Episode 142: Grow Easy with Anna Greenland

This year’s first guest is organic vegetable grower Anna Greenland. Anna has supplied produce to some of the UK’s top chefs, including Raymond Blanc and Jamie Oliver, has created gardens at Soho Farmhouse, Kew Gardens and the Huntington Botanical Gardens in LA. She is currently establishing a market garden and gardening school in Suffolk and has just released a book called ‘Grow Easy’. Anna talks about working with the best chefs in the best kitchens and catering to their clientele, about producing pristine veg organically, about growing food in different climates and the fundamentals of veg garden success.

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Overwintering fruit & vegetable bugs

What we cover

Anna’s background

How Anna begins to plan a veg garden from scratch

What makes a good site

The chefs Anna has worked with 

Growing food for a professional kitchen

Keeping a veg garden in a public space looking good all year round

The biggest challenges for new veg gardeners and how they can be overcome

About Anna Greenland

Anna was working as a model when she moved to Cornwall and began working at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall. Bitten by the veg growing bug, she took on a job at The Lost Gardens of Heligan and began supplying produce to Jamie’s restaurant. From there, she moved to LA to study Ecological Horticulture and set up a food growing garden at Huntington Botanical Gardens. 

After moving back to the UK, she worked at Soho Farmhouse, Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons for Raymond Blanc and has set up a productive area at Kew Gardens. She won gold and Best in Show for her ‘Herbs and Preserves’ garden at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2018 and has just released a book, ‘Grow Easy’. She now lives in Suffolk where she is setting up a market garden and gardening school.



Anna on Instagram

Grow Easy: Organic crops for pots and small plots by Anna Greenland – October 2021, Octopus Publishing

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Anna Greenland 0:00

So I started growing vegetables in Cornwall, over 15 years ago now. I had been living in London and trained in journalism and was doing something completely different then happened to meet someone, met a boy who lived in Cornwall and moved down there and didn’t really know what to do. And then Jamie Oliver’s restaurant was opening up around that time. And the cottage that we were renting had a little greenhouse with it. So I started growing some things for my for myself, but had never really dreamed of doing it, you know, commercially or as a career. But with Jamie’s restaurant opening, I got a job waitressing there. And I was sort of, I guess, blown away really by all of the local producers and they had a big open kitchen. So they used to bring in boxes full of lovely vegetables for the chefs. And I got swept up in, in that world really the food and and the local suppliers. And so I approached a local grower and asked if I could join the team and start growing for the restaurants. So that was sort of how it all began, really. So it wasn’t a pre determined for career but something that I fell into and just fell in love with.


Sarah Wilson 1:27

Yeah, so you mentioned Jamie Oliver, I believe you’ve worked with some other chefs as well?


Anna Greenland 1:32

Yes, yes. So I went from, from working to Jamie’s restaurants to working at the Lost gardens of Heligan. For a time, I worked on the vegetable garden there. And then I went out to America to learn how to grow in a more sustainable way. There weren’t so many courses around at that time that were focusing on organic vegetable growing, certainly in the UK, so I headed out there to learn and then came back and got a job with with my Raymond Blanc at his restaurant the Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which is in Oxfordshire. And he’s got a beautiful vegetable garden there. He was really, I would say the first sort of Chef and restaurant in the UK to in a big way champion garden to plate you know and have a restaurant that has a garden right there with with fresh produce coming into it. And so that was you know, he was really inspiring to work with he’s quite a character and kept me on my toes. And it was quite a lot of pressure, you know, because, obviously, Michelin star restaurants so I’ve had friends say to me in the past, you know, it must be so nice sort of puttering around in the garden, what a non stressful job that is, when you’re growing! In that level of kitchen it definitely becomes quite a lot of pressure. But yeah, he made it really enjoyable. And he’s so passionate himself, if anyone’s who’s ever seen him on television or heard him talking will know that. He’s a real driving forces so it was that was a real privilege to work with him there.


And then from the Manoir, I went to Soho farmhouse, which is Private Member’s club in the Cotswolds, and they were starting a vegetable garden from scratch, or they wanted a vegetable garden started from scratch. So that was kind of an opportunity. I think, as the Manoir had always been very established garden, I kind of was, was excited to do something that was completely from scratch. So that was a good opportunity to do that. And work with chefs again. And that is a sort of a whistle stop tour of now ended up in Suffolk. So I’m from East Anglia originally and my husband’s from Suffolk. So we’ve wound up here and setting up a market garden and the plan is to have a gardening school here to run to grow your own classes and courses and things. So that’s it in the nutshell.


Sarah Wilson 4:45

What is an amazing CV. I mean, I’ve kind of read about your background, and I thought, wow, that is just incredible. And I think probably what you’ve done there is summed up what you’ve done with chefs, but actually there’s a lot more that we’ll probably come on to but just to think about growing for chefs. I think if people think, you know, Oh, it sounds like a nice job managing a market garden managing a vegetable garden. But then do you actually grow for the chefs? And do they come to you and say, Okay, well, this week, I would like to or next month I want to use this produce? Or do you go to them and say, Look, you know, this is what is particularly spectacular this month? Or is it some and some?


Anna Greenland 5:27

It’s a bit of both. I mean, it depends on the sort of amount of knowledge, I suppose that some of the chefs have, like with Raymond, he and his team really knew the garden inside out and sort of understood the seasons. And we would have a winter meeting always, which could go on all day, where I would draw up, you know, the initial plans, and then they would add in things that they wanted or wanted to tweak, things like that. But then other projects I’ve worked on, where the chef is very new to the sort of garden to plate concept, then it’s driven a lot more by the garden side of things. So you know, we’ll be saying, ‘this is what is available each month.” So I think it’s a bit a bit of both, I mean, the nice thing about quite a few of the gardens I’ve worked in, the chef will come into the garden, maybe even do a morning working in the garden, too so that they can get their heads around the seasonality and the produce and the amount of work that it takes to actually get, you know, that particular vegetable onto a plate. So I think that’s really important to communicate to chefs, because a lot of times you can have a really amazing chef, but you know, often may just be used to opening a packet of something that’s very high quality, but it’s been sort of flown in from somewhere and it’s really clean. And it’s good, I think for them to really see the kind of the roots of it when it’s growing in the ground. So I think to answer your question, yeah, it’s definitely a two way street, I would say. But, you know, things like the Manoir, there’d always be anticipation for the very first crops of things. So they were always really keen to get sea kale. Which, we grew in a plant polytunnel, strangely enough, which you’d expect to see growing wild around the coastline, but they wanted a really early crop of that for one of the dishes. So we had some in a tunnel that we brought on quite early. And also, courgette flowers was a big one for them. And we used to God, I mean, it was literally over 200 I think, courgette flowers every morning through June, to the end of the summer. And I always remember, yeah, the chefs really pushing when are we going to get them again? You have to sort of manage expectations and say that we can’t, can’t force them any quicker. And they’re coming. So yeah, there was always like little pressures like that, to kind of get that first early crop ready for them. But I think you know, when you are working with people who have a base understanding of the seasons, it makes it easier for sure.


Sarah Wilson 8:39

I mean, I have to say it sounds terrifying. And especially growing from an organic perspective. Were there ever times that you said to somebody, okay, you’ve got loads of flea beetle, I cannot possibly grow you, for example rocket, because it’s just gonna be full of holes. Were there ever times you said, I just can’t grow that to the standard that you need it?


Anna Greenland 8:59

Well, I mean, we always sort of gave it a go really, I think. I’m trying to think of any disasters. I mean, I know what you’re saying, you know, with organic growing. When I first started the garden at Soho farmhouse, they wanted a fully fledged vegetable garden by summer and I started in February and it was just a blank canvas. It was just a grass field basically that had been grazed. And by June they had a high end celebrity wedding in June and they wanted a fully fledged vegetable garden and I was trying to say look, this is unrealistic. We can’t make this happen but but they threw a lot of people at it and there lots of money, I have to say. But even with that, you know, you can’t kind of cheat nature, can you. Over time we got native hedging planted, we planted lots of herbs, lots of companion plants, all these things to bring in beneficial insects, and to keep on top of the pest problems. But that first season has just nothing there, to kind of act as a sort of, a barrier against all the pests. So, I think we had everything from miles around like every flea beetle, every caterpillar, you could imagine. Because suddenly, there was this lovely kind of lush, all these lush plantings in the middle of this field with nothing else around them for that, and so we had some crops, but it wasn’t Yeah, it wasn’t a brilliant sort of start, because we hadn’t had time to establish the ecosystem. And I think that taught me a really valuable lesson, you can’t sort of rush these things in to get those natural checks and balances that you need in an organic garden, you do need a really vibrant sort of amount of plant diversity. And as I say, you know, lots of healthy hedgerows and trees and things around to buffer it really, there’s lots of tricks and things you can use with growing organically. So you know, you can get your kind of horticultural fleece out to protect against flea beetle, and enviromesh and things like that. And lots of netting and lots of barriers, basically, to ward off pests. But I didn’t have it as bad as a friend of mine who was growing for a restaurant, a Michelin star restaurant up in Scotland, and she had to grow things, she always had to walk around with a template. So they wanted sort of really tiny baby radishes all the same size, you know, X amount every day. And she almost had to walk around with a template to kind of hold up against these baby radishes and beetroots and lots of lots of baby things. Luckily, I didn’t have that. But yeah, it definitely can be stressful at times.


Sarah Wilson 12:20

And how have you found establishing veggie gardens in different parts of country? Have you come across different sort of challenges? Or has it been relatively easy to replicate, you know, a plan or, or the way you do things?


Anna Greenland 12:34

It’s been quite different. In different cases, I’d say just soil wise. I mean, here in Suffolk, actually, it’s really different across the whole of Suffolk, but where I am, it’s really heavy clay. And that’s been pretty challenging. There’s a lot of arable farming around here. So the land that I’ve taken on has been farmed conventionally, previously. So that comes with lots of challenges with soil compaction, so I’m really kind of taking my time to get the soil right first. So I’ve had a few seasons of sowing green manures things like clovers, and mustards and different grasses and things to try and get the soil into a reasonable condition before I even start to try and grow anything. Whereas, yeah, previous plots. I mean, the Manoir was very different, because that has been, you know, that people have been growing on that patch of land for a really long time. So it’s a bit of a shock to the system. Going from there to somewhere like a farm has where it was pasture before. So yeah, I think there are different microclimates all over the UK. I’ve never tasted tomatoes as good as a those grown down in Cornwall. I don’t know why, I think just maybe slightly different. Maybe slightly, slightly warmer, and I’m not sure but then it was wetter as well. My memories of Heligan were just being soaking wet. I think there are definitely different challenges around the UK, for sure. But I think the key thing always is ensuring that you get the soil into a reasonable condition first, before you try and grow anything, because otherwise you’re just off to the bad, bad start. Really.


Sarah Wilson 14:38

Yeah. And obviously a lot of the gardens you’ve worked in have been open to the public – is it possible to keep a veggie garden in a public space looking good all year round?


Anna Greenland 14:48

Yeah. It’s a challenge. I used to put in some quite long hours when I worked at the Manoir because I just I had this fear, you know that if I spotted weeds, and that people would always be casting a critical eye? So yeah, that in itself is tricky. It’s not like just having a kind of commercial market garden, you can allow it to be a little bit. I mean, I think, you know, when you’re, when you’re a good gardener, you sort of want things to, to be tidy or whatever. But then there’s also a balance, because now, you know, as we learn more about gardening and stuff with nature and wildlife, gardening and things like that, you know, you, you realise that a bit of messiness around the edges is probably quite a good thing, a bit of wildness. But yes, certainly, I think it’s a pressure to keep it under control. With Heligan Heligan is a tricky one, I mean, that I wasn’t primarily growing for a restaurant, although we used to take quite a lot of produce to the restaurant that had a cafe there. But it was always that balance between leaving it to sort of, you know, for the guests to be able to enjoy and walk around and and then also not wasting it, you know, so that it got too big and to kind of woody or whatever to use to eat. So that was a bit of a tricky balance. But I think, you know, you’re I think probably I’m always more critical of, I see things as being more messy or more weedy or whatever, than people that are walking around. Yeah, I think that is definitely a constant pressure as well.


Sarah Wilson 16:36

Yeah, definitely. I mean, obviously thinking about, you know, you mentioned, obviously, you went to America, and you learn more about organic growing, was that something that you learnt about over there? Or was that something you always had an interest in?


Anna Greenland 16:54

I think I, I had always grown that way prior to going there, just the people that I haven’t would meet in Cornwall, who growing for the restaurant, that’s how they grew. They were organic growers. And so that’s how I learned and I didn’t know any different, really. But when I was sort of looking for formal training, it wasn’t so widely available. So I think, for whatever reason, somewhere like California, where I went to study has, has been quite a head, I suppose that whole sort of back to the land movement in the 60s, things like that. Just a few steps ahead of us in the UK, in terms of the kind of organic farming movement, and I was really heartened to see and it’s now happening here. But when I went there in 2010, there was a hell of a lot of young people who were interested in growing organically and you know, quite a few people on my course, whose parents had kind of farms in the Midwest, and that the kids were looking to kind of change the way that things are being done and, and farming and in a more sustainable kind of regenerative way. So yeah, and now I think that’s really, really happening here. You know, we’re, we’re really looking for alternative ways of doing things, which is brilliant. So, yeah, so I think that interest was there from the beginning. But it was just good to get some more kind of formal training in it. Although when I came back to the UK, no one had ever heard of the course. It wasn’t like going to Kew or somewhere like that, where automatically your CV has something like that on it. I think people are a bit kind of confused as to what what it was I’d done, but I’m so glad that I did. It. It really, apart from the fact that it was California, which was pretty nice. Yeah, it definitely kind of taught me things that you know, at that point, I probably wouldn’t have learned here so so readily.


Sarah Wilson 19:06

So you’ve written a book, ‘Grow Easy’. And it is for, I think it’s fair to say people who are relatively new to gardening. I just thought, could you mention maybe one or two of the biggest challenges that new gardeners might face? And how you might overcome them?


Anna Greenland 19:31

Yeah. That’s a good question. I’m trying to think of like the most, the most key things. I mean, I think for a lot of new gardeners now, time and space are probably big kind of obstacles to, you know, really going for it with growing things. So from a kind of a time, time perspective, you know everyone’s busy, everyone’s got busy lives. And, you know, I think unless you’re kind of retired and you can really focus all of your energy on on your garden, it is hard to kind of keep up with. So I would say that not kind of giving yourself too many too many things to do and not trying to think you’ve got to suddenly grow like a whole massive allotment full of produce. And just starting with some herbs really, that’s actually how I started growing. With some herbs in pots. You know, particularly if you are space poor as well, you know, many of us now living in cities just don’t have big gardens at our disposal. So the book actually is focused on smaller spaces and growing in pots. So, yeah, I think some pots of herbs are a really good way to begin. I’ve got some favourites in the book, things like lemon verbena which I absolutely love. You can have it in hot water as a tea. That’s a must have herb for me. But yeah, things like rosemary, thyme, parsley, through the kind of cooler months, all those things grow really well in pots. So I think that yeah, not trying to go too big. And if you can just manage to nurture, you know, five, five or six different herbs in a trough or window box or in some separate pots, I think is a really good place to start. And yeah, from a time perspective is a little bit more achievable. Another obstacle is obviously soil. But we have talked a little bit about getting the soil right. And if you’re growing in pots, make sure you buy good quality potting compost, so I would recommend an organic peat free compost. Peat free is really, really important because the peat bogs are being depleted by the the horticultural industry sadly, and they’re really important ecosystems. So yeah, peat free is important. But yeah, good quality potting compost. And then if you are growing in the ground, then getting some good quality, well rotted manure from a reliable source or green waste or mushroom compost or making your own compost. If you own a very small space then worm composting, it could be an option composting with worms, your your veggie scraps. So yeah, I think we’ve talked about the importance of getting a soil right but that can be an obstacle and it’s something to to focus on first, I would say.

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