The Sussex farm that gardens by the light of the moon
Tablehurst Farm and garden are on the edge of Forest Row in East Sussex, a village with a history of attracting people who are keen on a non-mainstream way of life. There is a primary and secondary Rudolf Steiner school in the village, and Emerson College, an adult education centre, with courses including biodynamic agriculture and gardening.
Steiner, who died in 1925, originally devised and taught German farmers a non-intensive, fully organic system of agriculture and horticulture based on good husbandry. Animal welfare and plant health were central to his philosophy or “spiritual science”.
Tablehurst as it is today was set up as an extension to Emerson College 20 years ago, so that the students could learn more about where their food came from.
The farm covers 500 acres, with horned Sussex cattle, pigs and sheep. The so-called garden – more field-scale horticulture than ornamental – is 16 acres, with six large polytunnels to extend the season. Many staff live on site and there is a care home at the heart of the place. Residents with learning difficulties help in the garden, farm and kitchen. All the growing at Tablehurst is on biodynamic lines, which means, in essence, that the growers and gardeners are taught to be aware of the interrelatedness of the soil and plants.
I asked Robert Tilsley, the head gardener, how these principles differed from standard organic. No herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are used, but the biodynamic philosophy takes this further.
The whole farm – and garden – are regarded as one organism, the land, animals and people living in an interrelated system. Steiner called this “a holistic understanding of agricultural processes”. The theories of biodynamics bring a spiritual aspect to gardening, emphasising the influence of invisible energies such as lunar cycles and their impact on growth. The farmer or gardener works by calendars and times of day when one does and does not do things. You should, for instance, always harvest leafy crops in the morning, and roots in the evening – apparently the flavours are better.
Biodynamic growers also use specially prepared tonics. One involves packing cow manure into hollow cow horns and burying it to rot down over the winter. Others are based on plant material, such as camomile, nettles and yarrow; and another on crystals – silica in homoeopathic quantities.
These preparations are made up with huge care and used as sprays on certain days according to the lunar cycle. They’re also applied at specific times of day, the silica in the early morning, the cow manure later.
A belief in good husbandry is pivotal to biodynamic growing – and you see this everywhere you turn.
Companion plants are used in all the polytunnels, with bushes of tagetes at the end of the tomato rows. Next to the 100m rows of runner beans, there are larkspurs, sunflowers (the excellent cut-flower variety ‘Sonja’ and the crimson ‘Velvet Queen’) and zinnias (Giant Dahlia Mix). All the flowers are busy with pollinators moving back and forth from flowers to beans, improving crops all around.
With no chemical pest control in the tunnels, everything has to be grown extremely well. Cucumbers (‘Styx’) are trained on angled canes, so that the fruit hangs out in the open, less likely to be clobbered by pests and diseases. Red spider mite can become a problem with organically grown cucumbers as they age, so the plants are whipped out quite young.
To ensure a succession, crops are sown four times a season.
There are glades of tomatoes in the tunnels too, the most impressive the huge beefsteak ‘Berner Rose’. At Tablehurst they like the flavour, as well as the texture, which is dense and sweet, with few seeds. Robert told me that ‘Gardener’s Delight’ used to be their standard cherry, but they’ve moved on to ‘Elettro’. By the end of the season, the fruit of ‘Gardener’s Delight’ is too small to sell well and they’re a fiddle to pick, whereas ‘Elettro’ performs well right into autumn.
Fruit is grown at Tablehurst, with vine-trained blackberries out in the field. Several ‘Peregrine’ peach trees were planted two years ago – they love it in the hot Mediterranean tunnel and are cropping well. And there’s salad, which is served in abundance in the café. The mini hearting cos lettuce called ‘Maureen’, apparently has more flavour than the standard ‘Little Gem’. Robert is also keen on lettuce ‘Klee’, which is a Rijk Zwann variety. I’ve grown a couple from the Rijk Zwann range and they were superb, neat, elegant, slow to bolt and tasty, the leaves staying small and tender for months at a stretch.
I was so keen on ‘Descartes’ and ‘Seurat’ from last year, I grew them in an ornamental pot this year and they were a huge success. The seed is more expensive than usual, but you can pick a handful of outer leaves at a time for a bowl of salad and they keep producing. That’s also true of ‘Klee’. They come highly recommended.
Out in the field, the broccoli enshrouded in Enviromesh is looking magnificent, with summer-cropping ‘Fiesta’ producing well and tasting mild and sweet; cavolo nero is grown in the same netted enclave. There is also a 160m row of the classic courgette ‘Nero di Milano’ and summer squash ‘Pattypan’. The latter makes a good salad, sliced finely with a mandolin and marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, salt and torn basil. Pattypans never get watery or too seedy, unlike courgettes.
Robert’s final choice of summer crops, easy to grow and delicious, is the seed-grown onion ‘Long Red Florence’. Three seeds are sown in stations, a foot apart, to ensure good use of space and plentiful air circulation. They’re then bunched and sold, a marvellous shape and colour.
As a former doctor and a scientist at heart, I found some of what I heard about biodynamics a little other-worldly, but I couldn’t fault the growing at Tablehurst. The palaver of burying cow horns seems further than most of us would go, but when the horns emerge from the ground they’re thick with potent fungus and mycorrhizas.
We all know that adding an extra network of roots via mycorrhizal fungi improves plant growth. This preparation would make an excellent soil enricher, ideal for when plants are in the cycle of root development.
Whatever one thinks about the biodynamic growing system, there’s no doubt that it does produce the sort of food that we should all be eating.
The veg and fruit, harvested and sold when in natural abundance, is often no more expensive at Tablehurst than in Tesco down the road. Biodynamically grown plants thrive, are flavour-dense – and it’s comforting and inspiring knowing exactly what’s on your plate. I left with my car laden.
This article first appeared in the Gardening Section of the Daily Telegraph 15th August 2015
Reprinted here with kind permission of Sarah Raven.
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More great Biodynamic Features in The Telegraph
Is BD the New Organic?
The biodynamic movement, advocating food that is grown and harvested in accordance with lunar cycles, is taking off.
Making wine the biodynamic way
Matthew Wilson is impressed by a Californian winery that has adopted earth-friendly production methods