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Enjoying the highs and lows of organic gardening

Come rain or shine. Through warm winters and cool summers. For River Cottage’s Head Gardener Will Livingston, growing organically is all about nurturing the soil and adapting to whatever the changing weather and climate has in store.

Born into a farming community in rural Devon, Will first discovered his talent for gardening on his family’s allotment. Then in 2008, after studying Countryside Management at agricultural college, a friend introduced him to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at his famous organic smallholding in Axminster – River Cottage.

Will started helping out on the 90 acres of farmland, paddocks and grazing pasture. Then after taking some RHS courses to hone his horticultural skills, he was over the moon at being made Head Gardener of the semi-formal Victorian kitchen garden at River Cottage and the 1.5 acres they use for growing fruit and veg.

Growing ups and downs

In the last ten years, Will has detected a shift in seasonal temperatures and a change in normal growing patterns. While fewer cold, hard winters have meant planting often starts earlier, bacterial and fungal diseases are not getting killed off as quickly.

“The torrential rain of 2012 ruined a lot of farmers, yet this year’s summer was fantastic and gave us an incredible harvest of tomatoes, aubergines, lettuces, herbs and chillies.”

Tradition meets innovation

As an organic grower, Will encourages symbiosis between the cultivated and wild. He mixes plants such as borage, calendula, and french marigold among the crops in the 50-foot long polytunnels. “I then just leave the doors open for bees to pollinate the Mediterranean veg, while the wild flowers deter the whitefly,” he says.

He also prefers to control problems like slugs and snails naturally – tempting them into his ‘slug pubs’ made from jam jars filled with beer, part-buried in the soil. Will believes, however, the long-term solution should not be stopping the pests, as much as keeping plants strong and healthy – as they’ll then recover from being nibbled at more easily.

His personal views on climate change are equally pragmatic. “It’s pretty complex –but being such a gradual progression, our growing methods tend to evolve with it.” Interestingly, River Cottage has trialled the latest niche of ‘climate change gardening’ – when exotic specimens such as the Japanese Wineberry, pecans, olives, ginger and turmeric are successfully grown outdoors in the UK.

Making less impact

Will wholeheartedly shares Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s environmental principles. And in keeping with the ‘nose to tail’ philosophy River Cottage has for meat, Will takes a ‘seed to plate’ approach for crops. Raw veg rubbish goes into compost bins or is fed to the chickens and pigs. While cooked food scraps are bio-gas digested for energy. Being a zero-landfill site, the farm also uses a biomass burner, wind turbine and rain water collection tanks.

Will also doesn’t rely on frequent rainfall as much as some non-organic farmers do. Instead, he recommends digging in plenty of organic matter. So, even during dry periods, there’s enough residual water for the plants. As he says, “You can’t control the weather, but you can control the quality of your soil.”

For Will, taking the rough with the smooth is just part of the job. “When it’s a wet January, your boots are clagged with mud and you’re doing a lot, but achieving very little – that can be a bit depressing. But the beautiful summer mornings more than make up for it. And raising something from seed into delicious food and inspiring people who come to my classes to grow their own fruit and veg – you can’t beat that feeling of satisfaction.”