23 July 2020
Time travelling vegetable gardening
When I started my new role at Allt y bela back in September 2019, I was excited by the adventure and the challengers which lay ahead of me. I was particularly looking forward to growing vegetables again, having not grown a vegetable bean in many a year. Knowing Arne's love of fresh produce, I was hoping that my fingers were still green, and that I could successfully turn out a crunchy carrot or indeed some curly kale! At interview I had reassured Arne that I had grown vegetables before, albeit a few years ago, so no pressure!
Gardening is timeless for me, it is like time travel, the smell of tomato leaves is evocative and transports me back to when I was twelve. I wish I could express the feeling that this gives me, it is both intimate and joyful. Over the years I have worked in and visited many gardens. Each has its own personality and energy, a reflection of those who have created, nurtured and cared for it over many years.
I am reminded of my time working at Chatsworth House, back in the mid-eighties and still relatively 'wet behind the ears'. I was shown some old photographs by the Head Gardener, Mr Dennis Hopkins, who had worked on the estate for 40 years. One image in particular caught my eye; a group photograph of the Victorian garden team standing in front of an elegant glasshouse and veg garden. The staff looked resplendent in jackets, waistcoats, shirts and ties and all were wearing hats!
I recall counting 50 plus gardeners in the image and wishing that I could step into the black and white photograph; back in time to converse with kindred spirits and share tall stories and gardening yarns. Dennis must have read my mind because he commented that we should always be respectful of the labours of past generations of gardeners and learn from their wisdom. Wise words from a cracking gentleman.
Whilst looking at the image I noted that they were a lean team, the labours of their life were etched on their weathered faces, a testament to their hard work and horticultural dedication. I was lucky enough to spend 12 months working at Chatsworth House with a much-reduced team of 18 gardeners. I discovered a range of new gardening skills including grape vine care and, naturally, Victorian vegetable cultivation.
At Allt y bela over the last 6 months, I have rediscovered the joy of growing vegetables. Arne's kitchen garden is the perfect plot, beautifully designed with a series of English oak raised beds, surrounded by a perimeter fence constructed from individual split chestnut pales. I understand that it took one person 3 months to complete the fencing. The chestnut pales have been individually wired onto metal bars, reminiscent of estate fencing, which are in turn supported by oak corner posts. The curved carving on each post top mirrors the raised bed support posts, giving the space seamless continuity and harmony.
Speaking with Arne, he explains that in his original design for the kitchen garden, the perimeter fencing had been constructed out of woven wooden panels. However, after a few years these panels had started to decay and fall apart. To refine the design, Arne decided on sweet chestnut fencing after finding a local artisan who could split chestnut to the desired aesthetic. Sweet chestnut by nature is exceptionally durable and is slow to decay, even when it is submerged in water.
I spent a few weeks many years ago harvesting chestnut with a woodsman. The chestnut stands were 20 plus years old and interplanted with oak, which is a traditional growing technique. Sweet chestnut grows well under the dappled shade of oak, and this combination of managed tree species was considered a productive method of growing quick hardwood timber and fuel. The woodland was tended by a kindly old chap who showed me the process of charcoal burning. His hands were tough as old boots, with thick skin discoloured by years of work. Each Friday he would roast a fish in the heat of the fire and share it with me, all washed down with a mug of creosote coloured tea.
Located on the outside of one perimeter of Arne's kitchen garden is a traditional 6ft - 4ft wooden glasshouse, which is surrounded on two sides by meadow and three mature multi-stemmed quince trees. When viewed from inside the vegetable garden the quince frame the landscape and fields beyond. They looked fabulous coated in heavy frost in January, with the low sun rising above the surrounding hillsides beyond.
I had the pleasure of pruning these trees for the first time back in winter. I thinned out the crowns to create structure, and spur-pruned back to healthy wood, whilst removing water shoots from the main stems. During early spring we had plenty of quince blossom, but unfortunately a late May frost polished this off, leaving very little fruit. Nevertheless, the bark on the quince is particularly beautiful and tactile with shades of grey contoured with lines and raised nodes. I am compelled to stroke these trees at least once a week!
Growing crops in this space has been fabulous, the soil is fertile due to the previous layers of organic compost that have been applied. I tend to garden using a combination of 'No Dig' and light cultivation and I believe there are merits in both techniques, dependent on what you are growing.
'No Dig' is truly fascinating, and a technique that I encountered a few years ago whilst attending a course by Charles Dowding. The method of not digging the soil and applying and building up layers of well-rotted compost to form raised borders for growing crops makes good sense. When you think about similar remarkable biodynamics found within mature woodlands, where mycorrhizal fungi interconnect the trees and woodland flora to create a mutually beneficial network, this is truly miraculous. In practice, I can confirm that minimal cultivation at Allt y bela appears to be successful in the vegetable garden.
To be honest, I am very much in favour of refraining from double or single digging, particularly having a few miles of toil on my Yorkshire shoulders. Regular application of well-rotted organic matter, combined with direct sowing and the close planting of crops, has also proven to be successful at Allt y bela.
In spring Arne and I discussed what vegetables and flowers we were going to grow for the table and house. We both love crops that you can pick or cut whilst they are young. In fact, many lettuce varieties can be cropped by removing the outer leaves each week. Over a period of time the lettuce plant develops a long stalk producing young leaves at the top of the plant. I have seen this technique recently at a local market garden where the grower was producing weekly salad bags for sale in the local community.
My first direct sowings were two rows of broad beans, one of Arne's favourite vegetables. These were sown in late February, followed by a second sowing in late March. Despite a milder forecast, we experienced 3 days of late frost from 12th - 14th May which nipped out the growing tips of the potatoes, broad beans and the dahlias. The temperature dropped down to minus 3C, so I was glad that I had covered the main crops with some horticultural fleece. I had overwintered the dahlias in the ground, so for added protection I covered them using glass cloches. I had however, already planted out the sunflowers, so they had to take their chances. Thankfully they survived and are currently flourishing.
Despite the late frost, I was able to harvest our first crop of broad beans during the first week of June. With the subsequent second sowing, I have been able to harvest broad beans throughout June and complete a final picking for Arne this week.
Other direct sown vegetables and flowers have included carrots, radish, lettuce, nasturtium, scabius, poppy and cosmos. Arne also sowed some Calendula seeds into cells which I was able to plant out as plugs to form the underplanting for the flower beds within the garden. The vegetable flower borders are a combination of Calendula, Cosmos, Delphinium, sunflowers, Rudbeckia, roses and dahlias.
Crops that we have growing in the vegetable garden this year include the following:
Runner beans, courgettes, turnips, potatoes, peas, mangetout, lettuce, fennel, radish, leeks, sweetcorn, purple sprouting broccoli, carrots, spinach, kale cavolo nero, winter cabbage, kohl rabi, agretti, asparagus, french beans, red onions, garlic, beetroot, pak choi, chicory, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
Crops which have been harvested so far during April and through to mid-July include: potatoes, spinach, carrots, broad beans, lettuce, beetroot, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, fennel, kohl rabi, kale cavolo nero, asparagus, beetroot, mangetout and peas.
Not too shabby a return, to vegetable growing…… but still lots to do.
Vegetable Garden Daily Care
I tend to spend 30- 60 minutes each day in the vegetable garden. On arrival my first job is to check through the greenhouse and water the tomatoes and cucumbers. Now that they are in full growth it is important to maintain regular watering so that the fruits can develop. Always check the pots to confirm moisture, too much and over ripening can lead to splitting. Pick ripened tomatoes regularly to encourage other fruits.
I also tie in any long growths or stems. Cucumbers in particular grow like the wind and need good support to encourage the new growths to flower and develop fruit. During the summer months I can leave the door of the greenhouse open throughout the day and night to encourage good air circulation and prevent mildew developing.
My next port of call are the vegetable beds. I check each crop for any signs of pests or disease, remove any yellow foliage and tie in crops where required onto vegetable supports. If it is needed, I water by hand using a hosepipe and a long lance. I find it best to irrigate early morning so that the crops can grow away during the course of the day. I try to avoid the soil from drying out or cracking, because dry soil conditions can check vegetable growth and also encourage the plants to flower and set seed.
I tend to weed the vegetable garden at least twice a week, either by hand or using the back of a narrow spring tine rake or three-pronged cultivator. This task also helps to break up any surface soil compaction due to heavy rainfall or irrigation.
This is not as tiresome as it sounds, because the weeds are usually very small or just emerging. I find spring to be the busiest time for weed growth, but if you maintain regular weeding, when the crops start to develop, weeds develop less frequently.
When weeding I always check to see what is growing. There may be a beneficial self-sown annual which will, in time, grow, flower and soften the display. It's all about creating plant layers which appear to be completely natural.
An example of this in practice: I noted some poppy seedlings emerging in some of the beds in early spring. Rather than weed them out, I thinned them and left the remaining seedlings to grow. The soft purple poppy is now in flower with our cream sunflowers and lavender larkspur, this makes for a lovely colour combination.
With regards to crop feeding, I have been using a combination of granular and liquid seaweed fertilizers. I also check the developing crops daily, which gives me an opportunity to harvest and taste (YUM) and also to plan new sowing and planting for the weeks ahead.
There are still plenty of crops to come over the next few months, and I will be doing repeat sowings of salad crops and carrots.
Gardening on this scale allows time for observation. I recently trimmed the spring growth off the step over apples to reveal the emerging fruits and to remove aphids from the shoot tips. Whilst working, I noted lots of bee activity around the tips of the new apple shoots. After closer inspection I could see that the bees were harvesting the honey dew which had been produced by the aphids feeding on the young apple leaves. I understand that bees feed on honeydew in early spring when other sources of nectar are scarce but hadn't noticed a mid-summer feasting before. Anyway, I thought it wise to retain 20% of the aphid covered tips, the aphids were not doing too much harm and the honeydew was good for the bees and we all know that BEES… are the bee's knees!
I have counted my blessings over the last few months. I have been very fortunate to be able to continue to work in the garden and enjoy a fabulous few months growing vegetables again. My hands are back in the soil, and I am sowing seeds, planting out, nurturing vegetable plants into full growth so that they can shine throughout the summer months. The jobs are numerous, and time flies by. I am right where I was destined to be….in a garden and smiling!
We are now looking forward to the end of lockdown so that we can share the garden again through guided tours and courses. We hope to welcome you again soon.
Happy gardening to you all…….Dean
Words: Dean Peckett
Photographs and films: Dean Peckett and Arne Maynard
For more spring inspiration from Allt y bela with Arne and Dean, follow Arne Maynard Garden Design on Instagram.