The heavens opened on my journey to The Bath Gardening School, but once I entered the imposing Minerva Temple, heaquarter base for our “A Taste of the Unexpected” course, however, nothing else mattered. I stood in that beautiful building, drinking coffee and chatting with garden designer Emma Bond, the founder of the school, her husband Tom Dawson, and our tutor for the day, Mark Diacono. He had travelled all the way from Otter Farm in Devon to give 12 students first hand guidance and advice on how to grow more unusual, more interesting, more tasty food in edible gardens, making the most of the space we all have available to grow food that inspires and challenges us.
While there was a sunny gap in the ominously pewter coloured sky, we took a walk around The Bath Botanical Garden, where the gardening school is situated. Glenn Humphreys, the head curator of the gardens, was unfortunately away that day, but Emma showed us round the 9 acres as if they were her own back yard, “This is where I go to cheer up after a hard day at work”, she said, and we could all easily see why. We wandered round flowering lupin trees and magnolias, fern leafed beeches and viburnums. The paths twisted and twined round beds of nodding purple aquiligeas, wild garlic, poppies, tulips, irises, sweet peas and bluebells. This is an idyllic spot to sit and reflect, tucked away in a peaceful corner of this buzzing city, so many more people need to be made aware of its beauty and its importance and give it the help and support it richly deserves.
Back at base the course began with just two words of widom from Mark: “Letting go.” By this he means that we all need to stop being “tribute farmers”, blindly growing annual crops, dividing our plots into regimented four rotational quarters that are then dug and planted with potatoes, roots, brassicas and legumes. We need to move away from this narrow mind set and discover the delicious offerings of perennial planting.
Mark’s experience as head gardener of 65 acres at River Cottage and as owner of 17 acres at Otter Farm, as well as writing “A Taste of the Unexpected”, published in 2010 by Quadrille and the latest “Veg Patch. River Cottage Handbook” published by Bloomsbury and setting up an online seed shop, underpins his enthusiasm for his mantra “Think about Food!”. He urges us all not to sow what we have historically been taught to reap by text books and ingrained tradition.
I now have 15 A5 pages of notes I painstakingly took during the five hours that followed, and here they are distilled and summarised in ten points, in all their glory, for Foodie Bugle readers who would like to widen their edible garden repertoire:
- Get your wish list right– before starting your edible garden, sit down with pen and paper and write down exactly what you most like to eat.
- Prioritise the princesses– these are the delicate plants that lose their flavour and sweetness quickly when picked, so they need to be planted near the kitchen and the water boiling before you even pick them (some examples are sweetcorn, peas, summer carrots and asparagus). They are a very important part of your wish list, because in the supermarket or farm shop they will already have lost their sweetness.
- Grow lots of transformers– these are the foods that can add enormous flavour and zest to your plate in relatively small quantities (for example fresh herbs, chillies, edible flowers and spring onions).
- Grow expensive food– there is no point spending lots of time and effort growing cheap food. You are better off growing globe artichokes, sprouting broccoli, rhubarb, asparagus and salad leaves that cost so much to buy pre-packaged in the supermarket. Potatoes are cheap and plentiful.
- Challenge your taste buds– grow two plants you think you are going to hate and two plants you have never heard of. It is only by experimenting and being broad minded that you are going to discover and learn, and ultimately achieve a more varied diet.
- Grow what you can’t buy– for example cardoons, Kai lan, oriental leaves and alderman peas are all interesting and delicious vegetables that you would not be able to find in your average food foray, so they are ideal candidates to be grown in your edible garden.
- Go for variety– a diverse patch provides a mixed, healthy, balanced ecological system that will, in the long run, take care of itself and be free of most common diseases.
- Sow quick pay-off seeds– radishes, peas, spring onions and cut-and-come again leaves all provide excellent gratification to the gardener.
- Grow some easy winners – climbers, courgettes and squashes are very easy to grow, and will fill you with pride at your accomplishments.
- Keep picking– if you do not pick those small, delicious baby courgettes, they will turn into giant, tough marrows. Keep picking, and the plant will continue producing.
Mark gave us some ideas as to his top plant suggestions for the edible garden:
- Jerusalem artichokes: delicious, good flowers, form hedging, versatile, self-spreading.
- Nasturtiums: attract blackflies and white caterpillar away from other vegetables, very prolific, beautiful, ground cover, edible flowers, seeds ward off a cold, self-seeding.
- Salsify: delicious and unusual.
- Moroccan mint: delicious in salads, fragrant, good in teas, decorative.
- Szechuan pepper: really aromatic.
- Sweet Cicely: delicate, pretty, cooks well with rhubarb.
- Carolina Allspice: very aromatic.
- Kai Lan: the intelligent gardener’s cauliflower.
- Egyptian walking onions: buried treasure.
- Fruits like: alpine strawberries, Chilean guava, blue honeysuckle, gojiberries, Japanese wineberry, edible fuschia.
- Edible hedges: autumn olives, apricots, medlars, quinces.
Mark then proceeded to show us how, at River Cottage, they plant lots of micro-salads (radish, coriander, giant red mustard and rocket) in compost placed in plastic guttering on window sills.
Beyond the vegetable patch there is a whole world that can be created by thinking outside the box. We watched a video by Martin Crawford talking about forest gardens, with seven different tiers of plant life, all of which are extremely useful, decorative or delicious. Mark has taken inspiration from Martin’s garden in Totnes to plant a perennial allotment, featuring all of the above plants as well as Himalayan rhubarb, Corsican chives, comfrey, peaches, nectarines, pomegranate, day lilies, Chilean guava and New Zealand flax.
Throughout the course we were given helpful hints and tips about our own gardens, questions were asked, jokes shared, plants tasted, foliage smelled and our own opinions sought. From fighting pests, to dealing with planting, feeding, pruning and watering, no stone was left unturned. We ate pistachio cake, chocolate and almond cake, meringues and butter biscuits, and as we drank out teas and coffees we exchanged business cards, compared plots and made plans.
Lunch was a revelation. We sat around a big wooden table in the Marlborough Tavern pub, a few minutes’ walk away, and over soup and sandwiches Mark told us about his career, his work at River Cottage, all the funny episodes when Channel 4 filmed the series and how he juggles his many roles as writer, teacher, gardener, grower and seed shop owner at Otter Farm.
I chatted with Georgie Newbery, who owns a flower farm in Wincanton, and Mark Crowther, who is the CEO of a group of pubs and breweries in Jersey, both keen gardeners and fans of Mark’s work.
One of the most surprising things about the course for me is that Mark did not really talk much about greenhouses or conservatories. He grows most of the plants he recommends outside, and all the plants he suggests we try growing can withstand the unpredictable extremes of temperatures that climate change has brought about. He should know, as he is frequently referred to as “the climate change farmer”.
He believes that in the next decade or two growing your own food will become everyone’s preoccupation as world food prices soar, more and more people are going to grow edible and ornamental plants together and we are all going to demand a great deal more from our gardens.
I certainly left the Botanical Gardens with a head buzzing from the personal challenges that lay ahead. This course was a call to arms, and I do believe that there is a compelling enlightenment within its message. Mark is an extremely funny, human, approachable and charismatic teacher. His style is very laid back, engaging and community minded, constantly looking to the group for questions, answers and ideas. Priced at only £99 it offers one of the very best educational experiences I have ever booked. If you want to create an edible garden that stimulates, empowers and stretches your horticultural horizons, in an extremely beautiful environment, meeting like-minded gardeners, then look no further.
Mark Diacono: www.otterfarm.co.uk
“A Taste of the Unexpected” by Mark Diacono, is published by Quadrille.
The Bath Gardening School: www.thebathgardeningschool.com
The Bath Botanical Gardens, Royal Victoria Park, Bath.
Emma Bond: www.bathgardendesign.com
Tom Dawson: www.kingmonkeymedia.com
Georgie Newbery: www.commonfarmflowers.com
Mark Crowther: www.liberationgroup.com