The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies. Gertrude Jekyll

Annie's Little Plot

Annie's Little Plot

Sunday, 28 July 2013

River Cottage Heaven

As part of my prize Sally and I were booked in for supper at River Cottage Canteen in Axminster on the Saturday night, they have a real seasonal and locally produced menu. This was the salad that I had and it was so delicious, the range of flavours from the mint and basil and the anchovy salty dressing was amazing. I'd never eaten kohlrabi before and will definitely be growing it on my plot. A sort of cross between cabbage and turnip? But it was so crunchy and fresh-tasting raw.
Sunday dawned another sunny and warm day, we had to be there for 9.30 to get the tractor ride down to the farm. We arrived to some fresh cordial and we met the River Cottage cat.
Before we got started we were allowed a bit of a wander into the River Cottage HQ building and so my sister and I got there first and I managed to get some great photos before the others arrived.
Recognise this? Where Hugh does all his cooking (and eating) in the show.
There was this fabulous chair.
The view out to the kitchen garden which is glorious and full to bursting with produce which they use for the restaurant here at the HQ.
In the morning light it was looking stunning but it really is a proper working plot.
The course was held in the newly refurbished and reopened barn (it was involved in a big fire in February last year) and was led by the Head Gardener Craig Rudman. He started by going round the room (there were 12 of us on the course) and getting an idea of people's experience of growing veg and what they wanted to get from the course. There was actually quite a range of experience, from people who had none at all to others who had grown their own previously and really wanted to hone their techniques. We pulled together a list of topics to discuss including what to grow, pests and diseases, compost, continuous cropping, greenhouse crops, watering and feeding, amongst others. He gave a bit of introduction on why to grow your own, what to grow (what you like to eat!) and also introduced some new and unusual crops that you might think about growing (Oca and Yacon amongst others).
Then we went on a bit of a tour to the polytunnels meeting some of the River Cottage livestock on the way.
The first polytunnel contains cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines and peppers plus some apricots.
Although you imagine being in the south west that this farm would be ahead of things, Craig said they are in quite a cool valley. Not having a polytunnel or greenhouse I asked about outdoor varieties and was pleased to hear him recommend 'Sungold' which I'm growing and also 'Ailsa Craig' for tomatoes and 'Ophelia' for aubergines but he did say that you may still struggle with these outdoors. This variety has smaller fruits so quicker to crop.
They are reclaiming some previously unused land for new beds.
The above plot has celeriac intercropped with 'Little Gem' lettuces which will be harvested fairly soon to leave spaces around the celeriac to grow bigger. Notice the rabbit-proof netting.
The second polytunnel was for lettuces and salad crops, fennel and radishes.
This polytunnel are largely for overwintering salad crops and extending the seasons and the heat has caused some of the 'Little Gem' lettuces to bolt, they turn into these amazing looking towers, in front of the Dill. He did say that the bolted lettuces can still be used by the chefs there to make lettuce soup! May have to do that with my 'Little Gem' lettuces on my allotment which have started to bolt. He did say that lettuces are a good crop to collect your own seed from.
Regarding fennel he suggested that often if sown before midsummer they can bolt but if you sow later and these will produce the best bulbs. They also sow at the end of August and then plant out in the polytunnel for fennel foliage throughout the winter. He recommended a variety called 'Zefa Fino' which is quick to grow, resistent to bolting and also good for cold areas.
Then a quick peak into the propagation polytunnel.
They sow most crops into seed trays or modules and then plant out, rather than sow direct into the soil, this gives more control and the ability to succession sow and plant.
Then back to the HQ for a brief cookery demonstration by one of the River Cottage chefs before lunch. Andy did a demo of making Blackcurrant Leaf sorbet and a cordial from it too. I never knew that the Blackcurrant leaves smelt so nice. The sorbet was made using an icecream maker but you could just make it yourself with your freezer, then we all got to taste! Delicious.
Lunch was lamb with sauted potatoes, roasted beetroot and kohlrabi salad followed by Blackcurrant leaf ice cream, with Shortbread and a gooseberry compote. Yum.
We didn't really want to move after the lunch but then we had a seed sowing and how to take cuttings demo.
Next was the best bit for me and that was a proper tour of the kitchen garden.
The whole plots is divided into 4 main beds which is part of the crop rotation, these are roots and onions, Brassicas, peas and beans and then a bed with the other crops on. Each bed will have different soil conditioner requirements for example add well-rotted manure to the brassicas but compost to roots and legumes. We got hints on intercropping with a row of carrots in between the rows of parsnips which could be harvested small and then again leaving space for the parsnips to develop in the later months.  Here is Craig in amongst the parsnips.
They intercrop everywhere and its one thing I really want to learn from them.
Another useful tip was that if you were going to use a green manure then to choose that according to the bed that it was in for example to use Field beans in with the legumes, he did say that we are always told to leave the roots of legumes in after harvesting as the nodules on the roots fix nitrogen and feed the soil but he suggested that this would really only be the case if we didn't let them flower and produce the crop as actually most of the nitrogen would be used for the crop? He also recommended a green manure, caliente mustard which can release compounds that can kill a number of soil-bourne diseases. Have a look on Google it definitely looks interesting.
One of the peas they grew was called 'Champion of England' which is an extremely tall variety.
One other important thing I learnt and I've heard it said by a number of people since and that is regarding watering. Craig recommended giving plants a good deep watering when planting but then he recommends they really will only need miminal watering and when you do again give a really deep water. The theory is to encourage the plants to go in search of water and thus the roots will grow deeper and then plant will be stronger and more robust.
On the side of the plot are the fruits beds with apples and pears grown as single cordons, enabling multiple different varieties to be grown.
There were gooseberries, redcurrants, strawberries, rhubarb. a big hedge of raspberries and a grapevine.
We then went back to the barn and got some advice on pests and diseases, focusing on some of our worst garden foes, but one thing that came out overall was to grow your plants hard which makes them less susceptible overall to pests. He did say that the worst pests that he had to deal with were the River Cottage  chefs who could clear a particular crop ovenight if they something was particularly in season and tasty!
What a day, just to be getting a guided tour by someone who was so knowledgeable and obviously passionate about his job and growing your own. He was forever answering questions by us keen gardeners, we could have kept going longer. My only negative point is that I would have preferred a slightly longer time going round the kitchen garden, this part felt a bit rushed after lunch. But apart from that......only a day like this day could have made up for me having missed Andy Murray win Wimbledon, we heard the chefs cheering when he won!
Finally another big treat, I also won a collection of River Cottage books signed by Hugh, here they are modelled by Bob.

I couldn't have won a better prize, thats it, lets find some more competitions to enter.


  1. Wow Annie, what a fantastic treat to read your post. I bet you learned so much from Craig with the tour. What a perfect end to win the books too! Well done and congratulations. xx

  2. What an amazing snoop around the river cottage plot! I love it! What an amazing prize and with the signed books too. My mum always says the same thing about watering to encourage the roots to grow down. Sounds like you learnt lots and feel inspired to grow some new crops! I'm so chuffed for you that you won this fab prize and happy you shared your day! Your photos are ace :)

  3. A very full day - you must have been exhausted

  4. Lots of nice pictures Annie. I was drawn to our blog from Sue Garretts blog when I spotted your town Huddersfield- where I was born! (Hall bower lane)
    The advice you were given on watering is spot on (actually coming from Huddersfield I am surprised you need to water at all!)
    I know some gardeners who water every evening when it is warm and dry. Misguided!

  5. What a great day. You certainly packed a lot in! xx

  6. What a fabulous day you must have had. The photos look amazing.

  7. I've been looking forward to this post. :) Looks like you had an amazing day. It sounds like it was packed too and that you picked up lots of great tips and were inspired along the way. And all those books too. Might have to start entering some competitions myself. ;)

  8. What a fantastic day you had and to learn from someone who is so knowledgeable must have been so inspiring. That was certainly a wonderful prize to win, then to be given the books too !

  9. Oh....I have to admit to being rather green eyed here. What a fantastic veg plot and kitchen garden....and I loved the tunnels.
    I'd love to visit River cottage, I'll really have to make the effort now!!!

    That chair is brilliant....I'm going to do that to one of mine.

    Wonderful post, I really enjoyed it!xxxx

  10. Great post Annie I really enjoyed reading about your River Cottage day. It really was a fabulous prize and must have been really interesting to see all the different methods they use in the garden. And all those books - wow.

  11. This is fascinating, a real peek behind the TV screen at River Cottage. It does sound as though you picked up lots of gardening tips. I wonder how many gardeners it takes to maintain a place like that. And I like the sound of blackcurrant Leaf sorbet and icecream.

  12. A most enjoyable and informative post Annie. Thanks for sharing some useful tips. Sounds as if you had an absolutely brilliant time and it must have been so much more relaxing than watching Andy Murray play :)