Ever fancied growing your own unusual herbs, spices or exotic fruit? Well, it’s not that hard according to grower, cook and food writer Mark Diacono who makes the most of the ever-changing climate to create a new type of allotment at his unique climate change farm in Devon.
What Is a Climate Change Farm?
Mark Diacono is on a mission to transform how we grow food and his pioneering philosophy is transforming Otter Farm, his 17 acre smallholding in East Devon.
Over the past 12 years, the former River Cottage head gardener has established a kitchen garden, nuttery, vineyard, orchards and forest garden.
Mark not only farms organically and tunes in to the seasonal rhythms of nature, he goes one step further and embraces the Westcountry’s ever-warming climate to grow exceptionally quirky foods usually sourced from far flung places, such as chocolate vines from the Far East, Peruvian oca and Japanese wineberries.
Sustainability is at the heart of what he does and by adapting to the environmental conditions first, then planting the species that will thrive, Mark makes it easy to grow exciting food. And so Otter Farm has become known as the climate change farm.
Mark’s Plot to Plate Philosophy
While rows of onions and potatoes most probably spring to mind when you think of allotments, Mark challenges the status quo and believes an allotment is a wonderful opportunity to grow a little of what you fancy, whether that is exotic spices or unusual heritage varieties of fruit that money simply can’t buy in the shops.
It might sound tricky but he insists it is low maintenance, and best to start small. “Try planting unusual varieties,” he advises, “and if you are growing something you are looking forward to eating, you’ll no doubt be more likely to carry on nurturing it.”
Mark’s mantra is to plant exotic varieties that you will enjoy eating and that would normally be hard to source. He offers creative alternatives to traditional allotments, and encourages people to start with just a few unusual herbs or spices to get inspired.
Two of Mark’s favourite crops are the Szechuan pepper – “it’s low maintenance, easy and hugely productive” – and the mulberry – “simply the most extraordinary, gorgeous fruit in the world, it is easy to grow and tastes wonderful.”
“Small ingredients with big flavour make the biggest impact, I call them ‘transformers’ – plants like chillies, garlic, herbs and Szechuan pepper,” explains Mark, to whom flavour is king: “Eating the best food there is, especially when I have grown it, makes me happy.”
Learn to Grow Your Own at the Kitchen Garden School
Mark has opened up his new kitchen garden school, made with traditional cob, through which he hopes to inspire others in sustainable food production through courses, events and school workshops.
Gardening and harvesting food is a powerful way to connect to the environment, engage with the seasons and experience the world around us. “Growing even a little of what we eat makes us less reliant on our current dysfunctional food system. The more we eat seasonally and locally, the more your pound is working within the local economy and supporting the landscape we live in. And if you grow a little bit of your own food, you’re likely to be more aware and want to take care of the food system a little more.”
Having previously taught at River Cottage, Mark is all too familiar with the lack of awareness of where food comes from: “Discovering where food that sustains you actually comes from is so important, so even just growing a few pot plants can be such a mind-changer.”
He advises to keep it simple and buy foods that virtually grow themselves – such as mint: “It’s easy to grow just a few pots of herbs and, however seemingly small its contribution to what you eat, these few mouthfuls grown rather than bought are likely to ignite a series of positive sparks.”
“It doesn’t matter how you come to grow some of what you eat, what that something might be, nor the scale at which you do it; all that matters is that you do,” enthuses Mark.
Visit the Otter Farm website for details of Mark’s upcoming courses at Otter Farm’s new kitchen garden school and get in touch with photos of your own exotic harvests.
Feature image © Mark Diacono