Salad Days: Happiness is a trip to Homeacres

Charles Dowding proudly poses at Homeacres with a healthy basket of produce and his latest book

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.


The compost bin area at Homeacres

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.

General view of Homeacres

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?

Tomatoes in the polytunnel 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.


It would be churlish of me not to show you 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.

2021 Calendar

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!

Farewell to Homeacres


Comments

  1. I felt rather inspired by your post and went off to Amazon to see about buying one of Charles' books - and immediately got lost about which would be best.
    I like the idea of not using raised beds. They are very popular and I've inherited some on my allotment. But if they encourage slugs that's a reason for getting rid of them. I like rectangular beds instead of rows too and had set about changing towards them when I got ill so the process is a bit on hold. (However, I do have someone helping to keep the allotment going while I can't do it myself so I can make some decisions and give some directions in my absence.)
    I also like digging - but one of the main reasons I'm not able to do my own allotmenting at the moment is that I am still on immunosuppressant medication and could be made very ill by breathing in the bacteria which could be thrown up from the soil. Reading this, I was wondering if a no-dig method would go some way to solving this.
    I used to make loads of compost but rats on my allotment steal just about everything that goes into the bin so I have shifted over to the Bokashi method. The result has to be dug in so . . . I go around in circles. (Have found a source for small amounts of horse manure but I can't deal with that myself either at the moment.)
    Anyway . . . I can plan . . . and I am hoping that I can become more self-sufficient in vegetables than at present so a book / calendar telling me when to do things seems a good idea . . . I know quite a lot already but am disorganised and brain dead so could do with direction . . .
    Can only afford one book . . . so which one would you recommend?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Lucy, that's quite a difficult question as I haven't read all of Charles's books (though quite a few of them). The latest book is very in-depth on the no dig method with little guidance of what to plant when, so perhaps a book which introduces the method and then ties it in with the actual act of growing vegetables will probably suit you best. Can you get hold of them from your local library?... or use the Look Inside feature on Amazon to get a feel of which book is about. I have a copy of Charles's Veg Journal if you'd like it. This is much more like a diary with jobs for each month interspersed with various aspects of no dig plus how to guides on growing vegetables. There are also some pages for you to make your own notes. Have a look and see what you think. I'm not sure how close the content of this compares with the Veg Diary, which also looks a good bet especially as it was written more recently than the journal. BTW I have the hardback version of the Journal.

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    2. I should have said judging by what you've said in your comment :)

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  2. That must have been an inspirational session VP.

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