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Big Allotment Challenge semi-finalists Pete Taylor and Gary Murdock on their introduction to competitive gardening

PUBLISHED: 09:54 28 July 2014

BBC/Silver River

BBC/Silver River

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Big Allotment Challenge pitted nine pairs of gardeners against each other. Pete Taylor and Gary Murdock from Hove reached the semi-finals. Here they dish the dirt on their introduction to competitive gardening

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“What is your favourite thing to grow?” I ask Pete Taylor and Gary Murdock, the laconic, tweed-suited Brighton gardeners who reached the semi-finals of the BBC series Big Allotment Challenge. “Beards,” replies Pete, quick as a flash.

Those who backed “the boys”, as former Royal gardener and judge Jim Buttress called the pair, will recognise the sense of humour and deprecation, as well as the beards. Pete and Gary met 15 years ago at work and started gardening together just three years ago. Gary had been co-working a friend’s allotment, and later took it over himself. After Pete, who had been on the waiting list, got his own allotment, they ended up with adjoining plots in Hove.

They say their gardening philosophy is “maximum yield for minimum effort”, which led them to be dubbed “the lazy gardeners” by the programme-makers. They freely admit that gardening’s charm lies in the social experience that comes with it, and they’re generous with their produce, giving it away at work or their local pub. They invited a group of friends to the latter to watch the first episode of the series, a slightly nerve-wracking experience as they didn’t know what to expect. “It was quite funny watching them watching us,” says Pete.

Neither man was initially interested in appearing on the programme: “We ended up going to what we thought was an interview but ended up being an audition,” says Pete. After some “extremely bad” flower-arranging, they were in. They credit their success to their lack of effort, and their authenticity.

Because of the nature of gardening, the show filmed over pretty much the entire summer of 2013; a considerable commitment. The producers insisted that all the competitors be there for the first weekend, after which each team was given a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 30 hours to work the allotment, at whatever times they wished. Gary and Pete used their holiday entitlement and weekends to make the journey up to Oxfordshire and spent most of their summer in a hotel in Reading.

The competitors on the show were notable for their lack of diva histrionics. What I wanted to know is whether they were just playing nice for the cameras. Apparently not. “It didn’t feel like a competition at all really,” says Pete. “Everyone was quite friendly, sharing seedlings…it was just like a normal allotment.”

Again, relations with the judges were excellent, say the pair. “Jim Buttress seems to have been edited as if he hated us,” says Pete. “But loads of times in between filming we’d be sitting with him over a cup of tea and listening to cricket on the radio.”

Generally, they thought the editing process was fair, although winners Alex and Ed “came across as uber-competitive: don’t get me wrong, they were competitive, but they’re both lovely people,” says Pete.

The only thing even approaching scandal I can grub out of the gardeners? “There was one couple in particular that were stashing anything they could find to improve their soil and hiding it,” says Gary. He won’t reveal the couple’s identity.

Soil quality was something of an issue. This was the programme’s first year, and the plots used by the gardeners were new. “All they had done was lift the turf, dug down about 20 centimetres and then dumped in bought-in topsoil. But the soil wasn’t that good and a lot of people hated it. We had tomato plants appearing in it, all sorts of stuff that we hadn’t planted, like a decorative gourd. After a couple of weeks we had bindweed appear…”

Although both men are at pains to point out that they had to be inveigled into joining the programme, and that they put little effort into their challenges, clearly some competitive spirit has rubbed off. “Our allotment was in the most exposed position, furthest away from the taps, didn’t have a big brick wall behind it to catch the sun and heat…” says Pete. “Two of the couples in the final had plots beside the wall, which gave reflected heat and protection. They did have some advantages,” agrees Gary.

Gary’s the grafter, they reckon, while garrulous Pete is the creative brains of the operation. “I’m quite happy to stick things in a line, watch them grow and then eat them, while Pete likes things to be pretty,” says Gary. They clearly get along famously, and share a sense of humour. “What did we learn?” muses Pete. “I learned that me and Gary can work together and not have one row. That’s quite good. And we learned how to grown flowers. We’ve got the love for flowers now.” They’re still in touch with some of their “lovely” fellow competitors.

Gary addressed public rumblings of discontent over much sought-after allotments going unworked over a full summer. “We took all our best plants and over-wintered them to use in the allotment. And none of the food was wasted.” The competitors took home what they wanted, and anything left over was given to a charity that had a drop-in centre for homeless people in Reading.

They may not be happy with the “lazy gardeners” label, but Gary and Pete are both passionate about spreading the gardening word. Their message, one that they mix with characteristic drollery on their Vegetablism blog, is that gardening doesn’t have to be hard work. Says Pete: “We don’t faff around wasting our time – especially when the pub’s open.”

vegetablism.co.uk

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The Big Allotment Challenge

The programme was broadcast in five episodes on BBC Two.

The judges were former Royal gardener Jim Buttress, cookery writer Thane Price and floral designer Jonathan Moseley. The presenter was Ferne Britton.

Each episode included growing, cooking and flower-arranging challenges.

Ed Bond and Alex Lomax from Wiltshire were the inaugural winners.

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Tips

Small sunflower varieties can be used as cut flowers indoors. For every bud you cut you’ll get two more. They look nice in containers and every single part of the sunflower is edible, from the little leaves to the buds.

Higgledy Garden does a whole section of edible flower seeds.

Let your radishes flower and form edible seed pods. They are like little beans and they taste beautiful: great in piccalilli.

Turnips are brilliant to grow and they grow really quickly. They’re a great bulking-up vegetable.

It’s much better going for heritage varieties. Let them go to seed sometimes and you’ll never need to buy seeds again.

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Plenty more garden news, views and stories online at sussexlife.co.uk/homes-gardens and in our archive of magazines at sussexlife.co.uk/magazines/digital-archive

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