Rekha Mistry is a gardener, blogger, writer and presenter on Gardeners’ World. Her experience creating and tending to an allotment inspired her first book ‘Rekha’s Kitchen Garden’. She talked to Frank’s Editor-in-Chief Melanie Sykes.
Hi, Rekha. Congratulations on the book; it’s a beautiful and brilliantly simple yet detailed look at growing produce. It is very encouraging and has reignited my lost passion for growing my own.
Thank you, Melanie. I wrote the book intentionally with simplicity in mind. A newbie gardener wants it as it is – no fanciness, no-frills, yet beautiful and accessible, aiding you to become a confident gardener. Many people think about growing their own but think it will be too complicated.
What would you say to them in the way of encouragement, apart from ‘read my book’ LOL?
At first glance, it looks complicated. So break it down into small chunks. 1) actual space; 2) what crops you’d like to grow; and 3) create a composting area, even if it’s a small Dalek (lightweight) composter.
Start with three things (one vegetable, one herb and a fruit) that you will recognise when they are ready to harvest. I assure you this will give you green fingers to grow more and more as each year passes. Your confidence grows and soon what once looked complicated is accomplished.
I love the idea of allotments. Are they of British origin, or are their roots (pardon the pun) elsewhere?
Yes, very much so. The open-field system dates back to the late Anglo-Saxon period. Fast forward a few centuries and the first mention of the word was during a series of Acts of Parliament when tenant cottages had ‘allotments’ of land attached.
During the First and Second world wars, the ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative saw more allotments, with all parks and private land used to grow food.
Since the 1990s, there has been a rising interest in allotments. This is partly due to concerns about food miles and a movement to grow and eat locally. This trend of owning an allotment continues.
When I was a child, we had a friend whose father had an allotment; it was a magical place. What kind of wisdom do you experience while working in one?
Allotments are most definitely magical places. No two plots are ever gardened the same way. To every allotment holder, their plot is their palace! Wisdom is always shared.
Many have had their plots for a very long time and therefore have an abundance of hands-on knowledge and they are always happy to part with tips and tricks. You find an amazing community spirit on allotment sites.
One thing this place has taught me is patience. It is not instant gardening. You learn this in the very first year of owning the plot.
Is there such a thing as being ‘green-fingered’ or can anyone grow successfully?
Everyone can grow. Patience is what is required. Allow the plants to lead you, not the other way around. This automatically helps you to slow down.
We automatically immerse ourselves in them and soon find the calming meditative effects of plants. This patience is what gives us the ‘green fingers’.
How do you know what soil type you naturally have in your space?
Grab a handful of moist garden soil. If it has large stones, remove them. Squeeze the soil. It should stay together, but crumble when poked. That is a sign of loamy soil.
If the ball crumbles when you loosen your grip, it has a higher level of sandy soil. If the ball is smooth but sticky and remains a ball even when poked, this is a sign of more clay than loam.
What are your favourite foods to grow and why?
I do not have an absolute favourite but it’s the unusual vegetables I’ve never grown before that excite me the most. I will watch and nurture this unknown vegetable.
Because everything about the seed and plant is unknown, I research and learn what its needs and requirements are. It’s like becoming a new mum or rather, plant mum, all over again.
Your descriptions of the food are brilliant. Leeks are described as ‘tough as old boots’ in their hardiness. Rhubarb plants are ‘hungry’. They are characters, aren’t they?
Oh, most definitely! Some are like comfy clothes. Potatoes are most certainly in that category. Happy to grow even in slightly clay soil.
Then there are divas -basil herb comes to mind! Grow them outdoors in the UK, and they will droop and sulk in the wind and cool night temperatures.
They most definitely like to swish their hair – I mean leaves – within the calm humid scenario of the greenhouse or poly-tunnel.
The allotment or patch needs to be tended and is a responsibility. What kind of commitment does it take?
Allotments are so hard to get hold of nowadays. When you become a custodian of a plot, it’s your duty to look after it. In the early days as a newbie allotmenteer, yes, there is a lot more commitment required, for example getting the plot ready so your intended plants can grow.
Once you get in the rhythm of work, and you see the plot in flower and fruition, it becomes less of a commitment and more of a joy to be surrounded by.
Would you describe it as a lifestyle?
I was 40 years young when I took over an allotment plot and they weren’t seen as lifestyle places then. In fact, they were seen as a retiree’s pastime place! I was admired by my fellow plot owners and quickly accepted by them. Now it most certainly is a lifestyle, as tending to the plot and growing styles have changed within the last 13 years.
I talk to my house plants. I recently resurrected a cheese plant with a friend and would talk to it, willing it to come back to its former glory. It has! Do you talk to your crops?
Always! For one, they are the best listeners to my problems and they most certainly do not answer back or judge you! Because we are looking so deeply at a plant, we learn from observations what plants require and there is a gardener-plant relationship.
How important is it that we get back to knowing how to grow our own, especially in the current economic and social landscape?
Covid-19 changed our perception of food and growing your own. And we became a wonderful green-fingered nation. This needs to continue, and in some way it has. We now have guerrilla gardens and rewilding.
We have started to value local produce again as it uses fewer food miles and this has helped many local small-scale artisan suppliers of fresh food.
The book is beautiful, and I know you are really into photography. How much editorial and creative input did you have?
From the very beginning, my publishers and I were a team. I knew I wanted the images to be viewed from a gardener’s eye view.
My photographer understood that detail in a photograph speaks more than words written. I knew I wanted the book to be colourful and joyful, not just to read, but to look and feel too. This was the brief for the book’s storyboard.
From the images of the first shoot, my team found the colour inspiration I was looking for – on my feet! My very own hand-knitted bright socks! Who would have thought socks could be so inspiring?
What will you be off to do after you’ve talked to Frank?
I gave up the allotment earlier this year. Just like cutting the apron strings when your child leaves home for university, this was that feeling! But this time, I am not coming back to the plot.
We are now in the beautiful setting of Peak Park in Derbyshire. My work with BBC Gardeners World continues as I am bringing a once-loved kitchen garden back to life again.
Rekha’s Kitchen Garden is £18.99 and is published by DK.
Buy Your Copy of ‘Rekha’s Kitchen Garden’ HERE
You can also follow Rekha on Instagram
Images by Rachel Warne for DK.