My visit to Mark Diacono’s Otter Farm

I was lucky enough to visit Otter Farm as a reward for investing in a crowdfunding project – billed as “A Taste of Otter Farm – a tour of Otter Farm with Mark, including a two course lunch”. Both of these elements were well up to expectations!

I’d met Mark a few times at food events organised by my friend, the cookery writer Rosemary Moon, at West Dean Gardens near my home in Chichester. Otter Farm is in East Devon, very close to the River Otter and near to Honiton. Previously Head Gardener at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage empire nearby, Mark left a few years ago to work on his 17-acre Otter Farm. Over time he has developed an orchard and a vineyard, built a house featured on Grand Designs, and built the subject of the Crowdfunder, a kitchen garden school: “a place to learn about growing, cooking, preserving, building, fermenting and more”. Both the house and kitchen garden school are designed around eco-friendly principles, the most noticeable element being the green roofs, which are clearly visible because of the way the buildings are designed.

The event was attended by about 18 of the 45 people who had pledged for this reward. We were greeted with jugs of mint or “cucumber” water (refreshing on a warm summer’s day). The latter contained large sprigs of salad burnet – the smaller leaves are best used in salads but the bigger ones work really well in water and do taste of cucumber. I’m not a fan of commercial flavoured water and even a slice of lemon in water can be too much for me, but I loved the herbal water and will be trying this at home! Once the whole group had assembled we were given delicious canapés of beetroot puree garnished with summer savoury. These were accompanied by a fabulous cocktail of Mark’s home-made limoncello topped up by his own sparkling wine. I had sampled Mark’s herbal cocktails at West Dean, so knew this would be good, and I was glad to be staying at an Airbnb just a short walk away!

Mark with his home made Limoncello

Mark with his home made Limoncello

Next we were treated to an in-depth tour of the newly planted vegetable garden, based on forest gardening principles with mostly perennial plants. Cob was used in the construction of the kitchen garden school and Mark decided to use it for the walls of the garden too, adding a real rustic feel. The garden was full of plants I had never heard of, or variants that were new to me, even though I thought I was quite well up on unusual vegetables and herbs.

Egyptian walking onion

Egyptian walking onion

I’ll cover just a few of the plants that particularly caught my eye or appealed to me in some other way, otherwise there would be far too many to cover! The Egyptian walking onion produces onions similar to shallots but what is different about it is that it grows its next generation of onions at the top of the stalks. These mature during summer, sending out small roots and shoots of their own. The flower stalk falls over, and the bulbils root where they touch the ground. The next year these form onions in their new location, grow a stalk with bulbils on top – which then falls over to repeat the process. Continuing with the allium theme, we were also shown Welsh onions (not from Wales and not an onion as we know it as it doesn’t grow bulbs) and society garlic grown for its flowers and more like chives than garlic and so named because apparently it is less pungent on the breath!

Social garlic

Social garlic

Moving onto herbs, sweet cicely has attractive fern-like leaves, has an aniseed flavour, and can be cooked with rhubarb using less sugar because of its natural sweetness implied by its name. Scotch Lovage has red stems which answered a question for me – I saw Scotch lovage in a kitchen garden a few years ago, just labelled as lovage, bought some lovage seeds, and wondered when they grew why they didn’t have red stems! Apple mint (which I grow myself and used in my much admired apple and mint [or apple and apple mint jelly]!) is very good in water. Mark recommends growing mint in pots if you grow more than one, otherwise they cross and the individual taste can’t be distinguished. Mark is a big fan of ginger rosemary. He also grows several varieties of hyssop, including anise hyssop, very good for attracting bees.

One strange fact I learned was that dahlia tubers were eaten 200 years ago; this makes me wonder if that is why they are often grown on allotments, particularly by the more elderly allotmenteers? Perhaps they are carrying on a tradition for cut flowers that originates in them being grown to eat. Mark is growing fuchsias for their fruit, which is also something you don’t get to hear about much!

Szechan pepper bush

Szechan pepper bush

On the way back to the house we saw Japanese pepper and Szechuan pepper plants.  The latter should be picked when bright red (useful advice for me as I bought a plant from Mark a few years ago and it has produced a good crop for the first time this year!). The peppercorns can be used fresh or dried in the sun so that they go through a pepper mill. Another variety of Szechuan pepper is apparently very lemony. We all sampled a Szechuan peppercorn so that we could feel the tingly, numbing sensation it produces on the tongue!  Among the more unusual fruit trees grown here are the plumcot tree (I’ll leave you to guess which trees ones have been crossed here!) and the Juneberry, a fruiting species of Amelanchier.

Back at the house we were treated to a splendid lunch of local belly pork (Mark runs courses on butchery) followed by a most delicious chocolate cake. The chef for the day was Matthew Williamson, former co-owner of Flinty Red restaurant in Bristol. To accompany the food we had Mark’s own cider and wine – I sampled both and thoroughly enjoyed them!

Mark can be found in my neck of the woods in the Gardening Theatre on all three days (11-13 August 2017) of the West Dean Chilli Fiesta.

A few tips for newbie allotmenteers

So you get your allotment and charge off full steam ahead with ambitious plans for what you’ll grow, but your plot is in a bad state and needs a lot of clearing – bindweed, couch grass, you name it. Or it’s in fair/good condition and you attempt to fill it with all sorts of fruit and veg in huge quantities. Hold on a minute!

This article is not intended to be an exhaustive (or even exhausting) list of how to set up and run an allotment, more of an outline of a few things I’ve learnt along the way with my own allotment or observations of other peoples’ plots.

It’s fundamental to your long-term success to be realistic about how much you can achieve.

  • Be aware of the how much time you will be able put into your plot in addition to commitments of work, family, volunteering, and other activities.
  • Remember that it’s not all about pottering around in summer but taking care of essential maintenance in winter too.
  • Share a plot with friends if you feel it’s a lot to take on – this also helps if there are waiting lists in your area.
  • How you will deal with gluts of produce or diseases such as blight.

If your plot needs a lot of clearing I recommend doing one section thoroughly in the first year. This means that you can plant crops and have something to show for it, and you’ll be saving some of the hard work for next season. It’s one answer to being realistic, see above! So many people do a lot of back-breaking work in the first year, plant very little or nothing, then give up even though they’ve now done the hard work.

If weeds are growing high, it might be a good idea to embrace your inner Poldark and scythe it off first before digging them out. Rotovating might be a way of getting the soil into usable condition but at the cost of damage to the soil structure and of spreading pernicious weeds such as bindweed around – even a tiny section of root can grow a big clump of the stuff! The remainder of your plot can be covered up with, say, heavy duty cardboard or old carpet (some Allotment sites disapprove of the latter) so that when you come to clear them the weeds will be easier to deal with. There are plenty more ideas of how to cover it on the internet. The RHS has some good ideas for weed control, and if you are growing organically (which I recommend) try Garden Organic’s advice

Your soil will improve, and the crops grow better if you are able to add some manure or composted material to it. Many stables are glad to give manure away, but it needs to be well rotted to work properly. Your local authority may sell compost they’ve made from garden and household waste collections. You can also start to compost your own waste once you have some crops to pick.

What to grow? It seems obvious, but grow what you like to eat – it’s surprising how many people don’t do this! There’s no point in putting your loving care into something you or your family won’t actually eat; this also means being realistic about how much of each crop to grow. Most seed will keep for at least a couple of years so don’t sow the whole packet. Bear in mind that some plants such as rhubarb and asparagus can’t be picked for at least a year, so it’s a long-term commitment.
Newbie Allotmenteers
If you only need a few, buy some plants from a farmers market or garden centre, or do swaps with friends. Look out for plants being given away on Freecycle or indeed put in a request – I recently got three lovely cucumber plants by doing so. Potatoes are good for opening up the soil and bringing up the soil’s nutrients from the deep, and there’s nothing like the taste of freshly dug potatoes, but just grow a small number if that’s what you’ll eat. Think about whether you need to grow vegetables that are cheap and easy to buy, such as parsnips. Consider growing shallots or red onions rather than yellow onions as the first two are much more expensive in the shops. If you’re a total beginner, look up which seeds germinate more easily than others, to avoid disappointment.

And finally, some tips about rules and etiquette at your site. You may be prohibited from growing fruit trees, having bonfires, using carpet to keep down weeds, and more besides – check the rules and observe them at least for a while – even if others break them, being a newcomer may mean that you get targeted first! If you’re lucky the council may mow the paths between plots but most don’t and remember it makes life easier for you and your neighbours if you keep your paths accessible. If you have an allotment association do join it – it may give you access to cheaper bulk orders of seeds, and to advise and social events. Listen to the advice of the old-timers but also take it with a pinch of salt as the old ways aren’t always the best! Find out from them which pests such as carrot rootfly are prevalent.

Above all, enjoy yourself and happy harvesting!

Comments and other tips welcome!