Barnsley House & Charles Dowding
Last week I went to Barnsley House in Gloucestershire to hear a talk given by Charles Dowding. It was a bit of a trek there and back from London in mid-week rush hour traffic but it was the perfect opportunity to kill several birds with one stone: visit the former gardens of Rosemary Verey, hear Charles Dowding talk about his ‘no dig’ philosophy, check out the boutique hotel and not least, have a fun day out and lovely lunch with a good friend.
We arrived just after 11.30am and headed straight out for a wander around the gardens. The timing of our visit was pretty perfect as the famous Laburnum Walk was in full flower. It (along with the kitchen garden) was the best thing in the garden at this time. It was a slightly cloudy day but being under all the yellow really made it feel bright and luminous, as though the sun was out. An odd feeling when coupled with the fact that it was cool under the canopy in that corner of the garden. The laburnum flowers were alive with bees. It was delightful and sensory being under the enveloping, buzzing, sunshine. After a visit to the kitchen garden and a quick walk around the rest we enjoyed coffee and biscuits on the terrace before lunch was served in The Potager restaurant (all included in the ticket price). The restaurant itself, overlooking the garden with white linen covered tables and muted grey-green walls, provided a tasteful, elegant and understated backdrop to a delicious lunch. My main course was sea bass with asparagus. My friend, who doesn’t eat fish, had a divinely tasty, melt-in-the-mouth braised shoulder of lamb with vegetable ragout. He said he thought it was the best lamb he had eaten in a long time – high praise indeed! Dessert was a red fruit cheesecake.
After another coffee to finish off the meal we all trundled down to the cinema where Charles had set up for his talk. The cinema had big, squishy double chairs. The thought ‘uh-oh’ passed through my mind. It was cosy, dark and a bit too warm. I was in real danger of being swallowed up by the very pink sofa in my post-lunch lull. Luckily the talk was interesting enough to keep me from dozing off. Charles told us (our group numbered around 17) how he created his farm in Somerset on what was compacted clay soil. He has turned it into a thriving, productive vegetable farm, mainly selling salad leaves, following his no dig approach. The appeal of this to me is great. My garden is on heavy clay – it’s like putty in places, it smears and it’s bloody hard work to dig. The only thing is: can my laziness to dig outweigh my impatience for results? I asked how long it took, using his technique, to turn his compacted clay into something healthy and productive. He said that it took about two and a half years to sort the soil out and to expect good crops in the third year. That’s a long time for someone like me not known for my patience. Would two years of rubbish crops demoralise me away from growing my own? Maybe the solution for me is to dig the first year in order to aerate and add organic matter to the soil and then to just mulch without any digging in subsequent years? It was suggested that starting out with root crops, such as parsnips, to help loosen the soil would be a good idea.
Dowding is a self-taught grower, hugely into experimenting and he has found ways that work very successfully for him. I liked his approach and a lot of what he said made sense: for example cultivating plants in a way that would help avoid pests and diseases rather than having to fight them – his example was flea beetle and to make later sowings thus avoiding the flea beetle season. The main thing I like about his no dig approach – besides the no digging! – is that it relies heavily on regular mulching with organic matter (for Charles this is an annual task using well-rotted cow manure or mushroom compost). I am a great believer in this practice. It helps add goodness to the soil, aids moisture retention, improves soil structure and makes keeping on top of weeds – something Charles is very proud of on their organic farm – much more of a doddle. Charles is also something of a biodynamic grower. Working with the moon puts him in a good frame of mind and helps him to organise what to sow when. Although I am a bit more sceptical on this score, I have never practised it and I suppose if it works for people then where’s the harm…? We were each given a bag of salad leaves after the talk to take home with us. If they were anything to go by he’s doing something right – they were so tasty even my other half passed comment on it when we ate them with our dinner that evening ( I say ‘even’ because it’s very unlike him to get excited about salad).
The talk finished around mid-afternoon. A look at the map showed the well-known village of Bibury just minutes down the road. It was a Cotswold village that still remained on my must-see list. Another bird with that stone? Why not!