In the winter months you might think our growing team are taking a well-earned breather, with their feet up around the fire, enjoying the spoils of the harvest. But scratch the surface and you’ll see there is plenty of planning and preparation going on as we transition from one season to the next.

Colum Pawson, Head Gardener at Schumacher College and lead teacher on our Sustainable Horticulture 6 month residency, has just finished planning the various growing spaces for next season. He can now be found rifling through the seeds and dried beans and working out just how he is going to manage the whole thing again in 2022. While a fiendishly complex spreadsheet helps him keep track of all the different beds and growing areas, we thought we’d ask him to talk us through the process in more holistic terms in this interview with Will Kemp.

Garden Design at Dartington Trust

Will: So Colum, you’ve just finished planning out your growing spaces for the next growing season and I thought people would be interested to hear more about how you go about it. Give us an idea of the steps you take to map out what you’ll be growing and where.

Colum: Yes, well, the first thing we would do is review the season we just had and really think about what went well, what didn’t go well in terms of the people we feed. We work with the chefs at Schumacher College who are feeding us and our students, but also the chefs at the Green Table Cafe and White Hart pub on the Dartington estate, so we need to find out what they want more of and what they want less of. Essentially we have to think about what our customers want first and then we can develop an idea of what we want to grow and how much, but then obviously have to fit it into what is feasible with our crop rotation – as most people will know, you can’t grow the same crops in the same place year after year. So we’re quite constrained, particularly for things like the brassica family, because cabbages can be very vulnerable to things like clubroot. And then there’s also the allium family, which are vulnerable to whiterot. And so we can’t grow those in the same place once every four years. There are other plants that need to be rotated because they drain nutrients from the soil too. And so we actually have two rotations in Henri’s Field: we have a seven year rotation, and a nine year rotation.

Will: That sounds complicated.

Colum: Well, it is quite! I mean, I like to think of it as a giant jigsaw puzzle really. We have the loose outline, so we know what family of crops each plot is going to have in it and then we have to think about what we can fit in there, to well, like I say, meet the needs of our customers, but also to try and grow an interesting range of crops too, so that our students get to experience growing lots of different things. So we try to see that we get the chance to grow things that maybe we wouldn’t do if we were being commercially minded because we want everyone to have that broad experience. But at the same time, we need to demonstrate something that’s applicable commercially, so they’re not given an unrealistic idea – it’s a balance. Once we’ve made those decisions, you take your one plot of brassica family and each plot is then divided up into seven beds and then we work out which of them will have the cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and we work out how many of those beds go down to the different crops. Then we have to work out how many plants of that crop you could fit in a bed which obviously depends on how much space they have between them. And then from that, we can work out how many plants we atually need. You have to add on generally about 20% to that to get the number of seeds you want just because they don’t all germinate. From there, we then have a total number of seeds that we need for each crop and we can order those seeds after we’ve checked out what seeds we have left over from last year.

Will: Presumably you do quite a bit of seed saving?

Colum: Yes we do quite a lot of seed saving and actually that’s something we’re trying to do more of. The need to do it was also really accelerated by COVID because of seeds becoming harder to come by. But it’s been interesting – we are finding that the seeds we save ourselves are generally happier, healthier plants. The idea also is if you save generation after generation, you actually get a plant that’s suited to your growing space. So with the garlic, which is hanging out there, that’s in its fifth year of our own garlic. So each year we’ve saved it and our yield and size of bulb is definitely going up each year. I like to think that’s because we’re gradually creating a variety that is suited to Devon rather than Italy or wherever they originally came from.

Again, this is a great experience for the students to see the crops really do their thing. You know, carrots don’t normally get to flower because it takes two years, but here we let that happen as part of our teaching about all the things you need to do, such as isolating them so they don’t cross-pollinate with the wrong plant and all that kind of thing. I hope that’s not too simplistic – I’ve skated over that a bit.

Will: I mean, you’re the expert on this. There are other factors involved, I guess, in planning out what you do. I’ve seen in the past you’ve done things like, for example, combining two crops together that are compatible in the same bed.

Colum: Yes, it’s always fun to experiment with things and see what you end up with. We grow quite a lot of beans here, and especially the beans that we don’t eat green but we save as dried beans for a protein supply in the winter. Normally we’d grow our drying beans and our squash separately. But last year we combined the two together, which is a slight shift on the Three Sisters approach, a Native American practice of growing corn (for maize), beans and squash together. We don’t grow corn for maize, we just grow sweetcorn, and you need to be able to get to the sweetcorn to harvest it earlier so we couldn’t really include that here. Whereas the nice thing about beans and squash is that they get harvested at the same time so we can just plant them together, the squash go along the ground, the beans grow up and then you hopefully get a greater yield from the same area because instead of having them on two separate plots you grow them altogether. I think the squash were a little bit smaller because of the shade, to be honest, and we might try and reduce the number of beans next year because of that. But we’ve still produced more food from a single plot of land as a result.

Anyway, it’s fun and interesting for us to experiment and try new things, and again also for the students to have that experience that they might not get on a larger commercial farm.

Will: And more broadly in terms of companion planting, I guess there’s all kinds of different things going on…

Colum: Yeah. So yeah, I mean, flowers, to speak generally, make the area look nice, but we can also eat them and they can serve other purpose too. So we’re using them as edible flowers and they’re also bringing in beneficial insects. I think for us what we are doing with fruit trees is important as a larger form of companion planting, in a sense. I mean, agroforestry is becoming more broadly used and encouraged, but it’s still quite unusual what we have here in Henri’s Field to see trees grown in these strips beside the other growing plots, and you know especially to have trees of the kind of age that we have.

So with the trees, and also with the green manures we use, you’ve got strips of plants that provide shade and windbreak to the veg. When they drop their leaves in the autumn, they’re feeding the soil. But then also, we’ve got these permanent banks of undisturbed soil in between our plots so that the mycorrhizal fungi and all the beneficial bacteria and everything can have that. You can think of it like a bank account. So where we do have to disturb our soil in the plots in the middle, they can draw on our savings account in the strips. It’s much quicker for those populations to recover because there are lots of places nutrients can come from, rather than just one big field that you’re just ploughing every year, where it will take a lot longer for them to come from the edge into the middle.

Will: So that is really interesting and you’re saying this practice of agroforestry is more developed here in comparison to other places. We started doing this quite early on, when it was discovered as a good thing to do?

Colum: Yeah. It was Martin Wolfe in Suffolk who pioneered it. I mean, I’m sure it is something that was done a long time ago, but it has now come back into fashion. And it makes sense. The idea that by having the apple trees, the trees and the vegetables together, you actually get higher yield from the same amount of area than you would if they were separate. So if you had fruit trees on a one acre field and the vegetables in among them in the same field, you’re essentially putting two acres together on the one acre field. And again, you may get slightly less yields of some things. But as a as a system, you’re getting overall much more for your area. I think that’s something that often gets missed. Western farming tends to focus more on productivity in terms of people, how cheaply can food be produced by workers. But actually as food security and climate change and all that becomes more of an issue it’s also about making sure we actually produce enough food from the land we have. And there’s something more beneficial about productivity in that way rather than just purely economic questions. On top of that you have the broader ecological benefits to having larger plants interspersed between you crops, as trees offer shelter and homes for wildlife, and the carbon capture is much greater. So it’s a win-win situation.

Colum Pawson leads our 6 month Sustainable Horticulture Residency at Schumacher College. He is also involved in our BSc in Regenerative Food and Farming which starts September 2022. We are offering substantial bursaries to students for the first year of this course. Applications are invited via UCAS before 26 January.