Soho Farmhouse: a guided tour of the kitchen garden
Anna Greenland, head gardener at Soho Farmhouse Credit: Mark Diacono
9 June 2017 • 6:00pm
I feel as if I’ve been chasing Anna Greenland for a long time. Eight years ago, while putting together the garden team at River Cottage, I approached Anna to work with me. I tried to persuade her to swap the damp climate of her then-home in Cornwall for the damp climate of Devon; for some reason the attraction of Monterey Bay, California, proved stronger.
Since then, our crossing paths have been a constant reminder that I missed out. She’s been on TV, on my work radar, working at gardens I photograph, growing in places I’d love to be gardening: for Raymond Blanc , Jamie Oliver and Tom Aikens; at Heligan, Le Manoir, Huntington Botanical Gardens in LA – and she had a big hand in creating the first vegetable garden at Kew.
Soho Farmhouse Credit: Soho Farmhouse
She’s now at Soho Farmhouse, the 100-acre members’ club in Oxfordshire beloved of the Cotswolds glitterati, where she has been head gardener since before it opened, two years ago. “This has been my opportunity to use every moment’s experience to create something special from scratch, to lead on the creation of the gardens at the Farmhouse,” she says. “Hard as it was to leave Raymond, it was time to spread my wings, to create something from nothing.”
And what a “something” it is. As well as 48 productive raised beds, there are polytunnels and glasshouses of everything from lemons to microleaves , with a beautiful garden dominated by herbs and trained fruit, the ideal setting for a cocktail and relaxation. Orchards, wild flower meadows, raised beds and productive containers: Anna’s influence stretches across the site.
Anna in the rhubarb patch Credit: Mark Diacono
Having trained in journalism and worked as a fashion model, Anna moved to Cornwall a dozen years ago, working as a waitress at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, in Watergate Bay. She says: “I got to know most of the suppliers and, in particular, one fascinating grower. I visited him at his smallholding and on a whim I asked if he had any jobs; he hadn’t but he did offer me space to grow and to buy anything if it was up to scratch. I bought lots of books, and went for it – focusing on simple but delicious things: salads, edible flowers, beetroot and so on.”
Anna discovered that growing had been sleeping in her bones, from a childhood of being outside with her parents. “I loved being in the garden all day as a kid, but horticulture was never a career that was spoken of as a choice for anyone, never mind a woman. I hope and believe that’s changing at last,” she says. Anna took on a quarter acre, growing by day, waitressing at night. “I had a huge sense of pride serving courses that included produce I’d grown. Jamie was instrumental in making the possibilities known to me.”
Productive raised beds at Soho Farmhouse Credit: Mark Diacono
Fifteen led to a role as crop coordinator/gardener at Heligan. “It gave me an introduction to growing for both public visual consumption and the kitchen at Heligan,” she says. “It was quite the challenge and made me up my game: it had to look good all the way from sowing to the plate. I loved it but after a few years I needed to move on. While there is nowhere quite like Heligan, at the time it was very period-correct, and I am experimental and curious by nature, and I had ideas I wanted to try.”
A six-month intensive course at the Centre for Agricultural Ecology and Sustainable Food Systems in Santa Cruz, overlooking Monterey Bay, immersing herself in forward-thinking approaches to growing, gave Anna a sense of belonging as well as a launch pad for more creative gardening. She says: “As a young person getting into growing, I didn’t feel there was a young, dynamic movement for me to hook up with – thankfully, that’s changing with organisations like the Landworkers’ Alliance. Now, growing and gardening has very much a feeling of being something fun to be part of.
“I went on to Huntington Botanical Gardens in LA, to get involved in urban growing projects. Even there, in a very bright-minded horticultural environment, many people couldn’t understand why a woman would choose to do manual work. Maybe it’s because so many people have no choice.
“In truth, working with my hands, in the soil, gives me something I can’t get from anything else: a deeper appreciation of the seasons, a connection to the natural world. Actually being in the middle of plants makes me happy. I feel very fortunate to have this as a way of making a living.”
Then England called. “I had the opportunity to become the head vegetable gardener for Raymond Blanc. I couldn’t turn that down. Working with Raymond was everything you’d hope it would be: thrilling, exhausting, exacting and inspiring.”
Our paths crossed again at this point, as I visited Raymond’s incredible Heritage Garden to photograph it for a book I was working on. “It was a really intense time as we were creating the Heritage Garden at Le Manoir, one at Kew for the Kew On A Plate book and series. It was madness: creative and full-on to be doing all that, as well as working to such exquisite standards for the kitchen. I loved it,” she says.
Anna inspects the herb beds Credit: Mark Diacono
For the last two years, Anna’s wings have been fully spread, running the garden operation at Soho Farmhouse. “It was fields and rivers of mud, all diggers and lorries, but the owners have given me an open brief.” Away from the productive raised beds, herbs, fruit and edible flowers dominate. She says: “As with Raymond at Le Manoir, I work closely with the chefs in putting together a plan for what we grow – a combination of the essentials the kitchen needs with plenty of niche crops I know would work on the menu that they might be unfamiliar with.
“In a way, this whole undertaking is about creating a beautiful landscape of flowering herbs, punctuated by productive vegetables and fruit. It means that even the vegetable beds are full of beneficial insects and beauty.
“I love embellishing familiar salad leaves with highly-flavoured leaves such as wood sorrel, oxalis, claytonia, summer purslane – bursts of flavour and visual pleasure to lift the plate. I’m always on the lookout for visual flourishes as well as flavour – purple carrots, different coloured beetroots, unusual radishes.
“The challenge is to leave no space unproductive – so we have a comprehensive plan for many cut-and-come-again harvests, from salads to chards and cime di rapa, along with successional planting and sowing that ensures seedlings are always at hand to replace those plants that have passed their peak.”
Anna’s small team is almost entirely female. She says: “It’s not been a conscious thing – having the mix of creative spark and ability to revel in the everyday pleasure of it is what’s most important when I’m considering who will be part of the team. That said, it is a sign, I hope, that horticulture is increasingly a place for women.”
It is hard to be more than the sum of your experiences, when they include Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, Tom Aikens, Heligan and Huntington Botanical Garden, but Anna most certainly is.