Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 2 March 2012

VP's VIPs: Charles Dowding


You can imagine how thrilled I was to see a the above tweet and top tip from no-dig and vegetable growing guru Charles Dowding in my timeline :) I was even more thrilled to visit him at Lower Farm last month and see where he produces salads leaves for sale year-round and also teaches his day courses.
Charles was just finishing off a couple of things when I arrived, so I took the opportunity to have a good look around (with his very friendly cat, Catmint as my guide) and take some photos in the late afternoon sunshine. It was the first day this year when the promise of spring could at last be felt in the air.

I then joined Charles who still busily working away. At first we enthused about our favourite apple varieties (with many in common) and the recent news that soil could be beneficial to health before settling down comfortably for a walk around the farm and for a more detailed look at the subject of salads.
How long have you been growing here and how much space do you have?

I've been here for 11 years. It's two acres with about 1 acre of that devoted to production. I rent the rest of the farm to my brother. [I was struck by how much of the growing area's outdoors and how much greenery there was on the plot in mid February. I was expecting much more in the way of polytunnels]

And you must be on limestone here?

Actually it's clay! But regular application of muck and mulch over the years has really taken care of that. Most people are wary of treading on the soil in winter, but I can happily walk over my beds and it bears my weight easily [we walk across the beds towards the polytunnel - it was a bit like walking on a fruitcake], see how the soil is firm but with a little give without it being too yielding. That frost we've had recently has really helped to break the down the manure I used to top up the beds this winter [kicks a massive lump of manure which instantly disintegrates]

We've started our salad growing in January so we've been limited to mainly sprouting seeds and growing microgreens indoors. What should we be looking to crop this time next year?

Outdoors, kale is doing well this year - when the pigeons aren't after it - and lamb's lettuce is always reliable, as is land cress which has a good peppery taste. Indoors mizuna's cropped well due to the mild weather, there's various mustards and I'm picking some good pak choi. You must also try picking some chicory.

We've had some great pea shoots grown on the Challenge

You've managed pea shoots already? And picked more than one crop from a sowing? You've done well.

Update from Charles: One correction, I always pick lots of times off pea shoots, I was surprised at the earliness of your harvest.


When I started the 52 Week Salad Challenge, everyone was enthusing about yours and Joy Larkcom's books on salad. Your approach is quite different isn't it?

Yes, my picking's quite different to the cut and come again approach where the plants are grown very closely together. But you must remember that Joy's book did so much to raise awareness of what's possible and many new kinds of leaves were introduced to our plates. My approach is an extension of her good work into new ways.

Can you describe the picking technique?

Seed is started off in modules and the plants when they are a good size are planted out at about 9 inches apart. Later, the outside leaves are picked off before they grow too large and a central core left, so the plants can continue to grow to the same size as before and crop again and again and again and...

What are the benefits of picking? I'd be so tempted to fill out the spaces between the plants as they look so much further apart than usual

Well, you could plant out your new crops [when they're small] between the plants when they're getting towards the end of their cropping period. As for the benefits of picking, successional sowing isn't needed because each plant has a much longer period of production over many weeks. This smooths out cropping so you don't have peaks and troughs in your produce and plants are slower to bolt. You only need to sow about 4 times a year. [that answers @GillyinAriege's question :)]

Can all crops be picked? What about the looser kinds of leaves?

Yes they can, there's still a central core of leaves you can leave.

And how much do you pick - those endive look like you've picked about half of the leaves.

It really depends on the season and the type of crop. You'll need to experiment to find out what works best for you. [The theme of there being no hard and fast rules occurred several times that afternoon. It was so refreshing to talk to someone advocating we should try things out for ourselves.] I use 2 buckets, 1 for the leaves I'm going to use and the other for those going on the compost heap.



It's clear from your book that you've taken careful of notes of what you've sown, produced and when, particularly with your no dig approach to growing.

Yes, I've been comparing dig vs no dig very carefully in my experimental plots.

The results shown in your book vary, and though no dig seems to have the slight edge overall. I'm not sure whether it's statistically significant?

No, but I've proven yields can be as good as with digging and many people said it wouldn't. There are plenty of other benefits. It's a much easier system in terms of effort and the soil's health is better.

And it means you have a spade! [@TalkieTom's question]

Yes, it's very useful for chopping up the kale stems and other brassicas before they go on the compost heap!

Do you have any new experiments for this year?

I'm trialing biochar as people are asking about it on my courses. [It's the darker bed on the right of the picture above the dig/no dig trial beds]

Since starting the Challenge, I've noticed quite a few more businesses specialising in salads.

It's about the only viable vegetable growing business in my view. I've been helping a couple of people get started who've been on my courses. [that answers @Simiansuter's question]

What are you sowing at the moment? (NB this was on February 15th)

It's my spring sowing time so there's lettuce, spinach, spring onions, dill (which is frost hardy), peas and broad beans. I've found those polystyrene modules really good for sowing early seeds, but they don't seem to be available these days. [I said 6-12 module versions are often used by garden centres for bedding plants, but not the larger version he uses]

Apart from salad leaves what are you using in your salads at the moment?

Tonight we have beetroot, celeriac [we agreed this is much easier to grow than celery], squash, apple, parsnip because we've run out of carrots plus avocado with a little lemon juice [Charles produced a delicious looking bowl of finely grated vegetables when I asked this question]

I took my cue to leave at this point as it was getting dark and there was the rest of the evening meal to prepare. My thanks to Charles for such an inspirational afternoon which has given me much to think about for the rest of my Salad Challenge this year :)

NB I also got a sneak preview of Charles' new book, which is a distillation of the courses he teaches at Lower Farm. It looks great and is on my birthday present list (hint hint NAH!). I'm also hoping Threadspider would like to go and see him at Toppings bookshop in Bath on April 18th. He's also due to appear at RHS Wisley's Grow Your Own weekend on Sunday, 25th March and there's full details of his other appearances here.

Update Dec 2012: Charles has since left Lower Farm and is currently setting up again on land a few miles away.

You'll see who else has kindly been a VP VIP by looking through my Interview label :)

13 comments:

  1. Wow! I have been using an expert cropping method without realising it! I was amazed at how long my endives lasted last year (in fact they are stil there, albeit snow damaged, I am seeing if I can squeeze the last few leaves out for the guinea pigs)by doing this. I can recommend the picking technique for sure - I ate salad this way from about june onwards, and still had enough to give entire heads of lettuce away.

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  2. I would indeed like to go and see him. Smashing interview VP with one of my gardening heroes.

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  3. A most interesting post. Oh would that I were nearer so that I could do one of the day courses. In the meantime an email from Amazon this morning advised me his new book is on the way in the post. Amazon tokens from himself for my birthday have allowed me to buy some books this year - had vowed to cut down on book purchases :) Hope that NAH takes note of your hint VP.

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  4. Mel - great recommendation of the technique thanks :)

    THreadspider and Lu - looks like there'll be at least 3 of us there :)

    Anna - I hope so too :)

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  5. Just wanted to say - I read this last week and hugely enjoyed it, but didn't comment then, so I'm commenting now to say thank you for visiting Charles for us and bringing us his wisdom and enormously useful tips :D

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  6. TCG - Thanks - I had a fab afternoon :)

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  7. So wonderful to find your blog. I look forward to learning more about gardening year round from your informative posts, Thank you!
    -Susan

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  8. Susan - welcome, and it's good to see you :)

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  9. What a great post, I wish I'd read it before we went visiting yesterday. Is that the same polytunnel that is now full of tomatoes and basil? All inspired now. We were talking about what we could do, maybe in a year or two's time when life has settled down a bit.

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  10. Hi Joanna - I heard him speak at a gardening club 2 years ago and my copies of his books are well thumbed. So I was pretty excited at going to Lower Farm. Wish I'd known about the open day yesterday, I could have exchanged notes with Charles on our biochar trials :)

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  11. Hi VP,
    Got your blog address from Jo at Zeb Bakes - I garden in NW Oregon (US) and I think my winter climate is similar to yours and CD's (moderate temps and wet). Not many gardeners try winter gardening here, but I'm convinced that it's the rain that's the problem, not the temps. I've had good luck with kales, mustards, lettuce, and Asian greens. I'll sure incorporate some of these ideas into my ongoing winter garden. Thanks for the post.

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  12. Dr Fugawe - welcome! We visited Oregon last year and had a wonderful time :) Judging by what you're growing already it sounds like our conditions are very similar. Light also plays an important part on what can be achieved in the winter months, but I'm sure you can give these ideas a go :)

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