Secret garden blooms on wasteland behind chippie

Bob Webster  in the  allotment behind  Two Steps Chippie and Nation News Sharrow Vale Road.
Bob Webster in the allotment behind Two Steps Chippie and Nation News Sharrow Vale Road.

WEDGED between a chippie and a newsagent on Sharrowvale Road is an unassuming white wooden door which leads to one of Sheffield’s secret gardens.

If you had walked down the gennel between Two Steps and Nation News at the beginning of the year, all you’d have seen would have been two scruffy back yards littered with empty wet fish boxes and newspaper detritus.

Now this patch of ground has been dug over, nourished and is flourishing with potatoes, cabbages, beans and other vegetables while a makeshift greenhouse is heady with the smell of tomato plants and basil.

Secret gardens should have flowers, so by the end of summer there will be poppies, ox-eye daisies and night scented stock along the back fence, partnering the inherited rose bushes which have suddenly perked up with all this green-fingered activity.

Turning waste and derelict land into productive use is being championed by TV guru Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall but the secret garden’s chief cultivar Bob Webster needed no nudging from him.

Back in the Nineties he was one of the city’s allotment stars, winning six awards on the half-acre he ran at the Rustlings Road site. Installed in a former Victorian boiler house, he and his late wife Larraine led an almost self-sufficient Good Life.

“It was, apart from the meat, and we could have had that if we’d have wrung the chickens’ necks before the fox got them,” he says.

But after 17 years, and following his wife’s death, he “ran out of steam” and the former taxman gave up the allotment. But not his wellies.

He lives just around the corner from the secret garden, in an ivy-covered terrace on Ashford Road, with a conservatory crammed full of plants and a woodland garden hardly wide enough to swing a cat. But he noticed the abandoned greenhouse, fretting that it wasn’t being put to good use, so when he went to buy a pinta at Mohammed Basit’s paper shop he casually asked if he could take it over with the back yard.

Mohammed, no gardener himself, said he’d think about it. The next day he agreed.

Then things started to snowball. Leggy Kafetzis, owner of the popular Two Steps chippie, leased out his neighbouring yard. “It was just grass and weeds,” says Leggy.

At 69, and successfully recovering from cancer of the saliva glands – the product of years of smoking – Bob needed help with the heavy digging work. But everyone has chipped in. Neighbours Jo and Jim over the back let him water the garden from their tap (the shops are metered).

Two local girls keep him supplied with tea. And both shopkeepers’ sons, Zeno and Abdul, have been willing helpers.

“Abdul has been an absolute stalwart with lots of energy, producing me endless packets of seeds from newspaper offers,” says Bob, pouring himself a coffee from his flask.

“The garden has been done on a shoestring. It can’t have cost me more than £150 and I haven’t done any scrounging. Things have fallen into my lap.”

The beds are edged with empty wine bottles from the nearby Mediterranean restaurant. Like night storage heaters, they warm up during the day and release the heat, warming the roots at night. Runner beans climb up string, not expensive canes.

The garden operates on the “eat, freeze, sell and barter” basis. Mohammed and Leggy do not charge rent but can take what they need, although the spuds will not be turned into Two Steps chips.

Herbs are already being sold to local shops and Bob is reviving the connections he forged with neighbourhood restaurants when at Rustlings Road to supply them with vegetables. There are carrots, leeks, courgettes and cabbages still to harvest.

“I am here every day for at least an hour. The potatoes will break up the ground, as any gardener will tell you, and smother the weeds,” says Bob as we inspect the garden.

We reach a new garden pond, home for frogs and toads. “That’s the slug problem dealt with,” he says.

The son of a poor steelworker who had to make do and mend, he’s been gardening since he was four. “You just made do with what you’d got.”

And he still does. There are soft fruit plants – red and yellow raspberries, black and red currants and blueberries – a temptation to visitors who are encouraged to drop in, admire, stop for a chat and perhaps lend a hand.

“This has happened almost accidentally and it is using up land which is otherwise wasted,” says Bob.

Leggy strolls out from Two Steps to admire the garden. He knows what he gets out of the deal. His back yard (an old shed is soon to be covered in plant boxes) is now neat and tidy and “we have got Bob for company every day,” he says.

“And I get free fish and chips,” beams Bob.