Learning from the garden

One of our primary aims at Water Lane is to return this beautiful, historic site to its former glory days as a fully productive garden growing vegetables, fruit and herbs. This is a garden for the 21st century to feed people and put nutritious, seasonal food on their plates. Growing food, to use in our restaurant and sell at our Saturday food markets, has been a huge undertaking and one which has thrown as many joys as howls of irritation at us, and our brilliant team of gardeners and volunteers, led by Linda and Julia. Even now though, with the space and experience we have, we don't have enough produce to service the restaurant; we choose to prioritise growing interesting varieties, while buying in the basics.

This is our third year of growing 'plot to plate' and as the summer harvesting and production reaches its dizzying heights, tip-toeing on the precipice of daily gluts, we wanted to share some of our learnings with you.

Soil health

One of our key challenges on the site has been soil condition and health. Creating 72 no-dig beds from scratch, on what was previously a turfed quadrant of the walled garden, was just the beginning. It is only now, some three years later, that the heavy clay soil we inherited is nearly free of stones and rubble (pulled out laboriously by hand) and we have been able to add layers of well-rotted organic matter back to the soil. We've also experimented with 'worm tea' to increase the worm culture and other micro-bacterial content in the soil, and had time to try 'green manure'. Green manure is when a fast-growing ground cover crop is sown, such as mustard, which can be harvested but will also hold the nutrients, and sequester carbon in the ground, through its root system, while the green matter rots into the ground, adding more goodness. The beds will be lightly forked over come Spring, ready for planting. If you're interested in soil health look out for news of more Compost Club workshops with Michael Kennard.

Right plant, right place

It's one of the oldest adages in gardening and it's perpetually true. Now our heavy clay soil has been broken down with copious mushroom compost, and the addition of alkaline lime, our Brassica beds are thriving. The plants are bigger, healthier and more disease resistant. Crops such as Cavolo Nero 'Di Toscana', Kohlrabi 'Azur', Brussels Sprouts and Cauliflower have all performed really well. However, try as we might our soil is not right for carrots. Carrots need incredibly sandy soil and our heavy clay results in spindly, awkwardly shaped vegetables which, while tasty enough, are difficult to prep and glean a yeald from for our busy restaurant. This is a shame but it's better to cut our loses on this and make a practical, strategic decision to use the bed for something else and buy in carrots from one of our excellent suppliers.

New varieties

Undoubtedly, one of the best parts of having so much space is the opportunity to trial and grow new varieties that are hard to find elsewhere. We have a fabulous looking red sweetcorn growing called 'Fiesta' which we'll be cropping later into the Autumn and new tomato varieties growing in the Cucumber glasshouse. We're in there harvesting daily now, early front-runners in the taste tests are 'Egg Yolk' a small, golf-ball-sized golden yellow tomato, 'Brandy Vine', a glorious dusty red beef heart tomato that needs little more than slicing into thick rounds and dousing with crunchy salt and our best extra-virgin olive oil, and 'Noah's Stripes', a firm fleshed tomato with muddy green tiger stripes running round the red bodied fruit. In the same glasshouse are Padron Peppers, Aubergines, Cucumbers and Crystal Cucumbers. The lack of sun these last few weeks means some plants are a little behind on ripening; in many ways this is good as we can stagger harvesting, but we do have to keep an eye out for blight and fungal disease, if it gets too damp and moist.

All these vegetables, and many more, are cropped almost daily, and go straight to the restaurant kitchen. Know that if you're dining with us the Gazpacho, plate of padron peppers, mangetout, rocket and romesco, the saffron courgettes and cauliflower accompanying the farinata and the ratatouille with the roasted sea bass have all been grown from the garden in front of you. The devil is in the detail and the taste is on the plate, and we're pretty happy about that.

We hope you enjoy a potter round the gardens next time you're visiting, any questions do please ask!