Chefs and their summer gardens
Published 20 July 2020

Gravetye Manor

From plot to plate – chefs and their gardeners share their summer tips for growing fruit and veg with Tessa Allingham

For the best chefs and keenest cooks, the connection between what’s in the soil and what’s on the plate is a powerful one. Tomatoes picked sun-warm give a matchless rush of fragrance and flavour, while herbs from a pot elevate myriad dishes in a snip. New potatoes coaxed out of the earth need nothing more than a quick rub and a short steam before being glossed with melted butter and flecked with salt. ‘There’s no greater pleasure than growing food and then enjoying what you’ve grown,’ says John Campbell, chef-owner of The Woodspeen, Berkshire, where an acre of land powers – in normal times – the menu at this rural restaurant.

At Moor Hall, Lancashire, Mark Birchall works with head gardener Catherine Butters, so that even in lockdown the gardens are productive. There’s Mark’s favourite sherbetty lemon verbena, winter savory (‘Great with chicken,’ says Catherine), and salad burnet, a medicinal herb once used to help plague victims. ‘We’ve got ridiculous amounts of raspberries,’ says Mark, ‘and crosnes [Chinese artichokes], which are delicious with scallops and truffle in September.’ Mildly peppery Tokyo turnips, picked when radish-sized, are a garden fixture.

Kitchen gardens at Moor Hall

In Dorset, head gardener Roseanna Reed fills the kitchen garden at The Pig On The Beach with alliums, peas and beans, brassicas, and root veg, while a polytunnel is fragrant through summer with tomatoes and salads. Usually, the produce directs the menu. ‘For now, our small team is using some,’ says Roseanna, ‘and we take boxes to the village hall in Studland to be distributed to people isolating.’ But you don’t need much space or expertise for your patch to work. We asked top chefs to share their kitchen know-how.

‘For lettuces, get a length of gutter, cap the ends, drill tiny, infrequent holes and line with weed-control matting,’ says James Cross, chef patron at Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside. ‘Fill with compost and perlite to improve drainage, then sow direct.’ James recommends ‘Rosedale’, a sweet-flavoured red cos lettuce which crops well and is slow to bolt. ‘Or use a box,’ says Will Devlin of The Small Holding, Kent and the ‘chef to watch’ in The Good Food Guide 2020. ‘Line with wet newspaper, fill with compost and sprinkle with seeds. Salads don’t need much depth and you can move the boxes around easily.’

Now’s the time to sow peas for an autumn crop. Train them upwards against a fence or trellis to save space (and minimise pest problems). ‘You can grow far more if you go vertical!’ says Will.

You’ll never get rid of weeds forever, says Roseanna. ‘That’s rule number one of gardening! But keep on top of weeds. Scoot the blade of a sharp hoe along the soil surface to cut the tops off, and slow the return with a layer of bark chip or straw. Don’t pull up roots because that disturbs the soil.’

Greenhouse at Gravetye Manor

‘Plants are a bit like children,’ says Tom Coward, head gardener at Gravetye Manor, Sussex. ‘The better you look after them when they’re young, the better they can look after themselves when older!’ Avoid over-watering but be consistent. ‘Water well once or twice a week,’ says Catherine. ‘If you sprinkle daily, roots stay on the surface. If you leave it a bit, they dig down, become stronger.’ And avoid watering in the heat of the day because you risk scorching, says Will. ‘Just take a glass of wine out with you in the evening and do it!’

A drip irrigation system is a cost-effective and time-preserving approach. On her coastal allotment at The Anchor in Walberswick, Suffolk, Sophie Dorber uses upturned plastic bottles, holes pierced in the lids and bottoms cut out for easy refilling, to irrigate a plot packed with squash, cucumber and legumes. The no-dig approach minimises the need for watering, says Matthew Pennington who co-owns The Ethicurean near Bristol, famed for its walled garden overlooking the Mendip Hills. ‘It also maximises soil health by preserving microbes. Healthier soil means things grow more easily and are better quality.’

In summer, a young courgette can become a giant marrow in no time. ‘Spend time in the garden,’’ says Roseanna. ‘Be aware of what’s happening. I pick beans at about 20cm long; if they’re hard to cut, they’re probably past it.’
Pick strawberries as soon as they’re ripe, says Will. ‘That way, the plant puts its energy into ripening the green ones. Let leafy crops sprout again after cutting; they’ll be smaller but it’s good bang for your buck!’ The Small Holding’s summer harvest is normally at the heart of the menu, but for now it’s sold in veg boxes for local delivery.

Will Devlin at The Small Holding

‘Nasturtiums are an incredible plant,’ says Matthew. ‘Easy to grow, they help keep the flea beetle away and are entirely edible.’ At home, Catherine grows them as ground cover alongside potatoes to stop tubers going green when exposed to light. ‘And marigolds are great with tomatoes. The smell is extreme and repels aphids,’ says James.

‘To avoid gluts, sow little and often, ensuring a steady supply of what you enjoy,’ says Tom, who sows beetroot, carrots, salad onions and turnips every week in season. Roseanna agrees. Even the most ardent courgette-lover might wilt when faced with yet another trug-load. ‘For a family of four, you need maybe a couple of courgette plants, not four or five.’

Find a sunny spot for herbs, for a summer of fragrance in your pots and perky flavour in your cooking. If you don’t fancy starting from seed, use supermarket potted herbs. ‘They’re not hardy,’ warns Amanda Brame, head of horticulture at Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, south-west London. ‘So keep them indoors for three weeks, harvesting sparingly. Harden them off for five to seven days (outside during the day, inside at night), and pop them into containers. They will romp away!’

Published July 2020