Profile: Charles Dowding
Because it requires less land and capital outlay than livestock farming, horticulture is often the entry route for first time farmers. However, like all farming, horticulture requires a forward-thinking approach if it is to be financially viable. In a previous article I looked at how one couple had chosen to specialise in herbs and then set about adding value by making beauty products from them. This month I examine the lessons that can be learnt from the highly respected grower Charles Dowding.
Charles had even less land to work than the Lyons with their herbs – just a single acre. He realised that if he was to make a living from this limited amount of land he would need to focus on growing crops that don’t take long to mature so that he could take repeated harvests from the same land over the course of the year. If this is already ringing alarm bells about soil depletion then I should explain that he also pioneered the “no-dig” method that relies on planting straight into the layer of compost with which the soil is always copiously covered. So whilst specialising in salad leaves that are sold to shops, pubs and restaurants within just a four mile radius, Charles was also testing the no-dig technique for other vegetables for his own consumption. A barn adjoining his farmhouse was converted to provide bed and breakfast accommodation and Charles was able to share his experience via courses and two books – “Organic Gardening the Natural, No Dig Way” and “Salad Leaves for all Seasons” . During this time the single acre cultivated on by the No-Dig method yielded almost £30,000 at wholesale prices, four-fifths of the sales being of bags of mixed salad leaves.
I have been on one of Charles’ “No-Dig” courses, the principles of which I have applied in my own garden with mixed degrees of success, the greatest of which was to bring back into production a previously difficult bed that we have now given up digging entirely. It has been particularly suited to growing squash but this year we are planting strawberries on it for the first time.
“Salad Leaves for all Seasons” opened my mind to the possibilities of winter leaves, of which Winter Purslane and Land Cress have become firm favourites, but more importantly it got me questioning what else I could produce during the winter months. Luckily Charles must have been thinking along the same lines because, to my mind his greatest book yet, “How to Grow Winter Vegetables”, addresses what I believe is one of the biggest challenges for small-scale growers selling direct to consumers – undertaking to feed them all year round. The solution to meeting the “hungry gap” between the last of the stored winter root crops and the first spring vegetables has, in modern times, been to buy in produce from abroad. But if you want to retain customer loyalty, and demonstrate the benefits of eating locally that will underlie the whole business for the rest of the year, turning abroad should be a last resort kept to the bare minimum.
By being adventurous in their choice of what to grow, planning meticulously to have something to harvest every week of the year, and utilising different growing techniques (Charles is currently testing out “hot beds”), growers can really demonstrate what it means to take responsibility for feeding people.
Charles no longer sells his produce commercially but continues his experimentation, writing and teaching. A fourth book “Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course Book” was published in 2012.