Salad Days: Happiness is a trip to Homeacres
Garden visits have been thin on the ground this year, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity this week to catch up with Charles Dowding at his (relatively) new property in Somerset and chat to him about his latest book. Rest assured that Covid guidance was adhered to and I found myself in a select group of bloggers, podcasters and garden writers for my visit, and not the 900-odd visitors who crowd into Homeacres for one of Charles's open days in normal years!
Regular readers may remember I visited Charles at his previous property - Lower Farm - in 2012 for my VPs VIPs interview and 52 Week Salad Challenge strands. Then it was February and the start of the sowing season; what a difference a September visit makes with Charles's abundant produce and flowers positively glowing with good health everywhere. I needed no second invitation to munch on the tomatoes in the polytunnel; they were delicious.
Homeacres is a smaller property of around a quarter of an acre. Here the initial intention was to concentrate on teaching, but continued local demand for his salads means Charles still has a lucrative market gardening business. Since we last met he's started to deliver his courses online as well as his usual workshops at Homeacres. It means his reach is now global (and substantial) and I know Charles has quite a following amongst my Fling buddies across the pond.
A major key to success is to keep the soil healthy; here it is aided by a liberal helping of composted mulch over the winter. Those huge compost bins you can see above are at the heart of the operation and here Charles dispelled a couple of gardening myths: it's OK to add blighted foliage and weeds to the heap. It's a matter of creating the right environment to destroy the nasties like spores and seeds. In this case, having large heaps creates the heat needed to do so and Charles keeps an eye on temperatures at several points. You can just see the 2 thermometers inserted into the latest heap in the photo above.
Out in the garden that application of mulch results in relatively slug free and 'bouncy' beds. Most aren't enclosed because that encourages slugs and snails. The exceptions are the continued no-dig vs dig trails which are framed in oak to keep the areas the same and consistent. We also learned Charles doesn't operate the traditional 4 year crop rotation - another myth busted and one I found out for myself when I had an allotment. NAH doesn't like brassicas so I always planted where there was a free space. Remembering my then Nepalese allotment neighbour, I can see Charles has adopted a similar patchwork approach to her, with crops arranged mainly in blocks instead of rows.
In conversation Charles has a way of quiet teaching and isn't afraid to challenge remarks made which makes you think. Careful observation and meticulous notes inform his remarks as well as his decades of growing experience. He says Victorian gardening and farming is the source of much of the guidance found in books, when there were large teams of people available. His methods are rooted in keeping health in the soil and the desire to find methods to save time. He reckons double digging was a way of keeping estate workers occupied during the winter months: who wouldn't prefer the simpler addition of mulch instead when the results look so good at Homeacres?
Everything in the polytunnel and greenhouse was just as immaculate as arrangements outside. Since returning home NAH and I have discussed where I might squeeze something in at VP Gardens as I came back with tomato and aubergine envy. Growing outside is feasible, but just doesn't achieve the same results. I could even have a go at growing loofahs (or luffa if you prefer) like Charles - I was reminded the National Trust at Knightshayes grows them to use as pan scourers.
It was a fabulous time and something to hold onto over the coming weeks as we head towards more restrictive measures again for gatherings. Thanks to Charles and Stephanie for an inspirational morning and to Emma Mason for making it happen.
the new book seeing that was the reason for our visit. It's based on Charles's online course and the content mirrors its modules and lessons. It's a comprehensive introduction to the principles of No Dig and how to get started on your own no dig journey. Each lesson has a fun quiz at the end - well I find quizzes fun! I'm particularly enjoying the lesson on myths in view of our conversation on the day.
The book's a success already and is ready to go into its second edition soon thanks to Charles's legion of fans worldwide. The eagle eyed among you will have spotted this is Course 1 - courses 2 and 3 are set to follow, again based on the written parts of Charles's online courses.
I'm thrilled with the 2021 calendar which was popped in my goody bag. It's packed with information and encouragement and I have no excuse to miss any sowing dates next year. Note that these will be quite different to those you might see elsewhere; for instance, the picking method for salad crops means successional sowing can be replaced by fewer sowings as plants can crop for many more weeks. The dates shown are for gardeners in southern UK (or Zone 8) and guidance is given on how to adjust these for more northern climes.
And later NAH and I enjoyed the tasty salad leaves - every goody bag should have some salad!