I just love salad! I can't resist it! The milky crunch of a Cos or Romaine heart, a velvety fold of Trocadero with its buttery bite, a ticklish Frisée or a baby Gem, I eat half the pillow pack before it hits the plate. Best of all, Canonigos - Lambs lettuce, the enchanted leaves that Rapunzel's mother stole. I understand her craving, though perhaps the promise of her unborn child in exchange for a plate of the mythical salad was a too high a price!
Small wonder then, that I was excited when Megan McCarthy joined our team at Boschendal.
Megan, whose long legged form can be seen striding purposefully through the gardens at the werf in dungarees and a blue lumberjack shirt, is our resident horticulturist. She is responsible for making us eat our greens...yellows, reds, blues and oranges! Megan has an encyclopaedic knowledge of vegetables and their favoured seasons and appears to have freakishly green thumbs as well.
At the insistence of Rob Lundie, who wanted to create a commercial vegetable garden that formed a changing and visual art landscape, showing the beauty behind agriculture, Jan Blok, our landscaper, pulled out his brushes and watercolours and together they have turned a ripped out pear orchard into a kaleidoscope of tiny leaves. Every day the colours of our garden grow stronger as these impossibly tender plantlets defy the torrential rain and blustering wind and impose themselves on the earth.
Sourcing untreated seeds from organic suppliers wherever possible, Megan's plant list reads like the who's who directory of the veg garden. From Artichokes to Zucchini, they are all represented, with a special nod to our heirloom and heritage varieties, rescued from delicious obscurity by chefs like our own Christiaan Campbell - never one to use a plain carrot if he can find one in purple or candy stripes!
For anyone who has experimented with growing their own, the biggest obstacles to a satisfying harvest are the soil and the critters. My own efforts have invariably been rewarded with a fine crop of plump green caterpillars and a half empty trug of tiny misshapen vegetables.
Happily, Megan is generous with her knowledge and excited to share it with our guests and our local communities. She is positively evangelistic in her belief that good, inexpensive nutrition and optimal soil health are but a trowel and some elbow grease away. She will be setting up seed banks, composting workshops and skill sharing programmes and instructing us all in the application and management of good bacteria, some of which are sitting in a box behind me as I write (no cause for concern, apparently- even if they do escape they are good for both me and the environment)!
For those of us who are not quite up for the challenge, she will be packing our produce for sale in the farm shop and for those of us who like to feel we have had some hand in foraging for and feeding our families, we will be able to pick our own and pretend!!
So…First up - the soil. Mulching , Micro organisms, Minerals.
Using techniques drawn from permaculture and biodynamic farming, Megan employs companion planting and nitrogen fixing cover crops like yarrow, comfrey and serradella to draw minerals up to the surface and make them accessible to her baby veggies. She makes foliar feed tea from their composted remains to drench the plants in nitrogen rich liquid. Mulching reduces her need to till, irrigate or compost and protects the younger sprouts from the elements.
The microorganisms in Megan's garden have never had it so good! Far from waging war on them unilaterally, she uses organic products which encourage their growth and help restore the balance of the soil system.
The critters are pitted against or with each other. Ladybirds v aphids, ducks v snails. The chickens add their beneficial droppings to the soil and the worms, if they avoid the chickens, process our restaurant waste into a rich ganache of micro nutrients .
It all adds up to seriously nutritious and delicious vegetables all grown with love and within sight of the table at which they will be served.