How on Earth, says Jon Wheatley, Royal Horticultural Society judge and multiple gold medal-winning garden designer, will Britain achieve its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 when its food imports are steadily rising? What about all that transport pollution when we could be growing our own food and flowers at home in a country of which 71 per cent is agricultural land, not to mention our private back gardens and community spaces? And what about the UK’s vast array of native weeds we could all be harvesting for our dinner table?
The latest Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs statistics bear out his concern. In 1984, the country was 78 per cent self-sufficient in food; by 2019, that had dropped to 64 per cent. The UK now produces just 18 per cent of the fruit we eat and 55 per cent of the fresh vegetables.
It is an issue that troubles Wheatley, a passionate advocate of self-sufficiency as a nation and as individuals. Growing your own vegetables, fruit, flowers and edible weeds for foraging starts at home, he says. Even those with tiny gardens can do it because the secret is to grow it all together in one happy bed. There is no horticultural reason not to. You can enjoy a colourful — and edible — bed year-round as species mature at different times.
He has supplied plants and weeds for foraging for the COP26 garden now on display at Chelsea Flower Show. He also does this at his home in Chew Magna, Somerset, where exotic and carnival-hued Chinese artichokes, kale Candy Crush and Swiss rainbow chard Bright Lights jostle with cabbages and sprouts. This is spiced up with edible weeds and multifunctional flowers, such as his beloved dahlias: beautiful, good for pollinators and with edible tubers.
We can all create such aesthetically arresting, usefully edible and environmentally responsible gardens, he says.
Wheatley, 74, has been a life-long grower who produced all his own
fruit and veg when his four children were growing up. The seeds of self-
sufficiency were sown by parents and grandparents. “As a small child I used to help my grandfather on his allotment in Bristol. He was a tiler by trade but it was just after the war so he grew everything they ate on his allotment and sold the surplus at Bristol market,” he says.
He and his brother used to help his mum and dad, a factory worker and a fireman who in their spare time grew flowers to sell and to show. “I spent my entire childhood growing plants.”
It set off a bug that has developed into a successful career as an RHS authority, owner of award-winning Stonebarn Landscapes and of a plant nursery that grows for other award-winning designers. This is despite a misguided prank by Wheatley that almost derailed his career. He grins when he recounts how he failed the 11-plus after his essay about a cricket match was simply “rain stopped play”. Wheatley had a second crack at the exam at 13 and this time he knuckled down and passed. He chose to go to Brymore Academy, a state boarding school with a farm where pupils learn about horticulture.
“I knew that I wanted to work in horticulture because I was good at biology, chemistry and geography and because of my upbringing,” he says.
At Brymore he relished the 6am starts to work in the horticultural unit and on the school farm, though he says a lifetime in horticulture has made him “an evening as well as a morning lark”.
He went on to train in commercial horticulture and then at RHS Wisley, the happiest days of his life, he says, despite the garden’s strict edict that students must be single and stay that way for the duration of the two-year course. “It was 1968 and I accepted it because I wanted to get on in my career,” he says.
Jane, his then girlfriend and now wife, decided to hang around, and it was she who introduced him to foraging.
“Being brought up on a farm, Jane knew all about wild plants for foraging and about not wasting anything. It’s far easier to grow your own and harvest it when needed than to buy food then throw it away. Such waste.”
Jane was following a great British tradition, exemplified by the publication of Garden Plants of Around 1525: The Fromond List, in which landowner Thomas Fromond listed weeds for eating. Fat hen, sow thistle, tansy, chickweed and lungwort were all routinely popped into the cooking pot by our forebears.
Wheatley is a fan of foraging but rather than deplete the countryside and deprive wild animals of food, we should grow our own, he says. “At Chew Magna we grow hairy bittercress, dandelions, watercress, sloes, oxalis, elderflower, hedge mustard, wild garlic, blackberries, chokeberry and amelanchier. We don’t do much weeding because we eat them instead. Much easier.”
Self-sufficiency has suffered partly from our desire for cheap food imports but also due to our changing palette for exotic fruit and vegetables. Ironically, this desire has contributed to a climate change crisis we can now use to boost our self-sufficiency, Wheatley says.
The Met Office’s “State of the UK Climate 2020” report, published on July 29, says we are undergoing disruptive climate change with increased rainfall, more sunshine and higher temperatures. If we harness this change with technology, including propagating under cover, we can grow our own exotics right here in the UK, he says. Like Wheatley, we too can have peanuts, multi-hued kale and chard, mangetout Shiraz and Dragon radish alongside the carrots and spuds.
If the government afforded horticulture the respect it deserves and invested properly in it, we could be doing it on a national scale, he says. Business can play its role too. The Business Improvement Districts scheme, where companies pay a levy to help their local area, is sprucing up many towns with plants and financing community gardens for residents to grow their own produce.
Mind you, it’s not quite as simple as grabbing a spade and packet of seeds. Long-term success will come only if you are prepared to put in the necessary effort, Wheatley says, and you must be able to identify your plants.
“It’s essential that if you want to grow any plant you’ve got to know them first. And to really know them properly you have got to grow them. My biggest criticism is that gardeners, whether amateurs or professionals, don’t know their plants enough.”
After all, who wants to grow a death cap mushroom for breakfast?