An interview with Matthew Oliver


An abridged version of the podcast.

Can you tell us a little about what your role in the Global Growth Vegetable Garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall?

I manage and maintain the vegetable garden, with responsibility for growing all of the crops and so produce the crop plans every year. I decide what we’re going to grow and in what quantities and where it’s going to be grown. I’ve got a broad range of plant material as I’m expected to grow lots of unusual edibles, and so far I’m up to about 350 different species of edible plants from annuals to herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs including many tender crops. As it is a display garden, it’s got to look good for people enjoying their day out as well as produce good crops.

Do you have to do a lot of interpretation as you will be growing crops many people won’t recognise?

I work with a colleague whose role is I&I and alongside the wider team to decide what crops will feature in the interpretation for the garden. We try to cover the most frequently asked questions and try to avoid being a label garden with a sign for every single crop. The most frequently asked question by a long, long way is ‘what happens to all the vegetables?’! The answer is that everything we harvest gets taken up to our restaurant, with the chefs getting first dibs on everything. I tend to take them the crops that I know they’re going to use a lot of, such as tomatoes and cucumbers. It might be harder for them to use some of the more unusual crops on a day to day basis, but they do try and work them into special events or special menu dishes. Anything not used by the restaurant is given to staff and volunteers – I often drive around the site to deliver produce to them. I try to make sure nothing goes to waste.

I often work with the chefs to persuade them to try to use some of the more unusual crops that I grow. A good example of this is the West Indian gherkin cucumber (Cucumis anguria), which is small, oval and lime green and appears to be covered in thorns so looks dangerous but once you start eating it, it’s not! It demonstrates one of main purposes of the Global Growth Vegetable Garden as a project which is to try to open people’s minds to the sheer scale and range of things we can grow and eat. It ties in quite nicely with preconceived ideas of food culture: what is considered a normal part of the diet elsewhere stops us in our tracks.  

Do the chefs ever request anything that is quite unusual but which has worked well in the past?

Yes – there are a few more unusual ingredients that they have tried and have asked for again. Wild garlic is a popular ingredient but we don’t have enough in the garden so I’ve encouraged the chefs to use something a little more unusual that I’ve grown as a straight replacement – Canadian garlic (Allium canadense) – and I have lots of it!  

How did you get to work in the Global Growth Vegetable Garden?

I suppose I have sort of half fallen into it – it wasn’t what I applied to do at Hyde Hall when I arrived here 10 years ago. I started at a student trainee but when I started here as a full-time member of staff, I only worked a couple of hours each day in our old veg garden – a much smaller affair than the current garden – as I was one of the few members of staff with vegetable growing experience. When I first came to Hyde Hall, I worked in the Hilltop Garden, including the herbaceous borders, rose garden and dry garden as well as with lots of formal planting. I did get involved in the planning for the Global Growth Garden at an early stage because of my practical allotment experience and once the garden was built in 2016 2017, I then switched over to doing this job full time.

I was introduced to gardening by my family, as is the case for a lot of people. My background is gardening on the family allotment in a suburban area, or doing gardening in a tiny little suburban terrace house garden where there’s not a lot of space. I first grew potatoes on the allotment – and this was back in the 1990s when growing your own wasn’t that fashionable. Lots of allotments had empty plots and some sites were being sold off.  So that’s how it started for me – helping my dad and granddad on the allotment. At school,  I tended to pick my favourite subjects rather than have a career in mind but in the long summer holiday following GCSEs, the penny started to drop about horticulture. I was bored during the holiday so started the help out at the allotment and started to do jobs around the family garden. I think it took me a while to admit to myself that this was what I wanted to do, mainly because at that age it isn’t what any of your friends or peers at school are doing, and it certainly wasn’t on the careers map. I was lucky I went to quite a good state comprehensive, but I didn’t feel that much pressure sitting A-Levels because the barriers to entry onto horticulture weren’t as high as for some of the careers my friends were aiming for at the time. I started doing private jobs for family friends – garden maintenance in the holidays, helping out at the cricket club learning to be a groundsman etc. When you’re young, it can be difficult admitting to yourself what you want to do and not caring about what other people think; I think I was lucky that I got over that pretty quickly.

If somebody wants to get into horticulture, particularly growing fruit and vegetables, what advice would you give them?

Go and get an allotment – it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn for yourself and to make mistakes. I took on my first allotment at around 19 years old and then took on more, balancing it with studying. I did a degree in horticulture at Writtle College and  after the first two years, there was an opportunity to a one year sandwich placement. I came to Hyde Hall as a trainee for that year and had to do a student allotment project, which showed my skills and that I knew something about growing! So I’d suggest getting onto a practical training scheme offered in a public garden, such as with the RHS or with the HBGTP, and show what you can do.

You obviously enjoy where you are and what you’re doing now but what drives you to come to work?  

For me, it is gardening in the public eye and interacting with the public, which is exactly what working for the RHS provides. Visitors expect to see high standards of horticulture and expect it to look good. And for me, that’s what gets me out of bed – delivering the best you can do with your work viewed by 2,000 people every day. Even if they tell you that their runner beans are better than yours!

Is there anything that you’re working on at the moment that you’d like to tell us about or share with us?

I have lots of small projects running in the vegetable garden. I’m always looking to increase the range of species and I’m always looking out for the next new edible that no one’s heard of or that is hard to get hold off – particularly if it has an interesting story. I’m running seed saving projects and have a project looking at growing heritage and heirloom French bean varieties: there will be an article in The Garden about this soon. I’ve been hunting down a lot of Essex-bred pea varieties as well, from seed banks, ex-commercial varieties that were bred in Essex within the early and mid 20th century to try and tell a local story. This is our fifth growing season in this garden since we opened, and I said at the start it was going to take three to five years to get it to set up to where I wanted, so this spring I should have reached this and will enter the phase of ongoing maintenance rather than creation/construction. That will be a massive achievement for the garden.

What does the future hold for you?

I’m quite happy here. My life is in Essex, with family and friends all near by so I’ve no desire to move on. Professionally, I’d like to get involved in a few more big projects. In this industry, the more steps you take up the ladder, the further away you get from getting your hands dirty, with more time stuck in the office. I’m not at that stage yet as I’m still enjoying what I’m doing.  

You could write a book about the vegetable growing and the 350 species you have grown so far….

Yes, it’s been suggested that there could be a book from the Global Growth Garden. I don’t know how far those conversations have got but when you look at the scope and scale of the garden, there’s a lifetime’s work in the garden to try different projects. Combined with the heritage orchard that we’ve started and the range of unusual plants we are growing, there is certainly material for different projects – even looking at what varieties perform best e.g. which chickpea grows best in Essex? I’d love to be involved in a book which looks at what we’re doing – that would be a bucket list thing to do.

What is your favourite part of RHS Garden Hyde Hall?

I’m very lucky, I live on site so I get to see the garden when its shut and there’s no one here – all 360 acres to myself. My favourite time of year is the middle of June and when everyone else has gone and no one else is around, I’ll come to the hilltop and walk through the Rose Garden. It is so peaceful and quiet, with the first roses.

Has there been anybody else or anything else that has inspired your horticultural career?

While I was a student at Writtle College, I was involved in building the college’s garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show – it was a fantastic experience. I got to meet Peter Seabrook while working at the Chelsea Flower Show and seeing him at the show, I saw just how ridiculously enthusiastic he is about horticulture – it rubs off on you! Tutors at college were all inspiring; Jill and Sondra were two lecturers in garden history who were particularly enthusiastic and supportive. And I have to mention all my colleagues at Hyde Hall too.

What three plants or horticulturally related items would you take to a deserted island?

I’ll have to take a vegetable, given my role. So a Desiree potato for my food source and because they are my favourite main crop potato. I’d take a spade as I’m a committed and passionate digger. I thoroughly enjoy getting the spade out in the autumn and turning the soil. For my third choice, it would be a giant pumpkin but in case that is too predictable, perhaps something ornamental. My next horticultural challenge is dahlia growing – and growing for shows. I started dahlia growing last year and it is my new hobby!

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

I’ve run a sub-20 minute 5K which I was quite proud…

How have you found the last year?

We were closed for three months in the first lockdown last year so our work pattern changed. It was difficult to keep up with the work but the wildlife returned to the garden when the visitors stopped coming. I probably took on too much by taking on an extra allotment so I’ve learnt to take things a little slower. Initially, I enjoyed having the garden to ourselves with no visitors but that quickly changed as there was no one to appreciate our work. We’re here for the public. The whole point of our job is to do it for the members. I think it’s quite nice that people are back in the garden as it felt really dead without them. It’s just not Hyde Hall without people visiting.

More information

Listen to the International Year of Fruit & Vegetables webinar from January 2021 which features a presentation by Matt Oliver.

With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea