Our most popular course, with the tutors (and successful organic growers) from Trill Farm and Charles Dowding's No Dig, it’s no wonder it sold out! Tickets are now on sale for our September course. To book your place click here…
"With the hottest day of the year so far, we had a really successful Market Gardening Course over the weekend with no dig pioneer Charles Dowding of Homeacres, organic veg grower Ashley Wheeler from Trill Farm and Hugh and Patsy Chapman from Longmeadow Organics. It's great to find so much interest in growing food with growers from all over the UK & Ireland on the course. Thanks to all who came".
The following is a writeup of the course from three of the attendees:
From 8th-10th April 2017, Landbase, a new initiative providing training in small-scale food production to new entrant landworkers, ran their ‘Making a Successful Market Garden’ course. Based at three different holdings in Dorset, Devon and Somerset, each day was led by an experienced grower who took us through the technical, organisational and financial aspects of growing and selling veg at their particular market garden. Course tutors Ashley Wheeler of Trill Farm Garden, Hugh and Patsy Chapman of Longmeadow Organics and Charles Dowding of Homeacres gave an informative and inspiring insight into how they run their businesses providing food for thought for aspiring and experienced growers alike. Course participants included those already running a market garden business, new entrants just starting out on their new sites, trainee market gardeners and aspiring allotmenteers.
Trill Farm Garden – Ashley Wheeler
Trill Farm is a 300 acre farm on which Ashley Wheeler and Kate Norman rent 2.5acres and run Trill Farm Garden, their own separate business. Ash see's this model as having great potential for new entrants as it is mutually beneficial both for grower and landowner. For example he shares branding with the farm and its other on site businesses, and more practically, he has shared use of the farm tractor. When Ash and Kate moved to Trill Farm seven years ago the market garden already had some infrastructure in place, a rabbit and deer proof fence, a large polytunnel, a borehole, and later the land owner built a packing shed. This infrastructure is reflected in their rent which is expensive for the area, however being on the farm pays for itself - the chef who works on site buys the equivalent of their rent in produce each year.
One of the things Ash highlighted as important to consider when setting up a market garden is access to a market, too often people focus on just the physical aspects of a site. Trill Farm Garden have ended up mostly selling high value crops to restaurants and cafes in and around Lyme Regis, and are working on direct sales through the Open Food Network. Although ideologically we all aspire to make good food accessible to everyone, Ash decided to grow a mixed salad which is a high value but also high labour crop and therefore enables him to support two trainee's and employ a relatively high number of local people in growing in relation to the size of the garden. In part, they adapted to the market they found, but they were also clear on what they enjoy and what works for them as a family with two young children. Compared to a box scheme for example, they prefer the rhythm of work their sales create through the year; working 70 - 80 hours a week in the busy summer months but then having time off in the winter.
We looked at a few photo's of the site from when Ash and Kate first started - I find it reassuring as an aspiring grower to see the beginnings of such a successful market garden. It's useful to remember that it’s a long game, constant refining and small improvements over time and lots of hard work!
Ash took us through his crop rotation based on Tolhurst and Hall's 9 year rotation, his favourite hand tools, including kirpie’s which are used for weeding whilst salad picking, his propagation tunnel and process as he grows everything from seed, and machinery. Ash recently started using a bed former which has really helped on a site with heavy clay soil that has very poor drainage and is prone to flooding.
I also collected many nuggets of wisdom of the sort that come over time. For example, try to find time to do the things you really enjoy or are important to you, for Ash it’s growing from seed, and saving seed, which he does for the political significance and to keep the skill alive. Little things, like growing cut flowers for market to bring the customers in, and tips on what to spend money on and what not, for example heat benches are invaluable in Ash’s opinion, and polytunnels are often available for cheap second hand. Finally, Ash was adamant that he could not run his business as successfully if he did not live on site.
Longmeadow Organic Vegetables – Hugh and Patsy Chapman
The first thing that struck me as we begun the tour of Longmeadow was the maturity of the site. Patsy and Hugh pointed out hedgerows and stands of birches which they planted when they moved to Longmeadow in 1987 that are now flowering and towering overhead. As course participants we had the benefit of learning from their years of experience growing vegetables at their 10 acre site in Dorset. Using photographs and video, Patsy and Hugh took us through how their business has changed over their time at Longmeadow, moving from selling to wholesalers towards running a successful veg box scheme and farm shop. Now they are approaching retirement they have scaled back their veg production and laid much of their ground to rest under fertility building green manures.
After introducing us to the challenges, benefits and eccentricities of their site, the Chapmans took us through all aspects of their business from technical growing information to marketing. Their site, originally a water meadow, has fertile, medium loam soil which is very stony and needs careful management to create a useable seed bed. An important part of their soil cultivation regime is to shallow plough the soil to bury the stones each year in time for planting. The stones then slowly rise back up to the surface over the course of the season and benefit crop growth by absorbing heat from the sun and radiating it back into the soil.
Compared to Trill Farm Garden and Homeacres, the growing system at Longmeadow is more mechanised and the day provided a useful introduction to bed preparation, weeding techniques, crop establishment and green manures on a slightly larger scale. This included looking at precision drills, rotavators, flame weeders, mechanical weeders and tractor mounted planters.
The Chapmans also gave a valuable session on the ins and outs of running a successful veg box scheme. As well as covering practical aspects of packing, crop planning and storage they also provided advice on creating a veg box which is both appreciated by the customers and sustainable for the growers to run. Unusually, Patsy and Hugh chose to have a break in the box scheme from mid February to mid June which enabled both them and their customers to have a rest - by mid June their customers were excited to have their veg box delivery again!
I have taken home a wealth of information from the course at Longmeadow but what I found most inspiring was seeing the enduring and respectful relationship the Chapmans have forged with their land – that as organic growers we steward land we cultivate, rather than impose ourselves on it.
Charles Dowding’s at Homeacres
We arrived on the last day of the Market Gardening Success course at Charles’ Dowding’s Homeacres in Somerset. Homeacres is surprisingly small! And notably weed free (in the beds)! At first glance it is very clearly a culmination of Charles’ experience as a grower.
We started the day with an introduction for Charles’ renowned “no-dig” growing methods. For some of us this day was to help us refine our methods back at our own sites, and for others a complete introduction. In short I think the most important pieces of advice that Charles Dowding shared are:
1. Getting timings right
2. Don’t disturb the soil
3. Don’t believe everything you are told
The above advice pays tribute to the fact that Charles’ has been a market gardener for 30 years, and in all that time been trying and testing no-dig growing, refining timings of sowings, plantings and weeding, and been busting garden myths by breaking more than one of the many so-called gardening rules (e.g. double digging or putting nasty weeds, such as docks, in the compost). As a relatively new grower, it is a little daunting that it effectively could take the best part of three decades to perfect growing methods to run a viable business and have a healthy soil.
After introductions we headed out in to the garden, of which no more than one third of an acre is cultivated, to start our tour. It was a fantastic time to visit the garden, at the beginning of spring when the first plantings are in the ground, and life is coming back to the garden. Charles moved to the site in 2012, and it is quite simply remarkable what he has achieved in the that time. Especially when compared to the “before” photos!
Charles said he always advises to scale down: Homeacres is one of the smallest market gardens I have visited, yet it is no less productive, or rather one of the most productive. Frequently he has multisown veg, such as turnips (or beetroot, peas) in clumps of five, and at harvest time goes through and picking the largest. This is a common technique for onions and beetroot but Charles has applied this thought to other veg. It saves on space in the green house and in the ground. Crops are intercropped - garlic running down the centre of beds for example - utilising the space, shading out weeds and giving a more diverse and resilient ecosystem. Radishes and carrots sowed together, getting two crops from one sowing. Pathways are narrow maximising growing space, there is opportunistic plantings, for example planting potatoes or squash on next year’s compost pile and, each bed gets two or sometimes three crops per year, achieved by timing sowings to precision, helping to maximise productivity of a very small space.
Charles has been testing “no-dig” Vs “dig” methods on site, and more recently “no-dig” Vs “broad forking”. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly the no-dig beds are either more or equally productive to the the dug beds, but with less work. I have seen pictures of these trials, but seeing with my eyes, the plants in the no-dig beds have more vitality and generally look healthier than those in the dug beds, with one exception - the broad forked broad beans.
My notes from the visit are long and detailed, and it is extremely hard to summarise a life time of growing that was summarised to me in one day, but other important, interesting points that are worth mentioning are hotbeds in greenhouses, as an alternative to using electricity powered heated benches. Charles Dowding raises all seedlings using the hot bed, that is a tonne of fresh horse manure that maintains a good temperature for germination. Another is whether rotations are necessary, Charles’ is experimenting in a few beds planting the same crop year on year, and the role of greater forces on veg growing - the moon, energies and some of the biodynamic principles.