Jo Wesley is so passionate about gardening that she moved house to be closer to her beloved allotment.

She goes there in all weathers, even in the middle of winter when it’s snowing.

So she is a perfect candidate to take part in new BBC2 series The Big Allotment Challenge.

Hosted by Fern Britton, it’s very much in the mould of Great British Bake Off, in that enthusiastic amateurs gather in a beautiful setting over a period of weeks to be tested on their skills, with people being eliminated every week.

Like Bake Off, there are three challenges per episode. But there were 16 weeks of planting and growing before the competition began.

Product purchaser Jo entered the series with her friend Avril Rogers, who she met when the lab technician at University of Birmingham got a plot on the same Redditch allotment site.

Jo, 42, explains: “I’ve had the allotment for seven years. I was one of the first people Avril met when she arrived three years ago and I showed her round.

“We’ve become good friends through gardening and we’re always swapping recipes and ideas.

“I saw on Twitter that they were looking for people for The Big Allotment Challenge.

“I really didn’t intend to enter as I’m quite shy and didn’t want to be on TV, and I’d never competed in anything before.

“But somehow I got caught up in the whirlwind of it and before I knew it, we’d been selected. I’m still pinching myself!

“I’m so glad we did it, it was an amazing experience.”

The pair got through the auditions by producing an impressive flower arrangement in just five minutes to represent Birmingham, where both women were born and raised.

Avril, from Hay Mills, remembers: “We put the arrangement in a tea pot, because us Brummies love a cup of tea. In fact we probably do more leaning on a spade and chatting over tea than gardening down the allotment!

“We used silver and gold flowers to represent the Jewellery Quarter, and put some claret and blue in there for Aston Villa.

“And I used some spikey flowers to represent Redditch’s needle industry.”

The contest took place last spring and summer in a Victorian walled garden within the grounds of Mapledurham House in Oxfordshire.

Nine pairs of gardeners were each given an allotment with a greenhouse and a list of flowers, fruit and vegetables to grow.

Jo and Avril, who are both single, spent every weekend at the TV allotment, tending their produce.

Then, every week for six weeks, they had ‘Grow’, ‘Make’ and ‘Eat’ challenges – in the first episode they had to grow radishes, nurture flowers to make a hand-tied bouquet, and then make jam and curd out of their produce.

They are judged by royal gardener Jim Buttress, floral expert Jonathan Moseley and preserves queen Thane Prince.

Viewers saw Avril get teary-eyed when her rhubarb and village curd was judged a disaster.

She remembers: “I had practised it so often and it was perfect.

“But on the day, with the cameras in my face, I panicked and threw in too much cornflour to thicken it. I felt awful, like I had let Jo down. I was so annoyed with myself.”

In this week’s programme, the challenge is to grow runner beans and roses and make relishes.

There are more than 350,000 allotments currently in use in Britain, with some areas having a waiting list of up to 10 years for the prized plots.

Jo Wesley and Avril Rogers arranging flowers
Jo Wesley and Avril Rogers arranging flowers
 

Jo’s dedication meant she even moved house to be closer to her allotment.

“I’ve always been into plants. I remember using my first pocket money to buy a spider plant at the school fete,” she says.

“I lived in Italy for a while and got the gardening bug there, because everyone grows things like lemons in their gardens. I only had a balcony but I grew tomato plants.

“When I got back to the UK, I applied for an allotment. Unfortunately there was a six-year waiting list, so I found another site.

“It was a few miles away from my house, which got more annoying as I got more involved in gardening.

“So two years ago, I moved to another rented house just a 10 minute walk away.

“Now I can pop there after work. I spend hours there, in all weathers. I love being outdoors and I find gardening a great way to unwind at the end of the day.

“I’ve got a pond on my plot and have turned some of it into an area to attract birds and wildlife.

“I only had a small allotment at first and ran out of space quickly, so now I also share a bigger plot with a friend.’’

She adds: “I think the series is a great idea and is bound to increase interest in gardening and allotments.

“It will give people ideas. It can be quite daunting when you first get an allotment, especially when you discover just how much produce you can grow. Suddenly you have 200 courgettes, so what can you do with them?

“Some things grow really well one year and not the next. The weather is a big factor and you have to be a patient person to be a gardener.

“It was a completely different environment on the TV allotment and the temperatures were higher. Things were growing well on my allotment and not on the other one.

“I grow a lot of strawberries in Redditch, but they failed miserably on our TV plot and we only produced about five.

“I wanted to make strawberry jam but we didn’t have enough fruit, so I put blueberries in instead. It was quite frustrating at times but that’s part of the challenge.”

Avril, 53, says: “I got my love of gardening from my dad, who used to grow all his own veg.

“I was persuaded into allotmenting by one of my neighbours. She saw me growing broad beans and lettuce in my front garden and said ‘You look like you know what you’re doing’.

“She roped me into helping out with a community allotment in Bromsgrove, designed to help people with special needs.

“There were eight of us gardening at first, but gradually they dropped off until it was just me left.

“I grew easy things at first, like potatoes, onions and carrots. Then I moved to the Redditch allotment and grew more exotic things like sweet potatoes. Everyone laughed at me and told me they would never grow in this country, but I managed a plateful!

“Now I grow cauliflower, cabbage and sweetcorn, too. I have a large freezer so I put a lot of produce in there. You have to be quite inventive with recipes.”

Both Jo and Avril say that entering The Big Allotment Challenge has introduced them to new techniques and changed the way they tend their own plots.

“I’m a lot more organised now,” says Avril. “I’ve learned the importance of labelling everything.”

“I grow a lot more flowers,” says Jo. “And it’s given me the confidence to have a go at anything.

“I have so many fond memories of The Big Allotment Challenge.

“We made some great friends we are still in touch with. Having a laugh, making friends and community spirit – that’s what I love about my allotment.”

* The Big Allotment Challenge airs on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 8pm.