The Rise of Kitchen Gardens & the Women Who Run & Work in Them

Inspired by a great feature in the Observer Food Monthly, our co-founder Mex Ibrahim,  decided to take a look at some of the women who are running kitchen gardens so they can supply the freshest products possible to their restaurants, cafes and schools.

Picture of feature in Observer Food Magazine of the Hampton Manor Team

Article in Observer Food – Photo by Sophia Spring

Thanks to a Twitter (or X as we now have to call it) repost from Jenny Linford (who edited The Kew Gardens Cookbook )-  I spotted a lovely feature written by Tony Naylor about chefs working in kitchen gardens.  He started with a quote from Lou Nicholls, Hampton Manor’s head gardener.

“It’s like a ballet,” says Lou Nicholls, referring to how just before dinner Grace & Savour’s chefs fan out across her walled garden to pick edible flowers with tweezers. “You have to do it very delicately,” she says.

Lou Nicholls began working as Head Gardener at Hampton Manor in March and now spends her days talking  “to people who cook with plants I grow”.  Naylor wrote: “She is enjoying growing the “most tasty” varieties of vegetables she can find and, as those sakura tomatoes or high-quality F1 varieties of yellow French beans come into season, teaching Grace & Savour’s chefs how best to harvest them.”

Both Lou and Grace & Savour chef David Taylor are encouraged by the Hill family, who run the estate and its luxury Manor House hotel. Like all chefs with their own kitchen gardens, they are  strong  on sustainability and choose their suppliers carefully.

Lou is a trained organic gardener and makes  her own compost, using bio-controls if necessary: when aphids attack, buy ladybirds! “She is a so-called “no dig” gardener, which means letting compost and grass clippings rot down naturally atop the soil, with minimal digging, to maximise its health”.

Dr Sally Bell – family owner of Hampton Manor 

The ethos behind the growing programme on the estate has been directed by Dr Sally Bell, a family owner of Hampton Manor. Sally spent 20 years practicing conventional medicine before retraining in lifestyle medicine, which focuses on research based interventions through nutrition, movement, rest, sleep and connection. Her research led  her to travel across the UK exploring the link between farming and nutrient density. Sally’s work has played a key role in helping David Taylor connect with a new movement of farmers who are rejecting the intensive industrial farming that many restaurants are used to.

Hélèna Dove, is the Head of the Kitchen Garden at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. I live about a 10 minute walk away from Kew Gardens and have always had an interest in their kitchen garden.  Food from the Kitchen garden supplies many of the cafes and restaurants at Kew, which at peak times has over 3,000 visitors a day.

Kew also use a ‘no dig’ method in their Kitchen Garden. This is when a layer of organic matter is added to the top of the beds, which suppresses weeds, and protects beneficial bacteria and helpful creatures that live just below the surface.

Kew’s Kitchen Garden was re-opened to the public in July 2022 after a nine-month refurbishment project. Hélèna spoke about preparing for its first harvest and said: “The veggies you grow yourself always taste extra delicious, and here at Kew we’re dedicated to researching and showcasing how you can get the very best out of your plot in a sustainable way.”

Hélèna says that you can already see the power of using a no-dig method in the garden: compaction of the soil is pretty much gone and it is teeming with life. “This isn’t lazy gardening” she says, “it’s efficient. The less we mess around with the soil the better”.

In a first for Kew Gardens, there is a dedicated growing space for fungi which produces edible mushrooms and educates visitors about the beneficial interactions between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Hélèna sees this as an exciting experiment and a chance to learn about a new type of growing. If successful, the mushroom growing zone will show people what they can do with a part of their garden that is under trees or in heavy shade; areas that people often struggle to make productive.

One of the great things about Kitchen Gardens that are open to the public is that the gardeners often sell excess produce to the public and at Kew any left go to food banks.

Even places in the heart of central London with no “normal” garden space are making the most of rooftops to grow herbs and vegetables. Before lockdown The Cookery School at Little Portland Street, London’s most sustainable cookery school, had an award-winning rooftop allotment.

Founder Rosalind Rathouse said “As a central London-based cooking school, we didn’t have access to wide open spaces where we can grow our own produce. However, thanks to local community bodies and businesses, there was a drive to introduce green spaces in the heart of urban London – and we’ve were  lucky enough to secure ourselves a rooftop allotment!

Our rooftop allotment was based on the roof of Heddon House, off Regent Street. We grew a wide variety of herbs, including oregano, basil, thyme, coriander, mint, garlic, onions and so much more! In 2018, we won ‘Best Allotment’ and ‘Best Diary of the Allotment’ by Regent Street Association.

These herbs and vegetables are then used in our cooking classes – basil appears in our green salsa over the summer, while mint is used in our tea and tagines.”

We had a wonderful day when kids from a local inner city school came to visit.”

At Raymond Blanc’s  Manoir aux Quat’Saisons  27 acres of grounds, one and a half are given over to vegetables. Under their long serving head gardener, Anne-Marie Owens, and 11 other staff they complement the cuisine in the Manoir’s Michelin-starred dining room.

August Bernstein was a former Virgin airlines flight attendant and now is a dedicated gardener, teaching pupils to sow vegetable seeds by hand. She is head tutor of the Le Manor aux Quat’Saisons  gardening school.

August came to gardening  after her time as a flight attendant and now for  80 days a year she tutors groups, restricted to eight or nine pupils who pay from £285 each for fascinating sessions such as “Heritage Seed Library: Becoming a Seed Saver ”, “ Micro herbs and edible flowers” and one on the  ‘No dig’  method that so many kitchen gardeners now advocate.  The school is another way for guests to really get to grips with all that goes into some of the country’s finest dishes.

If  you have an interest in sustainability, you may also like our  following features:

Meet Michelin Green Star Chef Chantelle Nicolson,

The Barbican’s Eat The Screen Season: Films to Feed Conversations about Food: Review,

Discover What Happened at our Sustainable Food Futures Event,

and Chantelle Nicolson: champion of veg forward cooking.   

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