The air is fragrant with the humid smell of ripening tomatoes, as gardener Adam Crofts points to a repurposed fishing line reel and the plants that neatly unwind on string below.
“The easier you make gardening the more enjoyable it will be,” says Crofts, who explains how the baby tomato plants are lowered into their holes on top of the spool of twine, which is then unwound using the fishing reel in line with the plant’s growth – replacing the entire job of stringing up tomatoes. No insignificant saving, when you have a polytunnel full of them.
As head gardener at River Cottage, home of the eponymous farm-to-fork TV series by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Crofts has an acre of organic fruit and veg under his supervision with only one assistant, so time is of the essence. But following a technique known as ‘Lean working’ (borrowed from the Japanese car manufacturing industry), Crofts believes time and money-saving hacks are crucial if any gardening is to be both fun and productive.
Today, he is leading a group of amateur gardeners on a ‘Get Growing’ course around the kitchen garden and polytunnel growing areas, revealing other tips such as using a tent peg to plant leeks to the exact right depth, or measuring veg beds to a width that allows harvesting the fruits of your labour easily from one side without overstretching.
We are a mostly female group of nine, with two mother and daughter duos, at least a third from London with tiny growing spaces or rooves, and range from the intermediate (enthusiastic allotmenteers), the amateur with a garden but not much experience (myself) and the sensible new grower, taking this course before getting started and messing things up.
Soil is particularly important for Crofts, who studied permaculture and has over the last five years converted River Cottage’s garden to the no-dig technique, which priorities soil health, as well as principles of organic growing without any harmful chemicals.
Instead of herbicides, or digging through beds, permaculturalists and no-dig proponents such as Charles Dowding, supress weeds via cardboard, add (sterilised) compost on top, into which they plant seedlings.
Moving around the immaculate rows of veg, it certainly looks a world away from our own (possibly just mine) raggedy raised beds, but the tips Crofts offers are undeniably easy to follow. Plant companion plants, he advises, such as marigolds with tomatoes, and the less common root veg salsify next to broad beans to distract the hated black fly.
Joint public enemy number one for gardeners is the slug, and Crofts lays gravel paths to deter their movement, as well as using good garden hygiene and removal of dead logs, leaves and other green debris. But he makes us all feel better by saying it’s been “the trickiest year he’s known growing veg”.
“There have been loads of pests – everyone has been talking about it. A lot of market gardeners are really dispirited this year,” he says, echoing reports by bigger veg growers who have faced significant crop losses as a result.
And it’s true that, even after all hacks are followed, gardening outdoors in Britain’s changeable weather always has its challenges. So why do it at all? “The reason I like to grow my own is because you know exactly what you’re putting into the ground,” says Crofts, who did a film degree then took an office job, before “realising he needed to work outdoors”.
“Since the 70s, the nutrients in our veg in supermarkets have gone right down. We’re not getting the same amount of nutrients, Since Covid, people have really started to take notice of these things, alongside climate change,” he says.
The question ‘why grow your own’ brings out some interesting responses from the group, too, where answers range from taste; teaching children where food comes from; the health benefits of connecting with nature, “especially since the pandemic”; something you can accomplish outside of your house or job; and simply that “it is a joyous process”.
During lunch prepared in front of us by River Cottage chef Roseanna, who whips up Korean-inspired kim-kraut and grills cabbage over fire – the latest buzzwords in the foodie world – conversation is similarly thoughtful.
It is the night after the fateful England penalty saga, and our table of four women, safely beyond the critical ears of male fans, explore our own views of racism in football before drifting towards the lack of tolerance in society, US politics, gender stereotypes in the workplace and how we would run a better world.
I’m not sure whether the bucolic gardening course usually serves up such a cornucopia of topics, but it certainly proved that food is a way into discussions around politics, culture, equality and more.
Back in the garden, Crofts reveals a little more about his deliberately mixed style of planting to maximise space and confuse pests. Brightly coloured ‘bee borders’ draw the eyes, and the pollinators, and provide havens for beneficial predators to keep the ecosystem in check and the aphids at bay – the same goes for a small wildlife pond, vital to attract birds, frogs and toads that also do their bit in keeping the pests away.
“We deliberately grow a lot of things – fruit, veg and flowers – and often pair them so we might grow onions and carrots together. And we try and confuse the pests with strong-smelling plants, like thyme around the border,” he says.
While there is undoubtedly a cost privilege to attending any such growing course in the first place, there is also a running theme throughout the day of saving money and self-sufficiency. “Garden centres are full of things to spend money on,” says Crofts, who instead suggests heading to your local hardware store for essential tools like a wheelbarrow and hoes.
In a similar vein, he makes all his own feeds from the garden and explains how nettles and comfrey boil down into nutrient-rich homemade fertiliser, to “feed the soil, not the plant”. This attention to soil health is probably the number one lesson from the whole day, other than saving yourself time and energy by simply being organised.
“Healthy soil equals healthy plants, equals healthy food, equals healthy people,” we hear in the summary of the day, and leave feeling like there is a simple, low-cost route to colourful, productive food growing – if only you can dedicate the time.
Returning to my own garden, a maze of uncontrollable perennial borders, and ever-encroaching brambles, I am momentarily discouraged, before returning to this last point.
Food growing, whether on a tiny or a field-scale, isn’t easy – but maybe that’s the point. We have become far too used to expecting great quality without a thought as to just how hard that is to attain – and it’s getting harder as we approach an era of climate disturbance.
Growing our own might be the single best way to stay in touch with that most elemental of our needs – and if it all goes wrong, with only one wonky carrot to show for the year, the appreciation of what goes into it will still be priceless.
Grow your own wherever you are
Sow the City, Manchester. An award-winning social enterprise to promote food growing across the city, offering a wide range of accessible courses on food growing, healthy eating, wildlife and sustainability. Sowthecity.org.
Wolves Lane Garden and Horticultural Centre. North London. A three-acre site with a commercial glasshouse, kitchen and woodland hosts events and workshops to support the local food economy and train food growers from BIPOC communities. Wolveslane.org.
May Project Garden, London. Teaches permaculture gardening principles to the local community and runs outreach projects to urban young people and refugees. Mayproject.org.
Riverford Field Kitchen, Devon. Led by head gardener Penny Hemming, the Field Kitchen offers courses on specific veg including squash, tomatoes or chillies, or mini masterclasses to get you started on your own patch. Fieldkitchen.riverford.co.uk/mevents.
No time to attend a course? Read the Wicked Leeks monthly gardening advice column, written in partnership with Garden Organic.