It is a misty March morning in the kitchen gardens of Southrop Manor Estate, the home of the Thyme At Southrop cookery school. I am standing with Head Gardener Joff Elphick in one of the stone barns that frame the courtyard leading to the gardens to learn how he prepares for this busy time of year. Snowdrops, hellebores and crocuses are in full flower around the lawns, but in the intimate, protected space in the greenhouse there are edible plans afoot.
“This is the most exciting time of year,” he tells me. “We have to start planning ahead now for when the gardens open for guests and for the Southrop Fete in June.”
In a greenhouse space no bigger than a small kitchen, Joff grows an abundance of tender plants, vegetables, salads and herbs all by seed and cuttings. His seed packets are supplied by Kings Seeds from Suffolk and he shows me a huge box of them in an outbuilding filled with tools.
The greenhouse is not heated, but it is surrounded by a number of stone outbuildings in a sheltered, sunny courtyard, so it does not need anything more than a heat mat for some of the propagating pots.
Using short cuts of plastic rain guttering filled with homemade compost he shows me how he plants rows and rows of sprouting cut and come again salads and his personal favourite, winter purslane, or Claytonia Perfoliata. There are tiny little shoots of red leaf salads, little gem lettuces and a hybrid I have not heard of called “Freckles”. Joff is going to plant them out in the mangers that are at the front of the herb garden, so that the cookery school chefs, Marj Lang and Daryll Taylor, can harvest them minutes before a class. The herb and salad garden is very protected next to the cookery school and there are topiary bay trees and cardoons without even a hint of frost damage, the microclimate insulated by walls.
Joff is showing me his new seedlings, all labelled and growing up towards to the pale, early spring light filtering into the greenhouse.
“Some of the most delicious varieties I am growing are shallot “Cuisse de Poulet”, onion “Cipolla Boretana” and celeriac “Giant Prague”. For potatoes I tend to grow salad varieties, such as “Anya”, “Ratte”, “Duke of York”, “Charlotte” and “Kestrel”.”
There is a tall wooden apple rack in one of the barns where Joff over-winters the orchard fruit and dahlia tubers. To encourage as much wildlife as possible into the garden no chemicals are used and buddleia, honeysuckle and ivy planted in profusion, as well as companion plants. The Manor’s 150 acres are a magnet for moths, butterflies, bats, dragonflies and ladybirds. Joff frequently sees kingfishers, herons, egrets, kites, buzzards and hawks nesting and flying around when he is at work. He is a keen moth watcher for "The Gloucestershire Moth Group" which he founded, charting his findings to show changes to the moth population on the estate. An abundance of moths is the sign of a well managed habitat.
There are beautiful walks around the River Leach that runs part of its course in the gardens, behind dry stone walls of aged, lichen and moss covered Cotswold stones. There are hidden rooms within the gardens, with clipped yew hedges giving structure and height to the landscape. Joff tells me he comes and eats his lunch on a bench outside, as the river rushes past him, the smell of wild mint and watercress rising from the edges of the banks. This is one of the many perks of the job.
This is a busy time of year for Joff and his assistant gardener who can now see the fruits of their winter labours coming to fruition. They have cut back shrubs, roses and climbers, raked leaves and mulched the earth with horse and cattle manure (“Make sure animals have a straw bed and that the manure is well rotted. Woodchip bedding withdraws nitrogen from the soil as it rots,” Joff tells me). All the outbuildings and sheds are clean and tidy and in the kitchen garden the beds are raked and ready for sowing when all danger of frost is passed.
“This is a very rich alluvial, clay soil, full of nutrients and very good for growing a large number of fruit and vegetables. We keep adding compost and manure and the chickens keep digging it at all up. We are going to have to find a way of netting them back before the salads are all planted up. They are all free range at the moment and can wander anywhere they like. At night, just before it gets dark, we have to make sure they are all back in their house before we leave.”
On cue, the cockerels start crowing. There are fluffy white Silkies and Cotswold Legbars coming towards us to see if we have food. In another corner pen two fat Kunekune pigs grunt and forage on bare earth, their corpulent bodies rolling from side to side as they shuffle their hairy frames towards us. They are useful for clearing land, but apparently are not destined for the curing larder, which seems a shame.
In the middle of the kitchen garden previous incumbents in the gardener’s job had planted redcurrant and whitecurrant bushes as well as autumn raspberries. Jof aims to plant blackcurrants, strawberries, rhubarb, early sprouting raspberries and enough cut flowers to supply the Manor House and all the ancillary properties. Bees and their hives are on their way and garlic, broad beans and asparagus are already planted.
Flower beds and the kitchen garden only account for a small part of the overall estate, so whilst all the nurtured parts of the garden are stylish and designed, pockets of the estate are left wild and woolly so as to create sustainable habitats for wildlife and biodiversity which in turn mean that chemicals are not necessary. Natural predators thrive in the eco-system.
Joff learned his skills as a gardener after leaving behind him a career as an estate agent.
“I turned thirty and decided that an office job was not really for me. So I enrolled to do a horticultural course at Pershore College and from there I went to work for Mary Keen (The Telegraph gardening writer), Henry Robinson (holder of the National Collection for rambling roses), Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, the National Trust, Barnsley House and Sir Christopher and Lady Evans. I started here in the Autumn of 2011."
Joff has no way of being able to calculate just how much produce needs to be grown every year to fill the needs of the cookery school, the holiday cottages, the corporate events, weddings and parties that are hosted at the estate, but there is a constant interaction between the garden, the kitchen and the owner of the estate, Caryn Hibbert, new varieties introduced and new menus and recipes explored with the seasons. In the Tithe Barn there is a homeware and kitchenware shop where jars of jams, jellies and preserves are sold, made from the produce of the garden. All the garden surplus of the estate is used up. There are also foraging courses, run by wild food expert and ethnobotanist Claudio Bincoletto, which means that wildflowers, mushrooms and weeds play a part in meal preparations as well as the cultivated plants.
There is a delicate balance not just in the eco-system but also as in how the job of being a Head Gardener is carried out.
“You always have to be mindful that you are working on a private estate. I don’t start mowing the lawns early in the morning when I know that there are guests booked into the holiday cottages. I make sure that there is always consideration given to privacy and that jobs are done nearer the house when the owners are away. I work here during the week and live in Cirencester, where I have lived all my life, so I am not a live-in member of staff. I come in at the weekends during the summer just to make sure that all is well in the greenhouse, to water and to check.”
If he had to give advice to young people interested in becoming a Head Gardener of the future, Joff believes that they need to aim for the highest of standards.
“It is important to study and build your CV at places which are of the highest quality so that future employers will take you seriously. Don’t just go and work in your local garden centre. Apply to the very best places you have read about, making sure that the Head Gardener will have the time and the inclination to teach you and to pass on his skills and ideas. This is why the National Trust is still one of the very best places where you can learn to become a gardener, because they have a training programme and they also have so many different properties where you can see different styles of gardening.”
Joff’s wife, Tracey, is an accomplished artist and her family live in the Scilly Isles. So the Elphick family, three children in tow, spend Joff’s holiday entitlement visiting St. Agnes. Does he tour round gardens when he is there?
“The children are still quite young, so that is not really what they want to do during the holidays. One day, maybe when they are older, I will be able to visit more.”
On wet and windy days the gardeners at Southrop Manor get on with their indoor schedule: sowing, propagating, planning, ordering seeds, cleaning tools and looking after stored orchard fruits. Inside the cookery school is testimony of Joff’s hard work and attention to detail: big bowls of colourful pumpkins and squashes, fresh herbs, jugs of pussy willow and trugs filled with fresh eggs. What does he make of all this beauty and bounty all around him, every single day?
“I absolutely love my job, but don’t tell anyone,” he laughs. “You can’t let on that I’m really enjoying it!”
Thyme At Southrop Manor Estate : www.thymeatsouthrop.co.uk