I have been growing organic vegetables over three and a half decades, in five different gardens on a range of soils, with an organic, no dig approach.
My market gardens have ranged from eleven acres in the 1980s, with four apprentice helpers, to the current third of an acre where my fertile beds produce year-round salad leaves and a wide range of vegetables, sold in local shops and restaurants. The garden grows trials too, such as comparing the effect on plant growth of digging with not digging, more about which can be found here.
Thanks to my long experience and successful results, including that my gardens have so few weeds, I am frequently asked to talk and give advice to individuals and groups who seek better results, for less effort. The approach I use is as suitable for small gardens as for market gardens, and I have great testimonials from both, including a whole programme of Gardeners World with Geoff Hamilton in 1988.
Since 2006 I have distilled my experience into a number of books on vegetable growing and have written articles for many gardening publications, including Gardeners World, Kitchen Garden, Country Smallholding, Permaculture, Grow Your Own, The Daily Telegraph, NVS, Optimum Nutrition and the RHS.
With Steph, I run day and weekend courses from Homeacres, and I travel around the country and abroad giving seminars and advice on the methods I have elaborated.
I grew up on the family’s dairy farm in Shepton Montague, Somerset 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.
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 or 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. The soil was white clay, known locally as boulbene and spurned by the local farmers. Nonetheless it responded well to my no dig approach and the neighbours were surprised at the abundance I brought to market.
We ran a largely self sufficient smallholding, including vines which we turned into wine at the farm, and the vegetables 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, then I trained as a kinesiologist (was told off for having dirty fingernails), and always the soil kept pulling me. An abundance of home-grown vegetables led to selling some boxes again, in between other work. Lower Farm is clay soil and one of the quarter-acre plots had been compacted by heavy machinery, before I converted it to no dig vegetables . I laid compost on top and it took a year of poor crops for the soil to recover, but improvement was steady and even in year two the parsnip harvest was impressive, both in length and size.
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 garden which comprised an acre (4000sq.m) 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 salad bags containing ten or even twenty different leaves at any one time, constantly varying as temperature and daylight levels rise and fall. I also developed new and reliable ways of continually cropping plants such as lettuce.
In 2012 I separated from Susie and started a new garden at Homeacres, helped by my partner Steph who is also a kitchen gardener, and has great knowledge on food preparation. The rapid evolution of Homeacres garden, transformed in six months from weedy wilderness to productive plot, amazed many visitors. See the monthly series of updates for snapshots of this process, starting December 2012.
From late April of the very first year I was already selling some salad and vegetables. At my various Open Days, hundreds of visitors have delighted in the wonderful abundance of the garden, and its many flowers and fruit trees too.
Increasing interest in my gardens and 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 over 60,000 copies in total, and have received encouraging reviews. The first one came out in a new edition in 2010, and then as a third edition, all colour book in 2013. I wrote a third book, Winter Vegetables published spring 2011 by Green Books, followed by my Vegetable Course Book for Frances Lincoln. This 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. It is was followed in February 2014 by Charles Dowding’s Veg Journal which has a month-by-month format, published again by Frances Lincoln, whilst in March 2014 Green Books published Gardening Myths and Misconceptions which tackles some of the misguided and contradictory advice common in the world of gardening. In 2015 my How to Create a New Vegetable Garden came out with Green Books.
In 2016 I had the idea to self publish a diary, which is also a manual of essential advice and timings for successful growing. It has been selling steadily and is exported to Chelsea Green in the USA, while the process of self publishing has been a steep learning curve for me.
In May 2017, No Dig Organic Home and Garden appears, written by Steph and myself, published by Permanent. It contains a lot of information, from preparing ground and growing, to preparing food and eating! Plus tips on potions, flowers, storing veg and more.
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.