LJ Talks to Rekha Mistry About Gardens, BBC ‘Gardeners’ World,’ and Making Books

For decades, Rekha Mistry has been feeding her family, and her curiosity and creativity, from her gardens. Best known to U.S. gardeners from her appearances on Gardeners’ World, she is out with her debut book. She talks with LJ about growing your own and the abundant pleasures of gardening. 

For decades, Rekha Mistry has been feeding her family, and her curiosity and creativity, from her gardens. Best known to U.S. gardeners from her appearances on Gardeners’ World, she is out with her debut book. She talks with LJ about growing your own and the abundant pleasures of gardening.

Rekha’s Kitchen Garden is accessible, expert, and can-do. It will help beginner gardeners put food on the table with a sense of joy and discovery. For those with just a little bit of time each week to devote to gardening, what plants would you suggest as the two or three to get growing?

Herbs are a must grow for me, even if my grow space is at a premium. I choose "woody" Mediterranean herbs like oregano, thyme, and tarragon to grow in terracotta pots to mimic the hot dry Mediterranean climate. Roots enjoy the warmth held in clay pots and are very forgiving plants when watering has been missed out for a couple of days or so. Windowsill crops are not only fun but quick to grow. A seed tray of cut-and-come-again lettuce or a pot with a few radish seeds are a sure eye pleaser. But my favorite has to be pea shoots as they give three to four crops, even from a small seed tray. Outdoors potato growing is a must. The flavor of own grown tasteful! Even when grown in pots, they never fail to delight the busiest of family members.

What are some of the key lessons you have learned about being a gardener?

First and foremost, I learned to be patient and persevere. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was my garden. I wanted my allotment to evolve with me on this growing journey. I learned no space has perfect growing soil. London sits on clay soil, and the ethos I adopted was “make do and mend” so I grew green manure without buying expensive compost annually. Flowers were never a thought when I started my plot. But [I] soon learnt and understood companion and ornamental flowers are key for a harmonious ecological plot, as it invited pollinators and predators to prey on pest. My year two on the plot, I introduced flowers. Since then, chemical killers do not exist on my plot, and I noticed a greater hive of insect activity.

Rekha’s Kitchen Garden is a great reading experience, detailed but not heavy, enlivened with photos and illustrations, and presented in a companionable tone. How do you connect creating it to the process of making a garden?

Gardens are colorful places, but not always translated so into books, apart from beautiful images captured. I wanted to share what I saw when I took and shared my own photos. Seeing colors in my garden makes me really happy. Adding colorful introduction [images] was a genius idea by the creativity team at DK. I instantly fell in love with this idea. It was amazing to see an idea that lived in my head for such a long time come to life in a book. I cried my eyes out when I quite literally held my colorful garden in my hands.

For U.S. readers, where allotments are not common, can you share more details about allotment gardening?

Allotments stem from field gardens (1700 -1800) to be used by landless poor. It was the blockade and food shortages during WWI and WWII that brought on the Dig for Victory campaign, where every piece of land, including royal and private parks and disused railway land, was used to grow fruit and vegetables. Now, each county council has the responsibility of providing such land for allotment use. Plot size is measured in an Anglo-Saxon measurement of rods or poles. A full-size plot, like mine, is 10 poles (equates to 250 sqm), but many half size plots are also available. Sheds [on these plots] become personal spaces for many users. I spend a lot of my time in my potting shed. It’s my me-space, my happy place. It was created and made by my allotment neighbor, Dave. Made solely with recycled house windows and two doors. It has become one of the highlights to see on my segments on Gardeners’ World.

Many U.S. viewers know you from your work on Gardeners’ World. What has that experience been like for you?

My first appearance on Gardeners’ World was truly a pinch-me moment. It was late summer when the production team arrived to film. When my lovely director Kath stepped out of her car, her jaw dropped, and she turned to me and said, “This is next level amazing.” I think it was those colorful captured scenes viewers saw that announced Rekha has arrived on Gardeners’ World. I also make sure my dry sense of humor stays with me. But seriously speaking, I think it was the vast amount of normal and unusual vegetables grown organically that really sealed my place on BBC Gardeners’ World.

Do you read for pleasure, and if so, what are some favorite books?

When I get the time, I love to read. The most recent book I’ve picked up is Miss Willmott’s Ghost by Sandra Lawrence. It’s about Miss Ellen Ann Willmott, “gardening’s bad girl.” Maybe it’s my own streak of naughtiness that [draws] me to this book. I just love her attitude. We are talking of 1870s, a time when gardening was a man’s world. When I started gardening, the two books I could not do without were The New Vegetable & Herb Expert by D.G. Hessayon and Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening [by Anna Kruger, Maria Rodale, and Pauline Pears], with the latter being my companion for the first three years of my allotment gardening.

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