Harrogate Flower Show judge Jim Buttress prepares for the Big Allotment Challenge
PUBLISHED: 11:09 14 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:09 14 April 2014
Annie Stirk meets a horticulturalist who really knows his onions (and any other veg you’d care to mention)
Jim Buttress has been dubbed the ‘Judge Dread’ of horticulture, sending a tingle of fear down the spine of competitors hoping to bag a rosette, trophy, medal or cup for their home-grown goodies.
As a senior judge at Harrogate Spring Flower Show – where this year he’s giving a talk on the 175th anniversary of Perennial (the gardener’s charity of which he’s chairman designate) – as well as top judge for the RHS’s Britain in Bloom, his decisions can mean the difference between a coveted gold and a disappointing ‘commended’.
‘I got the Judge Dread title a few years ago at Harrogate when there was a bit of tension because I’d awarded a silver gilt and not a gold in the Britain in Bloom competition – and they still remember it,’ says Jim. ‘For me, Harrogate has always been one of the most stunning examples of how communities can transform open spaces.’
The dreaded judge looks set to soon become a familiar face in living rooms up and down the country as one of the judges on new BBC television show The Big Allotment Challenge, a Great British Bake Off meets Ground Force style series that pits grow-your-owners against each other in a battle of the rotivators as they take on new allotment plots, grow vegetables and make preserves under Jim’s trademark scrutiny.
The budding allotmenteers are certainly in good hands. After a lifetime of gardening, Jim has built an enviable reputation as a highly knowledgeable gardener with a down-to-earth approach.
‘As a kid, Christmas presents for me were packets of seeds,’ he recalls. ‘And if I wasn’t at school I’d be out in the garden with my dad.
‘I went to school at a Catholic convent in Hayward’s Heath where the nuns didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them, and they would often cart me off to the walled garden to work with an old gardener – but I loved it. I hated being confined and all I wanted to do was be outside. To earn pocket money I’d cut people’s grass and weed at weekends and on holidays.’
Early inspiration came from his father and grandfather who had their own smallholding and allotment: ‘My dad was a great hero to me. As a boy he’d worked with Edward Augustus (Gussie) Bowles, the British horticulturalist, plants man and garden writer, and was offered an apprenticeship with him. When he told his dad about it though he simply said ‘thank the gentlemen but you’re not becoming a gardener’ so he worked in the city all his life and kept the gardening for weekends. He loved the fact I got to do, professionally, what he was never able to.’
Jim’s love of gardening has taken him further than he could have imagined. Training at RHS Wisley, he spent 25 years with the Royal Parks, responsible for some of Britain’s greatest landscapes from St James’s Park to Clarence House, and eventually becoming the ‘Governor of Greenwich Park’.
In the years since, he’s travelled all over the world giving talks and judging at thousands of shows – including being lead judge at almost all of the RHS shows including Chelsea (where he can be found wearing his trademark bowler hat).
‘I’ve had a fascinating time as a judge,’ says Jim. ‘One year I looked down at a bedding display and realized they were all plastic. Another time I inspected a lemon tree in the grounds of a college and discovered the fruit was tied on.’
Despite his nickname, he’s a popular man among his fellow horticulturalists; something he puts down to knowing his stuff: ‘I’ve exhibited, I know what it’s like and I know good from bad. When people swear at me because I haven’t given them a gold, I don’t get huffy. I don’t take it the wrong way because I understand their pride.’
But is he ready for the sort of attention The Big Allotment Challenge will bring him? He could, after all, become the Paul Hollywood of horticulture.
‘It’s all a bit strange but I’m getting used to it now,’ says Jim. ‘And I’m just really excited to be getting back to the roots of grow your own on the programme.’
The show, which airs this month, is set to build on his passion for annual horticultural shows and their competitions for jams, chutneys, fruits, vegetables and flowers. In each episode, the team that fails to impress will hang up their gardening gloves and leave the allotment for good.
Jim hopes it will further the already flourishing trend for growing-your-own: ‘Suddenly we’re back to the old days when mums and dads and kids all go to the allotment as a way of life. Through gardening people are making their towns and cities better places to live and work. Flowers and vegetables brings a smile to people’s faces and grow self-respect.’
So how does his own garden grow? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s feeling a little neglected.
‘My own garden wouldn’t even get a ‘commended’,’ says Jim. ‘I still grow a few rows of spinach and beans at my allotment but I’m hardly ever there now. And as for cooking or making jams…well, my wife Linda doesn’t let me anywhere near the kitchen.’