Green-fingered Lanarkshire mum Shirley Graham is ploughing her love of the land and passion for good food into an eco-friendly enterprise that follows the teachings of a celebrated TV gardening guru and author.
Having relished the flexibility of working during 2020 from the home farm she shares with her husband Mark and their two teenage children, the experience gave civil servant Shirley a hankering for a new career she could build, quite literally, on home turf.
She and sheep farmer Mark began to explore new ways of generating income from their farm base, without withdrawing from agriculture.
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She told Lanarkshire Live: “I have always grown lots of vegetables for ourselves, so why not try and set up a market garden and grow some veg to sell to others.”
Shirley grasped the opportunity 10 months ago to take a career break, spending the first two months of this year emerged in research before, in February, erecting a poly tunnel on a small grass field next to the family home.
“I follow a no-dig system, which means I don’t have to turn the soil over,” she added.
“I laid out cardboard on to a grass field and then made compost beds. I used a garden waste compost as well as some farmyard manure. I sow seeds into seed trays. That is about giving them the best possible chance and start, so they are a little bit established by the time you are planting them out.
“It is all about trying to keep the soil covered so that when the crop is harvested, you have something else to go into it.”
The practice of growing plants in undisturbed soil has, for three decades, been championed by Charles Dowding, who has written nine books on time-saving methods of gardening organically without digging.
Dowding, who contributes to national gardening magazines and appears on BBC television gardening shows, has been practising no-dig methods in his market gardens since 1982, on areas ranging from a quarter to seven acres.
He is often consulted for advice on creating, maintaining and improving vegetable gardens and allotments, and gives talks to gardening clubs, fund raising events, allotment societies and literary festivals about how he can open gardeners’ minds to the beauty they can create through growing vegetables.
Inspired by him, Shirley recently visited his Homeacres Farm in Somerset for a training course, at which Charles – whose speciality is salad leaves grown in undisturbed soil for sale to local outlets – encouraged her to share the no-dig concept with the people of Lanarkshire and promote among them the culture of growing one’s own, seasonal fruit and veg.
Currently with four varieties growing in one area, Shirley’s Lanarkshire garden is always kept covered in a growing crop.
Within the poly tunnel, she grows tomatoes, cucumber, squash, sweetcorn, peppers, chillies and herbs.
And outdoors at the couple’s Greenshields Farm, Biggar, flourishing crops include cabbage, carrots, broad beans, green beans, sugar snap peas, mange tout, onions, potatoes, spring onions, radish, broccoli, cauliflower and courgettes.
“There’s lots still to come,” said Shirley, whose customers returned time and again for a batch from her first crop, spinach, enthusing about its superior flavour and at-home shelf life.
“Pak choi is just about finished. I do various varieties of salad bags, as well as roquette, parsley, parsnips, leeks, Brussel sprouts and beetroot. There are four plantings of lettuce during the year to keep continual supplies. I now have lettuce in the poly tunnel to keep that growing over the winter so that you have something growing and something you can harvest.”
Although Shirley follows organic principles, her produce is not classified as organic.
“I do not apply chemicals or fertilisers. The compost they grow in is all the nutrition they’ve had – and they are growing close to where the people who buy them are living,” she explained.
“There was nothing applied to that field before I started growing veg, so it is as good as organic. In fact, my husband says it’s better.”
Since the launch of her business, which trades as Shirley’s Kitchen Garden, she has had the support of The Barony restaurant in Biggar, and has also supplied Shieldhill Castle and The Crown Inn.
Although in addition her clients include Lanarkshire catering businesses and B&Bs, customers are predominantly local families who either collect their vegetable blocks from Greenshields Farm, or call by the stall she has on a Friday afternoon in the market town of Biggar to select from her supply of freshly picked produce.
“This year, for us, was all about establishing what we could grow,” continued Shirley.
“We did a lot more in the first year than I thought possible. I didn’t think, for example, we’d be supplying to restaurants. Going forward, it will be about whether we need a larger area, and could I still cope with that by myself? What could I grow more or less of? I have a freezer full of garden peas because I couldn’t keep up with the harvest. I want to learn a bit more from what has gone well.”
Because food is subsidised in the UK, consumers are not paying the true cost of what it takes to grow crops.
Shirley’s Kitchen Garden is also competing against imported produce and large-scale growers. And, as much as she loves growing and producing food for local people, that is why Shirley will have to question whether running a market garden is viable in the longer term.
“We are hearing a lot more through the media about the impact of growing food, where you are getting it from, how it can be sourced locally and what’s better for the environment,” said Shirley, who uses no equipment or fuel in the growing of her crops.
She supports The Landowners’ Alliance ‘Get Vocal for Local’ campaign, which advocates for a fairer, more sustainable, and more resilient food system that is fit to meet the climate, environmental and public health challenges that are becoming increasingly pressing.
“We have lost touch with what is seasonal and what can be grown in this climate,” she maintains.
“We are so used to walking in and the shelves being full of food. We should not come to think that everything is there 24/7. We need to get back to thinking what we should be eating just now and what is growing now. I do believe that the pandemic made us think more about where our food source was coming from and how we could get more that was a bit more local to where we are.”
Shirley’s Kitchen Garden recently joined the increasing number of local food and drink firms which are signing up as members of regional food group, Lanarkshire Larder.
She has also teamed up with a local pre-school nursery to help the children learn about the merits of growing one’s own produce.
“I love people to come to see the garden and see what it is I am growing and whether there is anything they can take from that,” said Shirley.
“I am all for sharing that information. All I can go on is my own experience, and share that with them. I’d really like to expand that training side of things to help people grow their own at home. There’s nothing to beat it.”