Category: Grow Your Own

Valley Farm Kitchen Garden, National Trust, Flatford by Brian Willis

Rhubarb growing in plot number 2, Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

About ten years ago, when the National Trust leased Valley Farm to The Field Study Council, it was discovered that a completely overgrown piece of ground behind the farm building had clearly once been a kitchen garden. A grant of £1,000 was awarded in 2010 towards the restoration of this garden, as part of National Trust’s ‘Eat Into Green Living’ initiative, a task undertaken by National Trust volunteers. During the restoration, original brick paths and box hedges were uncovered.

Ever since, volunteer gardeners have worked to maintain and develop the garden – or gardens, to be more precise. As far as possible, we try to maintain the gardens in as traditional way as possible, respecting the garden’s heritage. At the moment, we have four teams of gardeners, working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It is an idyllic place in which to work, set, as it is, in the heart of John Constable’s beloved countryside, in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Flatford. Tucked away, the garden remains unknown to many, even locals, some of whom, when they do discover us, remark that they’d been coming to Flatford for years, without realising we were there!

Valley Farm at Flatford, Suffolk. Valley Farm is a mid-15th century, medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s.

Photo credit: Jemma Finch

We grow, organically, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, much of which is used by the Tearoom in their recipes. Two of my all-time favourites are the rhubarb and ginger, and the raspberry and white chocolate scones! Produce which is not needed by the Tearoom is offered for sale to the public on our market barrow outside Bridge Cottage.

What do we grow?

Broad beans, runner beans, French beans, potatoes, red and white onions, Spring onions, garlic, leeks, courgettes, squashes, rhubarb, herbs, salad crops, including lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes and cucumbers. Have you ever tried ‘Crystal Lemon’ apple cucumbers? They’re delicious!

We also grow flowers, such as Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cornflowers, Sweet Williams and an interesting variety of poppies. We collect seed from some of the flowers, including from our spectacular poppies, which we also offer for sale on the barrow. We also have a soft fruit garden, in which we grow raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries.

Visitors exploring Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

Photo credit: Trevor Ray Hart

On Open Days, we organise activities for children, and, among new schemes in the pipeline, we are planning to set aside two of our raised beds for children to tend, grow crops, and learn about gardening and nature.

The gardeners are always glad to welcome visitors to our garden between 10 am and 12 noon on our working mornings. The entrance to the garden can be found just past Willy Lott’s House.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Brian Willis, volunteer gardener
National Trust, Flatford

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021