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The Portfolio

The Men Who Like To Grow Things

MR PORTER meets six farmers and gardeners who work the land for a living

The garden is a shorthand for wildness and mystery. Some spaces are literally wild, crawling with creepers, vines tangling around tentative branches. Others are prim and manicured, although even on a pristine lawn, an uncertain, anarchic spirit hovers. For a garden is a living creature, and it cannot be entirely contained.

It can, however, be tended, which makes it a compelling canvas for the sort of creative minds who also feel the pull of the wild. There is, ultimately, something appealing about trying to bend nature to your will, whether that is large-scale farming or pottering in a garden.

Gardening is also big business. While some low-tech methods prevail, technology has changed much in terms of food production. There is money in landscapes and events such as the Chelsea Flower Show, which showcases the creation of beautiful artifice from nature.

It’s a curious pastime, both governed by rules and as lawless as the land itself. We meet some of the men – farmers, entrepreneurs and landscape gardeners – who are reshaping gardens in the 21st century. 

Mr Alexander Hoyle

“Some people want the Prada shop look, sharp and minimalist; some want it to be really English and flowing”

Mr Alexander Hoyle, a gardener at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is Instagram’s hot new horticulturalist. His @kewplantsman account has more than 8,000 followers, lured by his well-framed pictures of sun-drenched dawns, bird’s eye views of the Kew vistas and the occasional stately peacock. He’s been working at Kew for four years, but his career started at the age of 13, when he replied to an ad for a garden boy in his home village in the Cotswolds. Today, he looks after Kew’s rose garden. Mr Hoyle is an evangelist for the English country garden. He is preparing for a three-week trip to the US to consult on gardens in Boston, New York and Washington, including a visit to another rose garden, the one at the White House.

How does it feel to be a rising star on Instagram?

I only started in August. I hit 2,500 likes for my first picture the other day, which was nice. I’ve got 8,000 followers now. I’m getting there – it’s growing slowly.

Kew is considered by many Londoners to be an oasis. Why is it such a magical place?

The history and the plant collections, the scents of Kew. Loads of people have their first dates there. When I was younger, I used to visit a lot. My first memory of Kew is the lawns with the temples. And the rose garden.

Which garden do you dream of visiting?

I’d love to see the gardens in Italy. They’re a cross between the style of an English garden, which is what I’m really passionate about, but all the plants are derived from Italy.

How do you make an urban garden inspiring?

I love using hydrangeas. And ivy. It’s such a resilient plant. It’s just about having that green. I’m doing a project in Chelsea at the moment where it’s just ivy, ivy, ivy everywhere.

What is the first thing you do on a new project?

Usually, it’s the budget constraints, but on the artistic side of things, the structure, the space, how you’re going to break it up and how people are going to flow through the space. Petersham Nurseries is a perfect aesthetic. Some people want the Prada shop look, where it’s very sharp and minimalist, and then some people want it to be really English and flowing.

Which garden would you like to be let loose on?

I’d quite like to go back to the Cotswolds. There’s a lot of potential. There’s a place called Stanway House in Gloucestershire and I think that could have an amazing garden. It’s got the structure, it’s got the history, it just hasn’t quite got the plants in. It needs enriching.

Mr Harry Boglione

“If we can fix agriculture, we fix most of the world’s problems”

Mr Harry Boglione is part of the Petersham Nurseries dynasty. His parents set up the nursery and its glasshouse restaurant, and the clan lives in the adjoining Petersham House. The hodge-podge greenhouses and crammed with creepers are like the family’s own garden. During our chat, his sister, Ms Lara Boglione, politely interrupts to say hello, and his mother pops over to check on the coffee situation. Mr Boglione is the third child of four, who, after a detour to Australia, now spends most of his time in Devon, with his partner, Ms Emily Perry, and their children. They run Haye Farm, which supplies clients including the Petersham restaurant with eggs and meat.

How are you involved in the day-to-day running of Haye Farm?

It’s very hands-on. We’re in our first few years, so I run around doing a lot of everything. Because we’ve got kids, Emily’s not able to do as much of the manual stuff, but she makes sure the place keeps ticking along. We’re doing a lot of building, so I spend time with tractors and diggers. We’ve developed our vegetable garden quite extensively. We jump between all different types of agriculture – that’s the beauty of it.

You’re an advocate for the slow food movement…

I’d say I’m more an advocate for sustainable farming practices and organic food. I believe the only way of farming sustainably is without chemicals and fertilisers in an organic fashion. There’s an increasing demand for non-industrial farming produce that’s grown with an awareness of how things are farmed. If we can fix agriculture, we fix most of the world’s problems.

Should there be greater transparency about where food comes from?

The consumer has a right to know what they’re eating. People think organic food is elitist, but what they’re not told about are all the carcinogens their non-organic food contains because it’s been sprayed with certain products. People would think differently in the supermarket if their loaf of bread said on it, for example, “contains glyphosate”. Whereas at the moment, it’s just conventional bread, which is cheap, or organic bread, which is expensive, and there’s nothing saying why there’s a discrepancy in price. People might choose to spend more of their disposable income on food if only they knew.

What is the most rewarding part of the job?

Eating. It’s being able to sit at your dinner table and know that the steak you’re eating is from a cow you know by name and that everything on your plate has come from within about 200m of your house.

Mr Tom Webster

“People’s perception is Farmer Giles chewing on some hay, but that isn’t how most food is produced”

Mr Tom Webster is a former engineering consultant turned Kickstarter visionary, whose project GrowUp is an urban-farm model that takes waste water from fish farms and uses it to fertilise food. After the project’s successful crowdfunding round, it raised a further £1.2 million from government quangos and social-impact funds, and is now creating jobs in its local area. Mr Webster believes it could be the future of food. He set up his first farm in Beckton, east London, two years ago, and hopes to open more. GrowUp sells to the public via online grocer Farmdrop, Eat 17 and The Grocery, and sells its fish and herbs to Rosa’s Thai Cafe, which has nine branches in London, and hipster restaurant The Good Egg in Stoke Newington.

What’s the story behind GrowUp?

I was working in the sustainability sector and no one was talking about food. It was all energy and water. I started looking into how we could grow food sustainably, and came across this great thing called aquaponics. About the same time, I was introduced to my business partner who was looking to start a business growing food commercially. We’ve raised some quite significant investment and built the UK’s first commercial-scale aquaponic farm. We moved in two years ago.

Are you planning to expand?

Yeah, we’re looking at other sites, but the first thing for us is to get this site to full capacity. We’re at about 50 per cent at the moment, and we want to be at full capacity by the end of the summer. Then we’ll be looking at a farm about 10 to 15 times the size of the one we’re on now.

Do we need more of these in our cities?

It’s hard to expect people to make good choices about the food they consume when they have no connection with it. They just go and it’s on the supermarket shelf. People’s perception of agriculture is that it’s Farmer Giles and he’s chewing on some hay, but that isn’t how most food is produced. There are some producers who produce it in a very low-tech way, and that’s brilliant. But the bulk of the food we consume is produced in an incredibly high-tech way and people don’t really understand that.

Are there similar projects in other cities?

There’s a lot of movement around New York at the moment, some great things happening in the States. Also in Asia – things are moving really fast out there. We’re a bit behind the times here in Europe, even though the best technology is coming from Europe. The level of understanding we’re developing in Europe at the moment is really interesting.

Messrs David and Harry Rich

“We like a well-thought-out structure to a garden, but having that little bit of the wild that’s crept in”

The Rich brothers are landscape gardeners who, in 2015, became the youngest winners of a gold medal for a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Mr Harry Rich says they take the responsibility seriously. “You don’t want to let down the youngsters in the industry. It’s dominated by people who are quite established,” he says. The pair were commissioned by Chanel to create a garden at its Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London at the end of last year. Their aesthetic is usually quintessentially British, inspired by the wildness of the UK’s landscapes, but in this instance, their design was inspired by the colourful life of Ms Coco Chanel. They have recently filmed a 25-part series of Garden Rescue for the BBC and their first book, Love Your Plot: Gardens Inspired By Landscapes, is published this month.

Tell us about working with Chanel.

Mr Harry Rich: The space was quite large, so it allowed us to separate it into individual “rooms”. The first was about Chanel’s love of the wild and Scotland – quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of Paris. We made paths in the shape of the two Cs of the Chanel logo. One of the Cs represented her lover, Boy Capel, the one she lost when he died in 1919. There’s a reflection pool in there because it’s said she shed one tear when he died. The other C was flooded with birch trees and shrubs. It was autumn, with these wonderful autumnal colours, like a ribbon running through the whole thing.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Mr Harry Rich: We like having a well-thought-out structure to a garden, but having that little bit of the wild that’s crept in, so you feel like you’re sitting in the landscape rather than it being too manufactured.

Mr David Rich: Everything’s got its purpose. The sitting area’s there for a reason. It’s that size of this for a reason. That real wild element is pouring through the trees and the plants.

How did you become interested in gardens?

Mr Harry Rich: Where we grew up in Wales, we had a woodland, we had a lake, the sea wasn’t far from us. It’s only when you get older that you realise how much you loved the environment and how much you learned from it.

What’s the book about?

Mr David Rich: It’s our ethos. We pick habitats – mountain, freshwater, coastal – and say, what is in there that makes it different? In a woodland, it’s the repetition of the trees, proximity of the shrubs to the pathways. Then there are loads of concept ideas. Not how to literally create a woodland, but how to create the feeling, mood, atmosphere of a woodland.

Mr Harry Rich: It’s almost like a working book.

Mr Harry Astley

“You never stop learning. That’s the beauty of working with plants”

Mr Harry Astley works on his 15th-century, 16-acre farm Fern Verrow, at the foot of the Black Mountains in Herefordshire. He and his partner, Ms Jane Scotter, run the farm using biodynamic methods – “organic farming with bells on”, as Mr Astley puts it. In 2015 the pair published a cookbook, also called Fern Verrow, which explains the farm’s philosophy, and profiles the landscape and people who work there. The team at Fern Verrow grows food all year round for Ms Skye Gyngell’s Spring restaurant in Somerset House, London. “It’s still a lot of work and a lot of organisation to co-ordinate with a chef and a busy kitchen, but that’s also the thrill,” says Mr Astley.

Is it important that people have a sense of where their food comes from?

There’s a growing awareness of the provenance of food, but I think there’s still a way to go before people understand how it’s grown. Possibly in the next 10 years there’ll be more interest in that. It would be logical if there were a greater interest in the growing yourself, as opposed to just eating it, and an appreciation of the full satisfaction of being involved in nurturing a plant, of looking after it like a friend, and then harvesting it and eating it.

As well as running the farm, you worked on a cookbook inspired by it.

We decided on a cookery book as opposed to a gardening book. We thought that would give us a little more scope to be a bit more creative as opposed to just trying to write a how to. It’s about farming around the year and using ingredients that are available at certain times, and introducing the philosophy of how we approach our work and food. I used to be a cook and came to growing from the kitchen. The two disciplines are very similar; growing food is like cooking, but on a far more grown-out scale, with more subtle influences.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned?

I’ve got a much-loved book by my bed of some lectures about agriculture given 95 years ago by the founder of the biodynamic movement, who came up with suggestions, many of which are traditional farming methods mixed in with some more contemporary takes on growing. And I always underline in pencil the bits that really resonate. It started off with just a few lines on each page, and I must have read it at least 10 times and each time I think: “Oh that’s gold”. You never stop learning. That’s the beauty of working with plants.