A few weeks ago I heard the sound of something solid and dependable landing on my daffodil doormat, as I pottered on the terrace, checking whether the twigs which pass for my lemon verbena at this time of year have survived the winter. It was a copy of Mark Diacono‘s latest, published by Saltyard Books. With unaccustomed patience I have waited until this Easter weekend to wallow in the aspirational and beautifully illustrated pages of commonsense gardening advice for those who fancy getting their hands dirty in the pursuit of a tasty morsel to excite the taste buds.
There was never any doubt that I would love this book. I have been a fan of the Otter Farm approach to gardening for quite some time. There are mulberries and carolina allspice on my allotment as a result of Mark’s suggestions and somewhere on his land there may be a patch or two of lime balm grown from seed I sent through the post by way of a thank you. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship I create with my own pupils, recommending and lending books, reaping the rewards of seeing them flourish, experimenting with their own choices and form their own opinions.
I first came across Mark years ago when he was the head gardener at River Cottage. His vegetable garden was the backdrop to my evenings marking dozens of exercise books and making last minute adjustments to the following days’ lessons. The River Cottage experience on repeat play has eased me through the odd Ofsted inspection, GCSE coursework moderation and all-night report writing session. What teacher wouldn’t escape to River Cottage, given half a chance? In fact, I’d take all my classes there and teach them out of doors surrounded by borlotti beans and mint.
As time has gone on, I found an ally in Mark as he developed his own Devon smallholding. Always one to kick against my family’s postwar allotment approach to growing – hard double digging, oodles of fertiliser, the backbreaking work of planting up potato trenches on Good Friday, an assortment of mismatched clutter which ‘might come in handy one day’, regimented rows of cabbages and runner beans so abundant you had to leave them under cover of darkness on the doorsteps of unsuspecting neighbours – here I found someone who positively encouraged experimentation, dabbled with companion planting, even mentioned moon planting, the benefits of growing herbs and making life easy for yourself by growing perennials. (I am sometimes a lazy gardener and often one lacking in time.)
The ethos of Otter Farm shines through this book and so it is the perfect reference book for anybody who fancies growing a little of what they love to eat, irrespective of their space, time or situation. The traditional kitchen garden – walled, south facing, beautiful, where fruit, vegetables and cutting flowers grow in abundance tended by an army of bewaistcoated gentlemen is beyond most of us but the spirit of such a garden is not. This book provides the inspiration, advice and the headspace to consider how anyone can create a patch which is both productive and beautiful, which will feed body and soul and will enhance what goes on in the kitchen, without it all taking over your life.
The substantial middle section of the book provides detailed reference material for growing anything worth growing – cut flowers excepted, but this is about taste after all. I suppose I could offer to write the companion book!) There’s the kind of no nonsense back to basics information about starting it all off and keeping it going. I particularly like the opportunity to have a nose around the existing gardens of other growers in the ‘Open Gardens’ section too. By the time you’ve finished the book you’ll be itching to get started, to work together with your neighbours, to grow a few herbs in pots, to pop a small fruit tree into a barrel, to edge your flower border with alpine strawberries or to plant a hanging basket with tumbling tomatoes. In fact, you’ll think anything is possible and you’ll still have time to go surfing, meet your friends for coffee or prepare for a visit from OFSTED.
And in case you think that I am writing this with the benefit of a weedfree allotment and a greenhouse stuffed with verdant seedlings, think again. I’ve been far too busy writing and teaching this year to have sowed a single seedling yet. Nevertheless, I have been able to cut a few daffodils and tulips for the house over Easter, harvest plenty of herbs, dig up some jerusalem artichokes and pick rhubarb and chard. My larder has a few pots of jam and chutney made from last year’s harvest and I have some pea shoots springing up on the windowsill planted in an old tin can bound with hessian and raffia whilst the kettle boiled. That’s a kitchen garden, after all. I’m sure Mark would approve.