Belle of the bulbs: meet the author who swept the Highgate flower show off its feet

Jeanne Willis at the Highgate Flower Show

Jeanne Willis at the Highgate Flower Show - Credit: Archant

Award-winning children’s author Jeanne Willis has made quite the impression at the Highgate Flower Show. Ruth Pavey finds out why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover

Decades ago, in the heyday of flower shows, the organizers might worry about not having enough space for all the entries, but nowadays the worry is … will there be enough entries to fill the space? All our local horticultural societies want more people to compete in their shows, and try to think of ways to encourage them. So at Highgate Horticultural Society’s 155th Summer Flower Show on 15th July, there was excitement when a new competitor appeared with plenty of prize-worthy entries.

Jeanne Willis had been encouraged to compete through word of mouth. Stephen Glasson, son-in-law of the society’s chairman, Alan Dallman, has a plot on Barrowell Allotments, Southgate, where Jeanne won the Best Novice Plot award in 2013. Stephen walked round Jeanne’s plot with her, pointing out all sorts of things, flowers, vegetables, fruit, she could enter for the Highgate Show. Sure enough, she won the Gray Buchanan Cup for her tomatoes, was the joint winner of the Hospital Cup for floral art, was awarded a Diploma of Excellence in Horticulture for redcurrants, and numerous prize certificates.

With all this winning, I was soon off to Southgate to visit Jeanne and her allotment. I arrived early. Jeanne’s next-door plotholder was helping her re-erect creepers knocked down by the rain, so I took a saunter round the site. Southgate is where my Cypriot neighbours would move (from Holloway, to better themselves) in the 1970s/80s. Judging from the vine-draped terraces outside commodious sheds, the snatches of Greek or Turkish, upward mobility is not all the heart yearns for … if you still miss the Cyprus you left behind, an allotment is the place to recreate it.

Jeanne’s shed and allotment are not so much a reminder of home as a home-from-home, a place to recharge the batteries. As well as running a family house and garden, Jeanne is the author of numerous books, mainly for children, and a frequent visitor to schools. A token of her ability to get on with things was on display inside the shed … there, already framed, were some of the certificates from the Highgate Flower Show. To quote her, “It’s no good just letting them curl up, is it?”

Ever since she had mentioned it, I had been curious to see this beautiful shed, identifiable by its antler horns. With its welcoming interior, upholstered bench, horticultural imagery, hooks for keys and bottle-openers, separate greenhouse/potting compartment, it is indeed a treat. And it comes with a story. During the period that Jeanne was visiting her late mother in her care home, she would also chat to an elderly man who seemed to have no visitors of his own. Time passed, then to her surprise Jeanne heard that he had left her a little money, enough to buy the beautiful shed.

However, the pleasures of sheds are not supposed to be the main point of allotments. When Jeanne took on the plot in 2009, there was nothing there worth keeping, except plum trees, and plenty to clear. After much energetic work, she took two important decisions, 1) to have raised beds, the better to manage things, 2) to have paths (black membrane under bark chip) and arches, wide enough for her mother’s wheelchair.

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With clematis, honeysuckle, wisteria, abutilon flourishing up the arches, a mixture of flowers, vegetables and fruit in the beds, two ponds, benches, a grapevine bower, it soon became a place her mother loved to be wheeled around (that is, when she was not reclining in the shed, cigarette in hand). There is a lot to be said for wide paths. They allow for a degree of billowing over the edges of the beds, and, even if a wheelchair is not always part of the allotment equation, wheelbarrows are.

Things to do:

It’s late to be staking and tying up herbaceous plants, dahlias etc., but better late than never.

A sowing of radishes or lettuce might still work for this season, otherwise sow for 2018, eg spring cabbage.

?Prune wisteria, summer fruiting raspberries and anything else that’s over ebullient.

Order spring bulbs.

If going away, move plants in pots into the shade, water generously.