As the world went into lockdown in March of this year, Bryony Middleton was left with 2,000 seedlings, which she had carefully nurtured over winter and was just about to plant into the ground.
As head gardener at Sharpham House in south Devon, Middleton’s domain in the historic walled garden would usually feed around 50 guests a week at mindfulness retreats held in the house and grounds.
Luckily, a vibrant local food scene in nearby Totnes was poised in the wings and saved both local producers left with nowhere to sell, and those struggling to secure delivery slots at bigger companies.
“Everyone was suddenly like ‘where’s my nearest veg box scheme?”, recalls Middleton, standing in front of a giant ornamental banana tree in the garden. Behind her, two large seed beds are still bordered by Victorian-era cast iron pipes that would have been powered by the boiler, still in evidence in a cellar space below the ground.
“Some people are so used to buying things from supermarkets and have no idea about seasons and where food comes from,” she continues. “Lockdown was amazing for the local food scene. People suddenly realised that if the imports cut out, we’ve only got local growers. And they realised the reality of resilience.
"Small-scale growers are so adaptable because we’re not locked into contracts. All of a sudden, you were valued as a food grower, and as a key worker.”
In evidence of her own adaptability, Middleton describes how a micro supply chain from garden to kitchen means she can cater to her chef’s tastes almost exactly, through particular herbs or size of vegetable.
“I grow crops on about a sixth of an acre and we’re around 30 per cent sufficient in total, and almost entirely sufficient in salad, most greens and herbs,” she says.” We grow loads of summer veg and stuff that is more unusual.”
At the moment, it’s the emerald-green winter brassicas that are taking centre stage, including great fronds of Cavolo Nero carefully unwrapped from its protective mesh against white butterflies and caterpillars. Elsewhere, there are lime green scatterings of the early winter lettuces and chicory, while fruit trees line the walls and flower beds fill the gaps with splashes of orange.
The garden at Sharpham is grown using organic principles, and awaiting its organic certification, and Middleton uses the ‘no-dig’ method to minimise cultivation and soil disruption.
“The theory is no deep dig or double dig; we do work the top six inches of soil, and we pull out things like a brassica with stem rot, for example,” she explains. “We use a lot of mulch, which is also a good way to keep on top of the weeds as it smothers them. Having flowers around is amazing for bringing in the pollinators,” she adds, pointing to the last of the sweet peas, amaranth, and self-seeding borage, which, according to Middleton, “sends the bees crazy”.
It’s all part of the overall vision for Sharpham Estate, an area of 550 acres adjacent to the river Dart and in Devon’s beautiful South Hams region. As a charitable trust, and in addition to its retreats, the estate acts as a landowner for several tenant businesses, including the popular vineyard with its Wine and Cheese tasting, a natural burial ground, a rewilding project and three tenant farms. There are plans convert the entire estate to organic, with conversion of the third farm underway under the supervision of farmers David and Helen Camp.
The Camps supply organic veg box company Riverford with their organic beef and lamb and have recently diversified into vegetable growing and a small herd of goats. Farming organically, their farm is a haven for biodiversity with habitats for a broad range of wildlife. “You get lots of birds and flowers here – there’s hares about, and skylarks, and a couple of nesting barn owls. We have small fields with lots of hedgerows so there are lots of habitats,” says David.
Before lockdown, the family had begun opening the farm up to the community to show how they rear their organic livestock, as well as some tastings for their new goat meat to try and build up a local market. “We’ve been doing some local tastings and open days here, and we’ve done some meals here with curries and other things to show people what you can do,” explains Helen. “It’s been so nice to have the local community on the farm to see the lambing and kidding.”
Ethical business and sustainable food are certainly common principles in the community around Sharpham, with the Dartington Estate and Schumacher College just down the road, Totnes as the home for Geetie Singh-Watson’s new organic and ethical pub The Bull Inn, and a thriving network of small-scale growers and producers.
It’s a dynamic that Julian Carnell, director of the Sharpham Trust, is keenly aware of, and accessibility for those outside the ‘bubble’ is part of his mission. “Coming from Paignton originally, I realise there are other sides to the story and we can end up talking to ourselves,” he says. “Actually there’s a body of people outside [Totnes] that we’re not reaching. Conservation and mindfulness can be quite niche and we try and work against that,” he says.
“Transport can be an issue in Devon, so we put on transport for people coming to the Mindful-in-Nature course that we run from places like Torbay. We try and offer people the chance to immerse themselves in nature, connect with nature and with each other.”
Sharpham has a long history of mental health, nature and mindfulness retreats, says Carnell, who came from a background in conservation charities. He sees Sharpham as a way of connecting the almost 2,000 guests a year with a new appreciation of nature, which, coming largely from urban areas, they are unlikely to find in everyday life. “The hope is by connecting people with nature they will want to protect and appreciate it, and that will influence the conservation efforts,” he says.
Back in the garden, Middleton is examining her new trials of fresh ginger and lemongrass and talking about her own experience of a retreat. “I work on the land, but because it’s a job I’m always getting things done, and it was a chance to deepen my connection with nature,” she explains. “Mindfulness in nature gives you so much when you’re going through difficult things in life. Especially this year, during lockdown. It offers constancy and growth.”
It may be too early to say what habits learnt during lockdown will last, from nature appreciation to new food habits, but for Middleton the potential is simple: “At a time when food growers pour their energy into their work, but are actually on very low incomes, and the price of food is so cheap. My hope is that the interest in the value of food continues.”