We recently waved a fond farewell to Adam Crofts, who worked with us at River Cottage HQ for many years. Adam has moved on to a new adventure, and we now are very pleased to welcome Jonny Callis into the role of Head Gardener! Jonny has come from an existing position in the River Cottage garden team and we're very excited for him to get cracking in his new role!
We caught up with him to see what he'll be working on during the winter, and to get his advice for new gardeners who are starting their gardening journeys in the new year...
What will you be working on at River Cottage HQ during the winter months?
Right now it's the middle of January, so you'd be forgiven for thinking it isn't the best time to be gardening. For me this time of year is a luxury. It's easier to make time for planning and preparing the garden for the spring and summer while there is less sowing, planting and harvesting to be done.
Nevertheless, the winter harvests are still coming in - cabbages, leeks and celeriac for example can stand in the ground outside until the kitchen needs them, while winter salads and soft herbs are picked daily in the polytunnels all winter.
I've been enjoying our renewed focus on composting since the summer. Homemade compost, which can be as simple or as complicated as you let it become, gives you a real advantage in terms of soil health and microbial biodiversity in the no dig system.
How do you decide what to grow throughout the year?
Working at River Cottage you can't escape the fact that everyone here is passionate about locally sourced food and fresh produce. I talk to the chefs daily, and over the seasons we continue to develop and hone what we grow and when we bring it into the kitchen. The first big harvests from the kitchen garden this spring will be overwintered broad beans and kale, and this year's spinach, beetroot and head lettuce. We try to grow the vegetables which give our customers the most interest and value; for instance there are some beautiful red kale varieties that pop off the plate that are nearly impossible to find in shops, and broad beans and beetroot harvested small are far more delicious than when left to mature. The chefs give great feedback and I always love to hear from diners too - the kitchen can't take all the credit!
Can you be planting anything at this time of year?
The sowing season really kicks off in February with leafy greens: spinach, lettuce, mustards; and some roots and alliums: beetroot and leeks. In a heated space you might risk a little earlier, but most seedlings will catch up by the time outdoor temperatures increase anyway. By Valentine's Day, our propagation space is going to be pretty crowded as we start thinking about sowing vegetables to fill the polytunnels too.
What jobs can people be doing for their gardens at the moment if not planting?
Getting your growing spaces and plans in order really helps you throughout the growing season. If you start off unorganised you can be playing catch up all through to the end of summer. Continuing to process homemade compost can be a year round labour of love, and is usually best used on growing areas. However, having a good supply of peat-free seed and potting compost is worth researching and acquiring.
Still, there's a lot to be doing outside too. The dormant period is the time to prune fruit trees and bushes, and clearing any dead plant material from perennial borders.
I'll soon be clearing our cover crops and mulching the first of the annual beds. I'll rake and mulch the beds with new compost, and top up the paths with fresh woodchip. This gives it a little time to settle and integrate with the soil ecosystem below, giving a fertile and even surface to plant into.
How can you look after biodiversity / local wildlife during the colder months?
Whenever I'm clearing beds of leaf or straw mulches after winter, I notice the small birds follow me for a look at the worms and larvae which are inevitably uncovered. For me, balance in the ecosystem is important both philosophically and practically. Pests will always exist for your crops, but as long as you tread lightly elsewhere and leave biodiverse ecosystems intact nearby, there'll be predators ready to bring them back in check. For small birds, maintaining enough native hedging is important, and for pollinators and predatory insects, a diversity of flowering plants throughout the year helps too. For example, we leave our ivy long in the winter for the early nectar and are lucky enough to be surrounded by the mature hedgerows enclosing longstanding pastures and woodlands on the farm.
For those who are completely new to gardening – what would be your advice on easing into it and where is a good place for people to start in your opinion?
There's so much advice out there for gardeners online and from anyone who's ever grown anything. A lot of it is good advice, but it's all too easy to have the truths in the advice obscured by rules of thumb and old wives tales. Between that and the thousands of manicured social media posts and blogs promising the world, I think it can be easy to be intimidated or paralysed by thoughts of getting it 'wrong'. Best advice I can think of is to remember that there is no wrong way, and the more things you try out the more you will learn, start off small and don't be discouraged when the outcomes aren't what you expected. Developing a garden is just a matter of patience and reflection, listening to all advice, but choosing which parts to follow and understanding why.
I say to customers regularly that the power of what we do at River Cottage isn't in what we do, but in sharing it with people. So as long as you're enjoying it, and making connections with nature and other people in outdoor spaces, you can't go wrong.