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Sarah is making an absolute mockery of retirement. Having made the decision some years ago, she promptly relented when Raymond Blanc, Chris Beardshaw and the farm shops and the chefs of Hampshire and Surrey came a-knocking. And it’s all thanks to a birthday present.
One year, Sarah requested a cookery course as a birthday present from her husband and he certainly came up trumps for her: a course at the world famous Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons established by Raymond Blanc, where he still resides as its benevolent patriarch. Always a keen cook, she adored the experience and especially the hands-on teaching she received from the Michelin trained chefs. Sarah went on to attend several other courses at the school, as I can see from the certificates on her wall that proudly proclaim her status as graduate of canapes, patisserie and other trademark cuisines of the great man himself.
But more important than her time in the kitchens of Le Manoir, was her time in the gardens. A gardener by trade for many years previously (and still), Sarah found the gardens to be absolutely enchanting and quickly fell in love with the place. Between chopping, piping and souffle-ing, she went for walks through the beautiful grounds, sometimes chatting with Raymond (or “RB”, as she affectionately refers to him), the Cook School Chefs and the gardeners. She was asked if she might like to spend a day working with the gardening team. Soon enough, a letter arrived in the post with a formal invitation to join the team for a day.
Sarah and the team got along so well that over the proceeding months, she seamlessly converted into a permanent fixture. Back to 5am starts and perpetual dirt under the fingernails; but with some rather more elegant add-ons to her daily routine than in her previous years as a domestic gardener - topiary lessons were on the agenda and if there was ever a space in the dining hall, she would eagerly accept, knowing that delicious (Michelin-starred inspired) treats would be on the menu.
As months turned to years, Sarah’s time in Le Manoir Quat’Saisons brought her into contact with lots of interesting personalities – including a number of famous celebrities such as Chris Beardshaw, a man well known by UK gardeners as a presenter on prominent BBC shows like Gardeners’ World and Gardeners’ Question Time. Chris got to know Sarah and her exemplary work in the gardens and decided to present her with yet another incredible opportunity: building a garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower show. An offer to work with a gold medal winning designer was hardly something she could pass up! As part of Chris’ team, Sarah worked on a total of four gardens at Chelsea. Not many gardeners could deny that Sarah has reached the pinnacle of a gardener’s ambition.
Eventually, Sarah’s time at Le Manoir came to an end. She and her husband decided to retire and Sarah prepared to settle into a quieter time. With a magnificent garden of her own to tend to and with a lot more know-how than she’d had before, thanks to Raymond, Chris and their ilk, her own gardening endeavours proved even more successful and experimental. Heritage tomatoes are her favourite crops and she grew a total of 52 varieties this year alone! With the aid of her two Rhino greenhouses, her tomato yields were overflowing. Sarah took a crate of surplus tomatoes to the local farm shop, and wouldn’t you know it but another opportunity fell into her lap. “You couldn’t supply us, could you?”
Cut to a few years later: Sarah and her husband (both “retired”) now run a vegetable supply business to the local restaurants and farm shops around the Surrey-Hampshire border. Hearn Vale Veggies specialises in heritage tomatoes, edible flowers and microgreens.
As we walk around her garden in early October, with Morag the mini sausage dog constantly at my feet, Sarah tells me I’m not seeing it at its best and “don’t take pictures of that bit, it’s embarrassing”, but autumn is my favourite time of year in nature and so for me, it is all the more enchanting. We agree that there is something calming about watching a garden relax after the high power striving of spring and summer. Sarah enjoys a quirky landscaping style, with oddments of artistic flair catching the eye throughout. One corner is dedicated to her topiary skills and I’m particularly enamoured with the lady in the hedge that Sarah has been working on for 3 years so far. In other corners, you’ll find an old metal chair left to be claimed by nature and a pottery mask hanging from a tree. A photo, printed onto a metal panel, leans against one fence, “it’s an experiment” to see if the print will weather over time so that she might eventually leave more around the garden in the future.
As we make our way between different borders, demarcating new styles, we meet a row of rosehip bushes fruiting marvellously. Beyond them, 3 apple trees – one with the face of a Grecian prince. And beyond them, 2 Rhino greenhouses surrounded by low beds. Autumn is taking hold here, with low-lying nasturtiums straggling over bare earth and a bed of leafless beetroot recently gobbled by a deer. It is possible from some distance to see the cucumbers that hang low and heavy from the roof of the older, smaller Rhino. And in the newer, larger Rhino next-door, can be seen 3 majestic columns: hydroponic towers.
I am fascinated by hydroponics and after meeting Sarah, she has made it seem deceptively easy to set up a hydroponics system. I wonder how much her own talent has facilitated the supposedly easy transition to hydroponics. She explains that her talented husband (an aviation engineer before retirement) has rigged up an automated system that mixes the perfect amount of feed into the rainwater they collect in their water butts which is then fed into the towers - all solar powered. Apparently, the gutters on the Rhinos do a fantastic job and they’re rarely low on water with a 600L tank being constantly replenished. The towers are manufactured by a German company called Aponix and they are happy to help out anyone who thinks they'd like to have a go with the towers for themselves.
Sarah’s hydroponic towers have been variously used for herbs, lettuce and edible flowers so far. The root growth on her lettuces is remarkable, and Sarah has made efforts to create an attractive display too. She seems a little reluctant to disrupt the spiraling arrangement when she goes to remove a lettuce for our lunch.
The excitement doesn’t stop here either; with a shed not far away rigged up for microgreen production. Trays of luscious nascent growth in vibrant colours sit on shelving units with lights rigged to hang 20cm above. Sarah explains that some of these trays are purely experimental, but I can’t help but get excited by the possibilities: celery, pak choi, amaranth, kale, basil, chicory, carrot, kohlrabi. I’m told the variegated amaranth has been a disappointment since its germination, failing to live up to the aesthetic expectations. The microgreens are getting the most of Sarah’s attention at the moment, and she is keen to give them a better growing space so a third Rhino might well be on the cards…
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Text and Images by Georgie Matthews