Penny’s gardening blog – Some advice on growing your own

Growing some of your own veg, herbs or flowers is a very rewarding and satisfying thing to try. It gets you outside, connects you with nature, and gets you on the move so is good physical exercise.

What you decide to grow depends on what space and time you have. Growing and nurturing plants takes time, a little commitment, and some planning ahead. I’ve put together some simple tips to give novices a good start. You’ll have the growing bug before you know it – positively running out, aproned up, plucking fresh herbs, cutting salads and a few edible flowers to place in your trug, pretending to be what’s-her-name from The Good Life!

What you need

Sun
To grow successfully you need sunlight, and ideally a bit of shelter from the wind. Not much will grow in dark areas, but leafy crops like spinach and chard will tolerate some shade.

Soil and prep
If you have a garden, you can create beds to grow your produce in. This will need digging over to create a crumbly tilth, unless you’ve mulched the area with black plastic, old carpet or homemade compost (4” layer) over winter. If so, you simply peel back the mulch, remove any slugs or snails, add some organic farmyard manure or organic chicken pellets, and lightly fork over.

If you don’t have a garden, you may have a patio, balcony, or window box. You can grow lots of herbs, veg and flowers in pots, growbags, buckets, and so on. People are incredibly inventive; I’ve seen salad leaves, herbs, edible flowers, and strawberries growing out of old defunct suitcases, drawers, gutters… Basically, you need a container which will hold some decent quality multi-purpose compost, with some drainage holes pierced in the bottom to allow water to pass through.

Seeds or seedlings
You can germinate your seeds in seed trays using seed compost. Place them somewhere warm, ideally a greenhouse or poly-tunnel but also possibly on a warm, light windowsill in your house.

I buy a lot of my seeds from a fairly local seed company called Tamar Organics that do a large selection of veg, herb and flower seeds. Most seed packets come with good instructions on what depth to sow the seeds, when to sow etc. and when you are likely to start harvesting the produce. There is also often more detailed growing advice on the seed company’s websites.

You can also buy lots of seedlings, ready to plant straight out, from garden centres, farm shops and nurseries, and via mail order. I have bought lots of seedlings from Delfland Nurseries, to grow organic plants for gardens and allotments. They give you a head start, and if you’re a beginner are a good way to start.

What to grow

If you’re a complete novice, start small. Don’t be too ambitious, as it may all get out of control and put you off forever more. Grow a few herbs to flavour your meals, some salads and edible flowers, and a few flowers to cut and bring inside. Having flowers in your garden looks great but also attracts insects like lacewings and hoverflies, which are natural predators for aphids, and of course bees which are great for pollination.

Here are a few easy things to try:

Veg
– Radishes are so easy. Sow them now and you’ll be harvesting them in 5-6 weeks. Follow the instructions on the packet.

– Lettuce. Germinate in small batches, as they will mature at the same time and you don’t want to end up with hundreds of lettuces all at once.

– Spinach and chards. Sow direct and then thin them out to the spacing recommended on the packet. These are cut and come again.

– Beetroots. Sow direct or multi-sow in cells (pictured), three or four per cell, and plant out when the roots have filled the cell. Try Chioggia beetroot, a beautiful candy-striped variety.

Flowers
– Borage, calendula, viola tricolour, nasturtium and cornflower are all edible flowers (nice in a vase too) and easy to grow. Sow the cornflower fairly generously, directly into a drill (a long furrow in the soil). Once up, stake with bamboo and string. The others are best sowed in cells, one seed per cell.

– Dahlias are great as they flower later in the season, August to October. You can buy them as tubers. Sarah Raven has a fantastic range of these showy blooms.

– Cosmos flower later too, and right onto first frosts in the autumn. Bring on as a seedling – they’re very easy to grow.

– Gladioli are a favourite of mine. They’re widely available, and come as a corm.

– Nigella, otherwise known as ‘love in a mist’! Very Mills and Boon, don’t you think? Sow the same as cornflowers, but they won’t need staking.

Herbs
– Buy rosemary, sage, oregano, chives, and thyme as plants.

– Sow coriander, dill and rocket direct and in succession every three weeks to have a constant supply. Leave some to go to seed; fresh coriander seed is delicious, and dill in flower is stunning mixed with your other blooms.

 

Guy’s news: I just couldn’t eat it all myself

When I started packing veg boxes on a cow shed floor in 1993, my assumption was that our customers would be (or at least should be) just like me; same chaotic cooking style, same approach to life, with an equally messy kitchen and the same hungry family to feed. Such egocentric lack of appreciation of household diversity and contempt for the marketing process was a flaw from the start, but seemed to serve us remarkably well for many years. When I finally learned how most people cook I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe how little veg they ate, so, as a committed veg nerd it became my mission to spread the word. As the legendary Welsh drug dealer ‘Mr Nice’ reputedly said in court, “I never meant to sell the stuff; I just couldn’t smoke it all myself ”.

25 years on my household has shrunk, as has (mercifully) my appetite and ego. I still think most of you should eat more veg, ideally stuff that we have grown, but I now fully see the virtue in listening to you and meeting you halfway. I hope we will always be unashamedly opinionated in our veg enthusiasm and try hard to nudge our customers towards veg-centric, seasonal eating, but how we do that needs to be better informed to achieve the greatest impact. As such we need your guidance on how many cauliflowers we should send you in a winter; how many aphids are acceptable per lettuce; whether we should offer flexibility in delivery days; and if it is fairer to charge for delivery and drop the minimum spend. Our plan is to recruit a panel of customers who are happy to participate in forums and polls on such topics. You can join in as much or as little as you like, so if you might be interested please contact the delightful Polly via research@riverford.co.uk.

Many people claim to eat seasonally but so few actually do it; we have twice before had a ‘UK-only’ box and twice dropped it when uptake failed to reach 1%. Last autumn we tried again and maybe we are getting better at it, as sales topped 3% this time, so we are much encouraged. As we enter the hungry gap we cannot muster eight UK items with any degree of rotation so we are suspending it for a few weeks; rest assured it will be back in June and we will be nudging all of you to try it.

Another visit from The Happy Pear


Last time we teamed up with Irish chef duo The Happy Pear, their joyful, nourishing cookery went down a storm with our recipe box customers. Now we’re thrilled to be working with the boys again for some new limited edition vegetarian recipe boxes, delivered from 8th May.

The Happy Pear, identical twins David and Stephen Flynn, are chefs who run a natural food shop, wholefood café and restaurant, superfood sprout farm and online shop, as well as giving health education talks – all to ‘inspire a healthier, happier world’. A quick look at their cookbooks (both bestsellers in Ireland) shows their infectious passion for vibrant, veg-packed cooking is a brilliant match with our own approach to food.

A bit more background on dynamic duo: after studying business at university, David and Stephen travelled the world, tasting many local dishes and unusual ingredients along the way. When they returned to Ireland, their aims were to start a food revolution by making fruit and veg exciting, to get involved with their community, and to drag as many people along for the ride as possible.
Today, The Happy Pear is a community itself, all about making natural, nutritious food mainstream, and creating really good products that make it easier for people to be healthier and happier. They have a huge following on social media; every week they release videos on their YouTube channel, and they’re also part of Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, the largest foodie community in Europe.

David and Stephen live with their families in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. They really ‘walk their talk’ by eating a wholefood and plant-based diet, practicing yoga, swimming in the sea, keeping bees, and smiling every day.

When the boys came to see us on the farm in Devon, they were a pleasure to have along – just as full of energy and warm enthusiasm in person as they are in their videos. Riverford founder Guy Watson gave them a tour, where they harvested leeks and tasted their way through the green leaves in our polytunnels, before heading to our development kitchen for a bit of cooking and a photoshoot. Here’s what they had to say:

“We’re delighted to be working with Riverford; their food culture and the way they work so close to the land and the people who farm it is inspirational. One of our missions is to get people to eat more veg, and this is very much central to what Riverford do, so it’s a beautiful marriage of goals. Our recipes plus Riverford veg – what could be better?”

We couldn’t agree more.

Limited edition Happy Pear recipe boxes, with everything you need to make three colourful, flavour-packed vegetarian meals for two people. Pre-order now for deliveries from 8th May.

Guy’s news: Why I don’t trust the regulation of pesticides

According to the gov.uk website “On the best science available, no harm will come to people who consume an amount of pesticide that is below the safety limits for that pesticide”. Yet 147 pesticides I was assured were safe in the 1970s, based on the “best science available” at the time, have subsequently been banned, as risks to users, the environment or the public have emerged. Why has the regulatory approach repeatedly underestimated risk from pesticides?

The “cocktail effect” might explain some of the failures. Assessments almost always look at toxins in isolation, despite the fact that synergistic or “cocktail effects” (whereby two toxins can create effects together greater than the sum of their individual toxicities), were first proven in the 1960s and are now well established. With two thirds of fruit and veg containing detectable pesticide residues, and with so many chemical toxins in our environment, the possible combinations are almost infinite, making realistic assessment impractical.

A second possible reason for science getting it wrong is the assumption that the dose determines the poison. Hormones don’t work in this way; their action, through time and site specificity, is much more subtle. Many pesticides are known endocrine (hormone system) disruptors, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find unexpected effects at minute doses, often below those considered “safe”.

It’s easy to design an experiment to determine whether a chemical kills or damages a rat (and by extrapolation poses danger to humans) if the effect is quick, short-lived and in isolation. If the effect is slow, things get harder. If it is complicated by interactions with other chemicals, environmental factors or disease, things get progressively more complex until convincing results become
practically impossible to obtain. Absence of convincing results has too often been taken as evidence of safety.

Based on the evidence of history and on common sense, I believe there can be no absolutely “safe” level for pesticides (especially endocrine disruptors); only degrees of risk which you may or may not deem acceptable. For those with the time and interest please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Musing on misery & contentment in farming

My current state of contentment is unusual for a farmer; we have a reputation for misery. Could a dour anticipation of calamity be a prerequisite of farming success? Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak didn’t save the harvest by revelling at the harvest festival; he was out virtuously sheeting the ricks against the gathering storm while everyone else was getting legless in the barn. Joe Grundy, David Archer and Brian Aldridge maintain the tradition across the class divide with their variations on rural self-pity in Radio 4’s The Archers. Folklore would have it that there is always some form of deluge, drought or pestilence waiting to wipe rare smiles off a farmer’s face before they settle.

The challenges facing farmers may be tangible and dramatic, but I suspect they are no more onerous than those suffered by many professions, and we do have many compensations. What greater privilege could there be than to be working amongst the rising birdsong, part of the annual renewal that is spring, ploughing and sowing as returning life erupts around you? Even my ageing bones feel a hint of youth returning.

As the years pass and experience gathers, the calamities seem less personal; as I remember collapsing exhausted to my knees and weeping by a broken-down tractor as potatoes died of blight around me, I am grateful for the serenity and perspective that comes with age. As in all businesses one must be mindful of the risks and prepared to react quickly to minimise their impacts. Experience helps, but, longer term, humility and feeling part of nature rather than personally embattled is key to contentment and effective management. Misery is a waste of emotional effort; it just gets in the way.

It has been a glorious spring; my dairy farming brother says he can’t remember an easier farming year than the one past. Could this contentment be the start of a complacency that will be our downfall, or could it be maturity arriving? A really good farmer should feel cradled by nature; its ally and friend rather than its adversary. This perfect spring, that aspiration feels within reach. Hence the contentment.

Ben’s wine blog: An ode to Begude

With three listings, Domaine Begude are taking over our online wine shop. And why not? They’re that good.

It’s been there for years, but Domaine Begude is largely the creation of Englishman James Kinglake. James and his wife Catherine took over in 2003. Although the estate had been biodynamic, it was all a bit old school farmyardy, and hadn’t had the TLC it needed. There was a lot of work to do.

I met James on a freezing Sunday in late January about five years ago. I’d teamed up with one of our wine suppliers, following up leads he’d got from an organic wine expo in Montpellier. We’d just spent a fruitless morning trying to track down a seemingly non-existent Corbières producer, and stopped for a picnic of sorts with a gale from the nearby Pyrenees whistling around our ears. It was an extremely quick pit stop, and half an hour later we were at Begude being regaled with a description of the roast lamb James had eaten for lunch. It was all a bit Good Life meets Year in Provence – but the wines spoke for themselves.

Back then, I wasn’t helping with the Riverford wines, so I was just enjoying the ride. We didn’t talk prices; it was only back in Blighty when I saw a couple in Waitrose as part of a so-called ‘Brit Pack’ promotion that I realised what a bargain the wines were. They say the only way to make a small fortune out of winemaking is to start with a big one, and a vineyard in Provence does seem to be an essential appendage for many a multimillionaire. Not surprisingly, they convince themselves that their wine is magnificent and should demand the kind of prices only they and their friends can afford. James, with his Begude wines, isn’t in that camp at all. He makes the kind of good, clean, modern wines that we (the British) want to drink. He handles the distribution and marketing himself, but it’s a business, not an ego trip. By cutting out wholesalers, he’s able to keep the prices down and control where it goes, and he’s been keen on supplying Riverford from the start. If we had a franchisee in Carcassonne, he’d be a box customer – and his in-laws in Yorkshire definitely are.

His love of the noble Burgundian grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, took James to the hills around Limoux, south of Carcassonne. Slightly removed from the hot Mediterranean Languedoc, influenced by the cooling Pyrenees and Atlantic weather system, it’s perfect for discreet ‘Old World’ Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs; as good as, but half the price of their Burgundian counterparts. Jancis Robinson has been a fan for years and writes glowingly in her annual Languedoc/Roussillon assemblage reports. He’s been experimenting with other slightly cooler climate varieties – mainly Sauvignon, but also Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner – but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are what he does best.

Pinot NoirDomaine Begude pinot noir is on-trend, and sold well when we listed it last year. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with the Chardonnay. ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), that unfortunate condition bought on by over-exposure to the toasted-oaked, vanilla-heavy Antipodean version, seems to be the kiss of death for what is unquestionably the world’s finest white food grape. Call it Burgundy and it sells for £25 a bottle. Call it Chardonnay and it won’t sell full stop.

Domaine Begude chardonnayJames’s Chardonnay Terroir 11300 is 85% cool-fermented in stainless steel for zesty, citrus freshness, and 15% barrel-fermented in old 600 litre demi-muids. You can hardly taste the oak, but it adds roundness and body, making the wine more comparable to a Chablis or Burgundy than hotter climate, New World Chardonnay. The vineyard at 300 meters and the cooler weather mean the grapes don’t over-ripen, keeping a crisp minerality. If you’ve been to a wine tasting or been given the once-over by a pretentious sommelier, you’ll know that minerality is very, very good. Begude Terroir is good by itself, but even better with a wide range of food – from chicken to cheeses. I particularly like it with crab, but that’s probably just me.

Domaine Begude pinot roséTo make up the numbers, we’ve also added Begude’s Pinot Noir rosé. Salmon pink as a Provençal rosé, it’s a joy to drink. It was a last-minute decision and we could only get a relatively small amount, so buy now before it all goes.

James will be hosting a dinner in the Field Kitchen on May 18th. Click here to find out more and book your place for a special evening of wine-tasting alongside an unforgettable Riverford feast.

Order Domaine Begude’s Chardonnay, Pinot rosé or Pinot Noir from our award-winning shop for free delivery to your door.

Guy’s news: Waste, empowerment & the wealthy

25 years ago, I lost it with Tilly, one of our best carrot pickers. She refused not to put the bent, twisted and forked carrots in the sack. Like Tilly, most of us hate waste but seem powerless to prevent it. Supermarkets have their campaigns for wonky veg, invariably abandoned as quickly as the headlines they generate. The explanation lies in simplicity and, arguably, laziness; trade works best when products can be well defined, and it is easier to define perfection (straightness etc.) than levels of deviation from it. The brutal truth is that farmers get so little for a carrot that the hassle of defining acceptable imperfection, grading to the definition, and finding a customer willing to accept that grade is just not worth it. So the wonky ones get left in the field, and the waste goes on.

It was with some reluctance that we recently got involved with Dan Barber and his team of chefs from New York, who ran a month-long pop-up restaurant (WastED London) in Selfridges, cooking almost entirely what would otherwise have been thrown away. The cynic in me got a whiff of more marketing hype. The best dish was one of our kale stalks, flash-fired in the oven, impaled on a spike and theatrically brought to the table with a pair of scissors and a delicious ash mayonnaise. It was showy and very New York, but I managed to suppress my dour Devon farmer’s cynicism. The lettuce butts and fish cheeks were also excellent, as was at least 70% of the meal; the gastronomy, style and service were fantastic. My consciousness was raised and I left determined to look again at what we can do to further reduce waste at Riverford. It is already very low – if we don’t think it is good enough for you, there is a hierarchy whereby it goes to our restaurants, staff, local charities, then the cows – but we can do better.

As I made my way out onto Oxford street, walking between the jewels of Cartier, YSL and Channel, I found myself musing that most food waste is ultimately the result of consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste. There was an irony in eating a meal devoted to reducing waste in Selfridges; at £100/ head, it was not exactly skip diving. I wonder what Tilly would have made of it.

Guy’s News: Systemic pesticides & dubious progress

Systemic pesticides are absorbed through the leaves or roots and translocated to every part of the plant. Unlike contact pesticides, which need to touch pests to kill them, systemic pesticides don’t need direct contact; so long as the pest eats or sucks enough of the crop, death is assured. The downside is that the pesticide is in the edible parts of the plant too, giving you no chance of washing or peeling it off.

When I studied agriculture in the early ‘80s, I became an advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) whereby intelligent and minimal interventions are based on the ecological interactions (assumed to be well-studied and understood) of crop, pest, predator and the wider environment. An ‘intervention’ could be a pesticide (ideally well-targeted and short-lived), or (in theory at least) introducing a parasitic wasp, planting a hedge to encourage lacewings, or timing sowing to avoid peak pest egg-laying.

If things had progressed as my lecturer anticipated, we would now see non-organic farmers using minimal, highly targeted, low persistence sprays with a full understanding of their ecological impacts. But we were wrong. Farming didn’t get that smart, it just found more sophisticated, powerful ways of
being stupid. We failed to invest in ecology or to acknowledge the dangers of pesticides; the chemicals were too cheap, their use too simple and the sales patter too alluring. Threatening bees and other pollinators with systemic neonicotinoids is the latest example of the dangers of power without ecological understanding. Despite being systemic, 95% of neonicotinoid seed treatments end up in the soil, disrupting soil life or getting dispersed in dust to nearby crops. They are fairly persistent in the environment (half-lives typically between 200-1000 days), toxic to all insects, and harmful to most other animals. In trials bees didn’t die fast enough, so we didn’t anticipate neonicotinoids would reduce their ability to find their way back to the hive; that was just too subtle for the methodology. Intelligent regulation must accept there is no safe level for a nerve toxin or endocrine disrupter, only degrees of risk and levels of benefit. The job of legislation is to balance the two, not to fob us off with reassurance of long-lost safety.

Find out more about our campaign.

Guy’s news: Don’t blame the big man

Three weeks after a gale swept through the Vendée, the staff at our French farm have finally finished disentangling the disheartening remains of crop covers from the hedgerows. Although they were well weighted with bags of sand, the wind took the lot. Some can be re-used but most were shredded beyond repair. By the time we got new covers down, our chilled and buffeted crops had been set back a week. We have lost ten thousand of the more vulnerable cos lettuce and many hours of work. Such is farming; every year there will be a calamity, be it wind, rain, drought or pestilence. The important thing is not to take it as a personal slight from above. Without moving to a lab or a factory to produce our food, risk in farming can only be managed, never banished, however big your tractor or powerful your sprays.

The hedgerow oaks have yet to come into leaf. Not so different from home, yet lettuce harvesting will start here this week, just a few days after planting began in Devon. I still can’t really understand why they grow so well here in France. It is often much warmer by day, but there can be frosts at night into May. The answer lies in the quality of the Vendéen light; lettuces can take a lot of cold so long as they get the light.

After eight years, we are finding our feet here. Partly it is choosing the right crops for the land and the climate, partly investment in the right machinery. But mostly it is down to observation, questioning, and a restless determination to find a better way, leading to incremental improvement in skill, knowledge, and results. A little bit is also getting the arrogance kicked out of me and learning from neighbours. The beds are straighter, higher, and better drained; the crops more even; our staff have become multi-skilled and competent; and my accountant tells me that we made our first profit in 2016. The right plan gives you the chance of success, but it is attention to detail in the field that makes it a reality. That and undying hope. My father spent fifty years driving my mother nuts with his ‘Darling, I really think we are getting there.’ If you stop believing that, the gales have won.

WastED pop-up restaurant – Riverford meets New York

Last year we received a very exciting email asking if we’d like to be involved with a pop-up restaurant at Selfridges. It would be hosted by the illustrious Blue Hill Farm Restaurant, based in New York. Dan Barber, the head chef at Blue Hill, is something of an inspiration to our cooks at Riverford. Their ethos is similar to our own, with a focus on sustainable and local food from producers who respect artisanal techniques. The most exciting bit? The menu would use produce that would normally be considered waste; we’re not talking wonky veg, but by-products of the food industry that are never used.

After a little brainstorming, it was decided that Riverford would provide whole kale trees (the stalks with a few leaves on that are left at the end of the season), cabbage re-growth (leaves that re-appear once the cabbage has been harvested), and very undersized cabbages (ones that are too small to pick).


The pop-up opened its doors on Selfridges’ rooftop terrace on February 24th. Immediate feedback from the chefs told us the kale trees were going down a storm and were a visual sensation. They serve them whole on a spike on a wooden board, alongside scissors to cut the leaves yourself and a creamy, smoky dip.

A couple of us were lucky enough to go along. We entered through a dark corridor with black and white food and farming videos playing, and Jonny Cash’s Walk the Line on the playlist. Immediately, it was clear that the waste theme went further than just the food: there were lampshades made from dried mushrooms, tables from compressed artichoke fibres, and menus on recycled paper.

Each dish was presented to us with a story: how it’s made and where the produce comes from. Everything we ate and drank was innovative, wonderfully delicious and so inspiring. In a world where we waste a huge amount and many go without, projects like this are a fantastic way to fuel the food waste movement and keep the conversation alive.

To find out more, visited the WastED London website.