This former international model wants to open a Suffolk garden school
- Credit: Jason Ingram
She’s posed for some of the world’s top fashion brands, but now Anna Greenland is putting her green fingers to work
Since Anna Greenland left behind a career as a successful model signed to the prestigious international agency Models 1, for a muddy vegetable plot in Cornwall, she hasn’t looked back.
Now relocated to a quiet corner of Suffolk, she is continuing to grow a successful career as a vegetable gardener and cook at the heart of the growing organic movement.
Her gardening journey started when she ditched the frantic pace of London and headed off in search of a simpler life in Cornwall, taking up residence in a rented cottage with a small garden. “It had a greenhouse and it was the first garden I’d had so I started growing produce for us at home.”
Then, with serendipitous timing, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver opened his second Fifteen restaurant in Watergate Bay on the north coast of Cornwall and Anna was soon working there as a waitress. When Jamie and the team sent out a call to work with suppliers of local, fresh ingredients, Anna rolled up her sleeves and jumped at the chance to put in some additional hard graft.
“I took on a small, quarter-acre plot of land on the south coast of Cornwall. I’d go there during the day, do the planting and harvesting, then load up my little car to the gunnels with boxes of produce, drive to Fifteen, scrub my fingernails, put on my waitressing outfit and do a shift in the evening.”
She recalls how the restaurant, which ran an apprentice scheme offering disadvantaged young people a chance to enter the trade, was similarly nurturing her own nascent career. “They were really supportive and took my salads. They weren’t too fussy about having big bulk orders. They got me on the road to wanting to do it more as a career.”
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She set her sights on one of Cornwall’s horticultural hotspots, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, in order to gain some more experience and expand her horticultural knowledge. “I thought, I really should learn a little more by the book on how to do things because I’d had no formal training. I signed up and did my RHS qualifications while working in the kitchen garden at Heligan. I spent a couple of seasons honing my skills.”
By now determined to learn all there was to know about olericulture (growing edible plants), Anna decided to enrol on a course that specialised in teaching sustainable, organic food production. However, at the time she could find nothing close to home so took the decision to transplant herself further afield. “I found a course in America, which was supposed to be a six-month apprenticeship at the University of California in Santa Cruz. I ended up staying for a couple of years because I ended up falling in love with the place. It’s hard not to fall in love with California.” One of her proudest achievements during the time was setting up a sustainable gardening programme at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles.
Eventually she missed family, friends and home, so she returned to the UK to find that her fortunes were once again about to become entwined with another of the country’s celebrated chefs. “I got a job with Raymond Le Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. “I wasn’t entirely sure who he was at that stage,” she confesses. “I had vague memories of seeing him on telly sort of shouting at Adam (Johnson, development chef) his sidekick.”
Prior to the interview she made sure she was fully prepared for the tough questions that would inevitably come her way from the exacting French maître de maison. “He just said, ‘Can I see your hands?’ He wanted to make sure that they were roughened and worker’s hands, so I passed the test and spent the next three years running his vegetable garden.”
Working in the kitchen gardens of one of the UK’s most prestigious and decorated hotels and restaurants under the watchful eye of a boss who expected only the highest standards was another instructive learning curve for Anna. “Some chefs at that level of celebrity are not as involved with the day-to-day running of things, but he was actively involved with the restaurant and hotel every day when he wasn’t filming.”
He was also a regular visitor in the garden, worked closely with Anna on all aspects of growing the produce that would supply his kitchen. “Every winter we would sit down and do a plan for the following season. He was always giving ideas he might have from his travels. Some of them were quite mad! A lot of stuff he wanted to grow was from the South of France – French varieties of things that perhaps weren’t quite so adapted to the UK climate.”
Such demands kept things interesting and challenging for Anna, giving her a clear understanding of how her work in the fresh air was directly connected to the heat of the kitchen. “He was a forerunner of ‘garden-to-plate’. He taught me a lot about varieties of vegetables. There was a real exchange of ideas. The chefs would come down to the garden and we would taste dishes using the produce we had grown.”
As her growing reputation continued to flourish, Anna was soon picking up awards and prestigious commissions. In 2018, she won a ‘Gold’ and ‘Best in Show’ for her ‘Herbs for Preserves’ garden at Hampton Court Flower Show. She also designed Kew Gardens’ first vegetable garden, which led to an appearance on the TV show, Kew on a Plate.
More recently, Anna and her husband, Hugo, have started another chapter in their lives with the arrival of their daughter, Bonnie, and relocation to a new home in an east Suffolk village. It was, she says, a somewhat spur of the moment decision. “I had spent time in Suffolk as a kid, but to be honest it was spontaneous. We started having a trawl of Rightmove and this barn renovation, which is literally a shell, came up, and we fancied a project with a little bit of land.”
Their plans have not been entirely straightforward due to the twin combination of lockdown and local wildlife. “We’ve not been able to do anything for the past year and a half because we’ve had great crested newts, bats and everything you can imagine. We’ve been held up considerably, but that’s just how it goes. It’s the classic Grand Designs where you see them running out of money and having a baby, which are all the things that seem to be happening to us!”
Undaunted and perhaps inevitably, Anna has already made a start on the garden. “Hopefully it will be a year or so ahead of the actual building project, so won’t be so much work when the building is done.” Her ambition is to run a small garden school at the property, teaching people the fundamental skills they need to grow their own vegetables. It all starts with the stuff that any gardener worth their salt has embedded beneath their fingernails.
“If you don’t have good soil you won’t get great plants. It’s about incorporating good compost and well-rotted manure, making sure that you get that right first off.” For gardening newbies whose fingers are yet to turn the necessary shade of green, she suggests starting out with beans, courgettes, salads and perhaps some kale or chard.
“Things that are going to give you good bang for your buck and keep cropping over a long period of time so you don’t need to keep worrying about successional sowing and getting too complicated.” She believes that anyone can get to grips with growing and can do so whatever size of garden they have. “You can have a windowsill and grow some pea shoots and micro cresses. Most vegetables can grow in pots of reasonable size.”
Alongside supplementing the weekly shop, growing vegetables also offers other benefits. “Even a herb on your windowsill, smelling it every morning, tending and nurturing it, provides us with the feelgood factor.” The recent lockdown has also highlighted the importance of growing and sourcing vegetables locally. “Just observing what happened with the supermarkets early on and the bulk buying, it has shown how vulnerable our current global food system is. I like to think people will be thinking more locally and there will be more respect for local farmers and growers that have kept producing and been more resilient.”
As a relative newcomer to the county, she’s looking forward to finding out more about its well-established and fruitful culinary scene. “We’re really lucky in Suffolk, there are so many growers and foodies with lots going on and it’s nice to tap into that. I’m still meeting people as we go.” And with a popular Instagram account boasting almost 30,000 followers, she looks certain to keep growing her circle of friends both online and off.