No-Dig, by Darren Stephens

No-Dig, by Darren Stephens

October 2022

Farming microbes

It was inevitable, rain and lots of it. So much so that it must have nearly balanced out the summer of drought already. The sweltering memories of summer are now crushed under a mountain of fallen leaves and muddy wet weather gear. It's gloomy, drippy and sodden, but the crops are loving it if I’m not.

October's growth was phenomenal thanks to wet but still warm temperatures and is still steady now in November, especially for crops planted in summer with strong root systems in place like spinach and purple sprouting broccoli. I am harvesting more salad leaves now than at any point in the summer with mustard-type leaves like salad rocket in their element, unfortunately, the demand from the kitchen for them this time of year is not as high.

There is no shortage of leafy greens of every shade this time of year, as kales carry on cropping and savoy and January king cabbage on the cusp of harvest. Bulbs of fennel are about the only thing going to the kitchen currently that isn’t a leaf of some sort. I'm thoroughly looking forward to December when after 6 months of TLC I can finally harvest and clear out the Brussel Sprout plants. Apart from the perennial crops that don’t require much care nothing has spent longer in the beds and I have become quite tired of seeing them now.

Its not all happy harvesting, however, my leeks that were struggling along through the summer with a nasty case of leek rust (a fungal disease) have now been finished off completely by allium leaf miners that tunnelled their way into the leek, distorting and eventually rotting them. The positives I take from crossing paths with these pests and diseases for the first time is that I am wiser from the experience, and can prepare appropriately next time.

The now damp manageable soil sees the return of earthworms to the kitchen garden who I have seldom seen since early spring. They have returned to eat up all the autumnal organic matter that falls to the earth, turning it into food for plants. This is the foundation of no-dig gardening, feeding from the top.

My job is to create topsoil full of microorganisms to restore and enhance nutrient cycles and create a thriving environment that will produce incredible vegetables. Microorganisms, the little things we wage war on, are the things that keep the system healthy. The outputs are the fruit and vegetables, and the main resource base we manage is the soil. Richard Perkins, a regenerative farming expert in Sweden put it excellently “We’re not farming vegetables, we’re farming microbes”.

It's all about gardening regeneratively and sustainably. Compost is crucial here and making it sometimes feels like my main job. The compost bays are the engine room of the garden. I'm always on the lookout for good organic waste I can utilise. There is more garden waste now than there was in the dry summer. Recently when harvesting winter cabbages, I’m just as happy adding all the waste foliage to the compost bays as I am taking the firm heads to the kitchen. Now is the perfect time to lay these foundations adding composted waste to the top of your beds to encourage microbes and feed the noble earthworm.

I was very thankful to have a helping hand harvesting from Olive and Daniella this month, two new apprentice chefs to the hotel group. We have linked up with Bath college to encourage and train the chefs of the future with a really worthwhile apprenticeship program. Part of it is spending time with me in the garden where I can explain, best as I can, where and how much of our produce starts its life to give a broad spectrum of the industry at an early stage, something I wish I had the opportunity to do when starting out.

I couldn't write this blog without mentioning one of the most traumatic afternoons I’ve had in the kitchen garden. I managed to lose Muffy, our miniature schnauzer. She often comes to the garden with me and is well known by most at Homewood and deservedly gets all the attention as she trots around the grounds never far from my side. I couldn't ask for a more well-behaved companion and is dearly loved by my partner Lorraine. Muffy managed to get herself stuck under some black tarpaulin that was spread out in preparation for a new no-dig growing area. For some unknown reason, she laid incredibly still and flat without making a sound. I couldn't find her for over 4 hours. It wasn’t till 8 pm, when our receptionist Tiff and her partner stumbled on her, shivering and feeling sorry for herself. I write this mainly to thank the community of Homewood and quite a few locals from the village of Freshford whom I had never met before that came out in the dark and cold with torches to search the fields around the hotel and further away. I dread to think what would have happened without your help. Thank you.


Until next time…

Darren Stephens

Chef-Gardener, Homewood


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