Emily Pavey heads to The Small Holding to improve her gardening skills at a Grow the Seasons session

Perhaps I’m not cut out for gardening – don’t tell anyone, but I find weeding a bit upsetting. Who am I to decide the fate of that innocent thistle? I am very lucky to have a lovely garden though, thanks to the tremendous hard work of my husband and the sublime design of our dear hilarious friend, Erica Ash, sadly no longer with us. (She started her career on a YTS scheme in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and her beautiful work lives on in many lucky folks’ gardens – what a legacy.) My sporadic gardening efforts are few and far between. But I do love plants, nature (big topic) and dream of growing my own veg. I also love food.

With all this in mind, I signed up for the May session of Grow the Seasons at The Small Holding in Kilndown. My concern about whether my Mr Bean-like dexterity would be of any hindrance was thankfully outweighed by my excitement about learning new skills and LUNCH.
If you don’t already know it (or sister restaurant Birchwood in Flimwell’s eco-village), The Small Holding is a truly special establishment, winner of many plaudits, notably a Green Michelin Star. The brainchild of brothers Will and Matt Devlin, the restaurant and farm sit side-by-side and produce incredible food, in the most sustainable way. Much of the produce is grown on this one acre plot or in the very near vicinity. One of the beauties of this course is that you get to glimpse the impressive communication and cooperation which must exist between farm and kitchen for the delicious hyper-seasonal menu to come to fruition.
After coffee and pastries and an introduction by Will, we set off for a tour around the farm, with its lovely neat beds, wild and wonderful labels, fascinating planting and clear dedication to working sustainably. We were all enthralled by the farm’s HQ, a potting shed with a wall full of planting plans and timeline printouts, neon post-its and highlighter use aplenty. The farm uses all the nature-friendly methods you would imagine, and a few more, as we gathered throughout the day. No dig, no pesticides, no worries. The pace was just right and there were frequent opportunities for everyone to ask their own questions, our very own Gardeners’ Question Time.
Our first practical session involved building a small structure and planting out kale and peas. The ‘no dig’ method used for this bed is all about mimicking nature’s tried-and-tested-over-millions-of-years methods. Rather than disrupt the soil, we leave it as is. The advantages are better soil health, fewer weeds, less back ache and worms stay in one piece, able to go about their very important soil work. Plus the carbon stays where it’s meant to be, in the ground.
Following a quick coffee break, we moved on to sowing and planting methods and learnt about succession planting, used with great success on the farm, providing the kitchen with crops over a period of time rather than all at one sitting. We direct sowed some cut-and-come-again leaves and I imagined the amazing dressing these were destined to be served with. After a Q&A session, we headed indoors to the restaurant. I was hoping for something delicious, but all expectations were truly surpassed. Slow-roasted hogget with a beautiful sauce, potatoes in butter and mustard, fresh asparagus and a beautiful salad with a delightful dressing. And plenty of it. Will talked us through the ingredients, and we moved on to strawberries served with meringue wafers and an amazing barley-infused cream – popcorn-like and wonderful. We all chatted gardening temperaments (are you the optimist who plants one seed and expects it to grow just as it says on the packet or are you terrified of thinning out and losing the lot?) and soon it was time to head back outdoors.
The day had been very well thought out and so no kneeling down after lunch… we learnt about the benefits of companion planting and edible flowers and sowed our own trays of them to take home, along with a wonderful goody bag. We all had a bit of time to explore the farm and then wandered back through the little meadow to meet up for a final Q&A. I’d met a lovely bunch of people and everyone from beginner to expert had learnt plenty to take home with them. As we left through the Kilndown woodland I wondered how the day could be improved and then I saw a deer skip across the road. I don’t believe in perfection, but if I did, this would be it.
Keep up with the latest events at The Small Holding at smallholdingrestaurant.com

Main image: Key & Quill

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