You are hereCharles' Page
I grew up on the family’s dairy farm in Shepton Montague, with no interest in cows, and was encouraged by my parents to look elsewhere for a career. Yet after graduating from Cambridge University with a geography degree in 1980, I felt a pull back to the land.
After a year of working for the Argyll Hotel on Iona in the Inner Hebrides, where home grown organic vegetables were an important part of the menu (and still are), wind permitting, I decided to have a go at commercial organic vegetable growing in an old orchard on the farm.
This was a marginal thing to do in the early eighties when farmers were still being encouraged towards quantity more than quality, consideration of the environment was minimal, and few people were keen to buy organic food. Yet it felt absolutely the right thing to do.
Charles Dowding with Catkin
The soil I started on is a free draining Cotswold Brash and early results from the acre and a half of raised beds were encouraging. My mother was worried about who would buy all the vegetables but, strangely enough, there was always a telephone call when crops were ready (she kindly answered them!). Also I started an early box scheme, just six boxes in that first year.
Over the next eight years I kept taking in more land and built up a large market garden, selling both locally in boxes and through a market stall, as well as to shops in Bristol, Bath and London. Every March I was joined by three of four young apprentices, until the autumn. But by 1990 I was ready for new adventures and found a couple to run the holding in my absence (they stopped in 1993).
In 1991 I bought and lived in an isolated French watermill, then spent some time creating a market garden in deepest rural Zambia, before settling on a forty acre Gascon farm of terrible soil in 1992, from where I married Susie. We ran an abundant and largely self sufficient smallholding, including vines which we turned into wine at the farm, and vegetables which we sold in the local market at Astaffort. Two children and five years later we decided to return to Somerset and a new chapter began, initially with the birth of another son, on my birthday.
Firstly I restored some of the barns at Lower Farm for Susie to run a Bed and Breakfast, then I trained as a kinesiologist (was told off for having dirty fingernails), and always the soil kept pulling me as an abundance of home-grown vegetables led to selling some boxes again, in between other work.
One evening in March 2003 I was encouraged by a local retailer, Phil Butler of Bill the Butcher in Bruton, to grow and compose salad bags. These sold so well, initially in his shop and then to other local shops and pubs as well, that they became the main output from a large garden which is based around an acre of permanent raised beds, mingled with a fair number of fruit trees. A fascinating, beautiful and tasty voyage of discovery to grow all the best leaves for every season resulted in the salad bags containing between ten and twenty different leaves at any one time, constantly varying as temperature and daylight levels rise and fall. Also I have developed new and reliable ways of continually cropping plants such as lettuce.
Increasing interest in my garden, it's produce and my methods have led to many articles for various magazines, lectures including one to the RHS in Tokyo, a book on vegetable growing which appeared in March 2007, and a second one on salad leaves in spring 2008.
Both books have sold well, over 35,000 in fact, and have received encouraging reviews. The first one came out in a new edition in late 2010, and now in 2012 I am supplying photos and new text to convert it into an all colour book which appears in February 2013. I wrote a third book, Winter Vegetables published spring 2011 by Green Books again, followed by my Vegetable Course Book for Frances Lincoln. This latest work, published in 2012, has more detail on starting off, mulching and improving soil, clearing weeds, and takes a closer look at the virtues of no dig, with many details of sowing times for each vegetable, to have best chance of healthy, abundant growth.
I am often consulted for advice on creating, maintaining and improving vegetable gardens and allotments. I do a lot of consultancy work and coming on a day course is a good idea too. The many talks which I give to gardening clubs, fund raising events, community meetings, allotment societies and literary festivals are received with enthusiasm. I can open your mind to new possibilities, and the photographs of my gardens show the beauty you can create with vegetable growing.
The latest chapter now unfolding is my move from Lower Farm to Homeacres nearby, creating a new garden the no dig way with help from Steph, and many friends; see This Month for how the story unfolds.