers come up to him and worship at his feet.

"It's not that difficult, actually," he mutters. The Victorian gardeners may have made it sound like a dark art, he says, "but these old boys had a job to protect." In breaking this myth, Flowerdew has elevated his own. He is now seeking to prove that fuchsia bushes should be grown for their edible berries as well as their exotic blooms.

Taylor says he has a pool of eight experts for the show and picks three each week. Flowerdew is virtually always a starting player. "GQT" travels to communities large and small as the guest of local gardening clubs -- some put in their applications to host it more than 20 years ago. The show also has been recorded in the Houses of Parliament, a London subway station and a nudist colony in Kent. Flowerdew gamely stripped for the occasion and then talked about such apt garden life as blue legs, a form of mushroom.

His personal journey is almost as bizarre as his garden. He graduated from college as a financial management accountant and worked in London's financial district for about as long as he could stand it. Thirteen months, to be exact. He then dropped out and worked his way around Europe and North America. His jobs included nude modeling at art colleges, picking grapes in France, working as a maintenance engineer in a pinball arcade and a cook and cleaner at a brothel in the United States. We suppose in Nevada, but there are no more details, except: "After two weeks, it was just like any other job," he said.

When he was 30, he decided to return to his roots in Dickleburgh, rented the unassuming one-story cottage named Harvey Lodge and hung out his shingle as a landscape gardener. He spent a decade living hand-to-mouth, realizing that if he was to make it gardening he would have to stop using his back and start using his brain.

By combining his boundless curiosity and passion for gardening, he taught himself horticultural theory and practice. When he isn't gardening, he's in his personal library of rare and esoteric gardening books.

He has been writing books for the past 15 years and now has approximately a dozen titles, including "Bob Flowerdew's Organic Gardener" and, most recently, an encyclopedia titled "Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit" (with Matthew Biggs and Jekka McVicar).

So forgive his garden for being weird; it's where he does book research and learns to prepare for his radio gig, which he described as a quiz show "where there are no prizes and every answer has to be correct."

The 40 raised vegetable beds at Harvey Lodge are part of the investment in his career, but they are also about practicing what he preaches. He eats well off the land. At this time of year, he says, he and his wife, Vonnetta, get 90 percent of their food from the garden. And a homegrown pineapple, it should be said, contains flavors unknown in the supermarket variety.

His life, he muses, is like that of an old Gallic gardener, skimming the best fruit and vegetables for himself before the bigwigs ever see them. "The French peasant has always lived better than the French nobleman," he says.

Flowerdew seems poised to remain popular. In Britain, if not in Cableland, USA, the garden makeover show has run its course. People have become tired of the repetitive formula and have realized that a garden made in three days isn't a true garden, no matter how voluptuous the expert help.

Growing one's own fruits and vegetables, particularly in the community garden, has become trendy in the past five years as people look for organic produce and the improvement of their diet.

Flowerdew, once considered on the fringes of the garden scene, is now squarely at its center. He seems to be reveling in it, especially in the context of having gotten the boot himself from one of the TV shows a few years back.

"I think most of us are not in contact with the real world. It's all secondhand, and as a human race we are losing something," says Flowerdew. "That's why gardening and cooking are making such a big comeback. They are real and pleasurable."

So look for Flowerdew in the village halls of England for a few years to come, but look for him too in his little patch of Dickleburgh.

"Too many gardeners I know in the media say, 'I don't have time to garden anymore.' " His voice rises in a typical burst of outrage. "Well, what's the point?"

He is also known as being unpredictable in his organic partisanship. To most of his colleagues, using peat moss in soil mixes is environmentally destructive to the bogs in Russia and Canada where they are harvested. Flowerdew says it's a renewable resource. He eats meat -- animals wouldn't have life without our need to eat them, he says -- and he notes that when you munch on a veggie, you kill it. A tomato or an apple, by contrast, is merely an organ the plant wants you to consume to scatter its seed. If the tree huggers "want to be self-righteous, let them survive on fruit," he said. "I lasted four months."

The experiments change but the quest to build his knowledge continues. It seems a perfect arrangement. He gets to live his passion; a grateful nation awaits his answers.

"There's an old Chinese saying," he said. "If you want strawberries, don't sow radishes. It applies to everything in life, doesn't it? We spend all our time sowing radishes when what we really wanted was strawberries."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company