The idea was to produce as much as we could, if not all, of the herbs and salads for the restaurant as well as edible flowers, micro herbs, and some of the vegetables like cabbage and kale, and some berries. In February of 2018, I started planting and seeding like a mad man to have crops for spring and summer. Then March came and so did the snow. The white line you can see across the door is the snow yet the tunnels were fine. Outside was destroyed, but I was able to keep planting in the tunnels to have a very nice bounty in my first summer of salads and herbs….and a good few lessons. You need to be very aware for example of how hot the tunnels can get. It doesn’t need to be hot outside, just a bit of sunlight and think grow way quicker than you expect. Pots dry out quickly. Watering is best done early or late away from the strongest sunlight.
My advice if you have never grown anything (and I hadn't before this) start with easy ones: lettuce, radish, hardy herbs like rosemary, thyme and mint. They are very forgiving and can take a battering. Use the mushroom tubs. They are very handy. You can grow quite a bit in them; lettuce, radish, and a lot of herbs. They cost nothing and it is a great way to start. I still use them to this day for loads. Make sure you put a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill them up as they are quite deep, and grow away.
If you are planting outside don’t overwater. In my first year, I drowned some and others died of lack of water. Every plant is different. In 2019 I grew my first tomatoes. I grew nine varieties as well as 6 types of chillies. I got great harvests from them but they require work.
I have planted herbs like burnet, king Henry, rosemary to name but a few. Thirty different flavoured mints, five types of thyme, eighteen types of lettuce, six types of radish from the normal to sparkler white and black and so on.
The impact that growing all of this has had over the past 18 months is that it brings a lot of very fresh flavours to my dishes, or brings in new flavours, or replaces other ingredients, or even allows us to create our own. I grow curry plant which tastes, well…like curry and I now use it instead of the powder. I grew enough chillies to make my own paprika and chilli powders for a year. Anything that there is too much of is pickled, or flavours oils and vinegars, which again is adding flavour to dishes and salads now. I also run a vegetarian menu which changes with the garden now every couple of weeks. The garden-inspired a dish that is never the same and has been on for 16 months now – ‘Insalade 28’; a 28 different leaf and herb salad with locally made cheese and brined artichokes.
Growing our own has also encouraged a very much zero-waste approach. We look to use from our vegetables, salads etc and any parts we don’t use go back to the garden to make my own compos. I grow nettle and comfrey to make liquid feeds and use seaweed to fertilise. Zero chemicals have been used in the garden. Most of the raised beds are made from up-cycling of materials like stone, old tree trunks, old scaffolding for climbing frames and pallets for the compost bin and as raised beds for herbs. It has massively raised awareness of being more environmentally friendly in the restaurant which has led to us looking at everything, including eradicating plastic in the restaurant, recycling everything we can, and talking to our suppliers to help us achieve our sustainability goals (including delivering everything to us in our own re-usable crates).
In 2019 I added a berry section to the garden to grow strawberries, blueberries, loganberries, tayberries and jostaberry as well as a wild berry hedgerow, blackberry, sloe, damsons. I feel we need nature in the garden so we created a bee hotel and wildflower area too. I’ve added more vegetables as I progressed; like courgette, cucumbers, melon, pea, beans, horseradish, asparagus, leek, celery, celeriac, onions, chard….this list goes on a bit. This year I want to push on again with a larger variety of heritage and old-world herbs and vegetables. I will hopefully add two more tunnels this year and hire a gardener to help me to push towards fully supplying the restaurant.
So would I recommend to other chefs to go on the ‘grow your own’ journey? I can certainly say that growing my own produce has brought me on a journey and in directions that I never would have gone in otherwise.
Growing my own herbs has given me a newfound love of using them and pushing myself to know about the different ones and bring that freshness to my food. Having my own garden has massively expanded my knowledge of seasons and made me aware that there are so many more flavours available to me, and a huge variety of different flavour profiles between varieties of herb. I gained a newfound love of vegetables, which led me to starting ‘Vegtopia’ a festival and more celebrating vegetables. Customers wanted to know more about our garden and produce so I started a Facebook page about the garden called ‘Gangster Plants’. Alongside foraging and a ‘nothing but local’ approach to food, growing our own gives the restaurant a USP others don’t have.
There is nothing better than planting a seed, seeing it grow, through to harvesting the plant and seeing it on the plate. It is a satisfaction that is beyond words. I also find being in the garden gives me ideas for dishes and uses, and drives me on to create total new dishes. Our vegetarian menu is growing all the time, with very seasonal dishes and with me trying more to create entire dishes from produce grown in our own garden.
I bring the team members out to the garden for a few hours when possible, sometimes including their college classmates. This gets them thinking much more about seasonality. For Vegetopia they all get to create a dish for the 8-course vegan tasting menu based on what is in the garden. It gets them out of the kitchen into a new environment and thinking differently. Some have started growing edible flowers and herbs themselves.
I guess for me, I found a new respect for the vegetable and how much flavour we can get from it. A steak is a steak, but a herb can be anything.
Noel’s top tips:
To start with go with things like easy things that grow relatively fast like lettuce and radish, and things that don’t require too much care like hardy herbs (rosemary, thyme, mint)
You don’t need much in terms of equipment or set up to get started - keep it simple: mushroom tubs filled with some good compost will do.
Start small, don’t try to do too much. If you start too big it will kill you. I went too big too fast and then didn’t have enough time to do it all. It takes a while to get a handle on it - grow into it!
People who grow are always willing to help and advise, so just ask
For me, the hardest thing about growing my own was patience when it came to the menu, waiting for things to be ready. It only goes on the menu in season when I grow it.