Perch Hill Farm
Linda is passionate about growing all her own vegetables at home. So she sought inspiration from England’s great gardener, writer, teacher, and vegetable grower, Sarah Raven.
Up early and battling the snow I trudge to my local railway station in London to board a train to ‘Stonegate’. The sleet is falling in sheets across Tunbridge Wells station as I alight to change to a different line. I’m wearing the ski clothes from my last ski trip, and am pleased as punch I had the good mind to wear my long johns!
My destination is Sarah Raven’s Perch Hill, in East Sussex, an hour or two (depending on your mode of transport) out of London in a charming rural area.
The conservatory overlooks part of the kitchen garden. Photo - Linda Ross
I’m here to attend two days of her vegetable growing lectures. And as I walk through charming country gates the first garden I see is the vegetable plot. At 1000 sq m, it is larger than most backyards and its formal design is crisscrossed with pea gravel pathways and wonderful structures.
Sarah runs cooking, flower arranging, vegetable growing and gardening courses at the school she set up in 1999 at her farm. She is a presenter on BBC Gardeners’ World, and writes for publications such as The Daily Telegraph, Gardens Illustrated and Gardeners’ World Magazine. She became part of Sissinghurst’s rich horticultural heritage when she married writer Adam Nicolson (grandson of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson). Sarah has two daughters and three stepsons and the family divides its time between Sissinghurst Castle and Perch Hill Farm.
“I love growing my own vegetables because I love the harvest, walking through the garden picking delicious meals,” she says. “I enjoy the propagation, the sowing of the seed, but most of all I love the baskets of tomatoes and aubergines, the wads of herbs, the colanders full of salads, the barrow-loads of pumpkins that you can so easily produce.” I agree whole-heartedly and enjoy an extraordinary day learning about the best vegetables to grow for taste, ease and inspiration in the kitchen.
Long rectangular beds are best for growing vegetables as you can reach all areas. Photo - Linda Ross
Sarah has an intensive, productive garden stretching to two acres with different garden rooms full of annuals and biennials for picking for the house or table. There is a new vegetable garden, herb and fruit garden. In the warmer months the Oast garden has an extravagant mix of dahlias, zinnias, gladioli, cannas, corn and banana foliage. This provides the constant supply of favourite flowers, cut hard for Sarah Raven's flower arranging courses.
The class takes place in a stone building on the farm with a large conservatory built onto the side, where we lunch. The place is brimming with tiny terracotta pots of winter-flowering crocus, mini daffodils, hellebores and tulips. Inside it feels like spring already, a stark contrast to the view outside.
The table is set for lunch, with potted hyacinths, primula and other winter lowering bulbs. Photo - Linda Ross
Sarah’s analysis of which vegetables are worth the effort of growing your own is intriguing. The first class is ‘let taste decide’. This group features the tomatoes, sweet corn, potatoes and peas, vegetables for which the taste is far superior when newly picked rather than picked up at the stores. The second group is the ‘unbuyables’ and includes borlotti beans, lovage, sorrel and other unusual varieties of herbs and vegetables that are impossible to buy. The third group is what she calls ‘desert island veg’; vegetables that produce lots of food over a long period with very little work. These big producers include salad greens, courgettes, herbs, kale and chard.
Frameworks support climbing vegetables such as peas, beans, cucumbers and small pumpkins. Frost-tender salad greens are protected with a cloche frame and plastic cover, which also protects against pests. Photo - Linda Ross
This dose of common sense alone makes my trip worth the effort, and helps me refine what I grow. Drummed into me is the adage “only grow what you eat”. The majority of the garden should be given over to vegetables we buy every week and eat nearly every day. The other big lesson, and one I think that takes a while to get right, is successional sowing. This helps gardeners avoid feast or famine in the vegetable patch, when too much of the one vegetable is ready to harvest at any one time. So carrots, beetroot, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, peas and broccoli need to be sown little and often to offer a reliable availability of the vegetables we want to eat.
Freshly harvested mini-cauliflower and 'Romanesco' broccoli. Photo - Linda Ross
I was fascinated by the woven-stem trellis, arches and frameworks dotted around the garden. Climbing vegetables need support to get them off the ground, make room for other crops, and reduce rot. Hanging vegetables from arches is not only pretty but practical too: I realise I need a bigger supply of bamboo, pea sticks and twine.
Willow teepee. Photo - Linda Ross
Raised beds help the soil drain freely, ensuring plants don’t remain soggy after rain. They are a real asset for a successful vegetable plot and the first step for any beginner. Timber, brick, recycled railways sleepers are the way to go.
Raised veg beds. Photo - Linda Ross
The use of willow, birch and hazelwood in the structures at Perch Hill made me realise how important sustainable materials are, especially when structures need to come down and be rebuilt after each season. In Australia bamboo is a fine option. Our side passage is full of bamboo we can harvest for structures. To do the same, choose a clumping variety of bamboo so you can harvest the culms (stems) as you need them; canes will last three or four seasons.
Photo - Linda Ross
The idea of a warm place to grow seeds is compelling and Sarah’s conservatory has benches at waist height to save ones back when seed raising (the luxury!). Most home gardeners won’t need a tunnel this size but commercially available plastic cold frames at knee high should suffice.