I am just a liiiiitttttle bit excited to share today's post with you all, the fourth in a series of in-depth conversations with people who have grown their gardens from scratch. Too often gardening books and magazines skip over the "before" shots of a garden, when the garden was a muddy paddock or a field of blackberry bracken with falling-down fences, and we never see the hard work that went into making the dreamy oasis that is now splashed across glossy spreads. As a gardener who is starting from scratch, without even the bones of a garden in place, those are the photos I want to see! I need to be inspired and believe it is actually possible to turn our barren rocky ground into the garden I dream of... So this series is about filling in the "befores" and learning from people who have created beautiful gardens with their bare hands.
I defy you to watch River Cottage Australia and not develop a serious case of the envies. I mean, seriously?!?!? The property is so green and lush and infinitely productive, and the soil is ahhhhmazing. And the sweet little weatherboard house perched on rolling hills, just a stone's throw from the best coastline in the world?!?! Colour me green.
I love watching the show (always a season behind, as we don't have Foxtel), but it's really hard to see how what appears on the show could possibly translate to our much less fertile property. Unless you live with perfect conditions, you might be thinking the same thing. So I figured it would be interesting to talk to Paul West, the contagiously cheerful guy who fronts the show and who did most of the grunt work to get the garden established, to see what lessons may be learned for all of us not living in "God's country".
The Tree Diaries: When somebody is gardening on tv, it's easy (and reassuring!) to be dismissive of the work involved - to think, "oh there's got to be fifty people behind the scenes doing a "blitz" type thing - no wonder he gets stuff done." Is that true of the River Cottage garden, or is it really all your hard work?
Paul West: 50, haha! We have 1000 workers tending the garden here at River Cottage. In all seriousness though, for the first 3 seasons I did all of the farm work myself, 7 days a week, with one extra pair of hands while we're filming because 10 hour shoot days don't leave a lot of time to get in the garden. Now as my role is evolving I have someone come in and spend 4 hours a day, 2 days a week helping in the vegetable garden and another bloke feeds and releases the animals when I have to travel for work
TTD: What did the kitchen garden look like when you started out at Tilba? Were there the bones of a garden in place, or were you starting with a totally blank slate? Where did you start?
PW: It looked like a lawn, because that's what it was, no garden bones whatsoever. What was working in my favour is the wonderful volcanic soil of Tilba. To begin with I used a spade and mattock to clear the kikuyu (good luck if you have this in your garden!) from four patches that I wanted to plant. Later, when I expanded the garden, I used my pigs to do all the digging for me.
TTD: When starting to grow food it's so tempting to try to grow ALL the things, even if it's not the wisest move. Did you take it slowly, or just try growing everything you had space for?
PW: I think when ever anyone starts growing, there's a tendency to to try and grow everything under the sun. I think that it's a wise move to plan backwards from what you actually eat, there's no point in planting 10 rows of radishes if you only eat a couple a week. I'm guilty of rushing in when I first started, though now I've learned to listen to the garden and only plant what I have time to manage.
TTD: Have you had any spectacular successes (or fails) in kitchen gardening in the past few years?
PW: One of the biggest fails would be when I had to travel away for a month for the birth of my son. It was late summer and by the time I returned home the kikuyu had totally taken over the garden beds again and the veggie patch was lawn again. In terms of spectacular successes, everything that I harvest from the garden is a spectacular success.
TTD: As someone who is gardening where there is no topsoil, let alone “Tilba gold”, the show makes me extremely green with envy every time you dig a hole (that is a full day’s work with excavation equipment on our place!). Have you ever faced gardening in rocky or non-existent soils? Any advice? Give up and move?
PW: Oh yeah! I grew up in the upper Hunter Valley where the soil was a combination of conglomerate rock and clay. As a child I watched my mother transform a desolate paddock into a stunning 2 acre ornamental garden, all without the luxury of top soil. I was also living in South Arm, Tasmania before I was offered the hosting role for River Cottage, the soil there was grey, water repellant sand, again, no top soil. The key to poorer soil conditions is to get as much organic matter into the soil as possible. Compost, mulch, compost, mulch, compost , mulch.... forever! If you're looking for a short term solution you can always build raised beds and buy topsoil in.
TTD: One of the things that I find hardest about kitchen gardening is the relentlessness of it - so much work, all year round, with very little downtime (particularly in a fairly mild climate where you can grow in winter). Do you ever struggle to find motivation to do the work? Do you have a quieter season in the garden?
PW: Winter is always a little slower. A gentler growth rate, shorter days, less weeds means the pressure's off for a couple of months. I keep motivated by thinking about the alternative to growing my own, having to shop at the supermarket, buying dead, nutrient devoid food.
TTD: Obviously as a chef you're a big proponent of growing your own food, but do you have any purely ornamental parts of the garden? Do you think ornamentals deserve the space, and water, in a garden?
PW: I don't think that any plant is truly "ornamental". I have plants that don't produce food for me, but they provide habitat and food for countless other species, increasing the biodiversity of the farm.
TTD: Who inspires you in gardening? Are there any gardens or gardeners in particular you admire, or any books you return to again and again for inspiration?
PW: Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier, Curtis Stone (the Canadian urban grower, not the bloke on the supermarket ads) and my local market gardening guru Fraser Bailey of Old Mill Rd Biofarm. All these growers demonstrate just how much amazing food that you can grow on a relatively small patch of land, if one day I have a fraction of their knowledge and skill, I'll be a very happy gardener.
Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us Paul!
Please note that all of the photos in this post come from Paul West (@paulwesttilba on instagram), River Cottage Australia (@rivercottageaus on instagram) and the Lifestyle Food website. Oh, and the "before" shots are from the original listing for the property before it was bought for the show. If you need inspiration for turning a rundown kind of drab old house into something incredible, you MUST look at the listing photos!!!!