From model to grow your own - the accidental gardener
- Credit: Richard Allenby-Pratt
Anna Greenland is a rising star in the organic grow-your-own firmament, although as she confesses to Catherine Larner, her life currently is more Grand Designs than Gardeners’ World.
For more than three years Anna Greenland has been living in a rented cottage on the outskirts of the tiny village of Brandeston in east Suffolk. Across the gravel lane outside, beyond vehicles, machines and piles of building materials, her husband is converting an old threshing barn into the family home.
Carrying out much of the work himself, he has spent weeks at a time away from home to keep on top of a festival-food business which is bringing in the money. Anna, meanwhile, is looking after their two-year-old daughter, maintaining her profile on social media for her consultancy and speaking engagements, and planning the garden school she ultimately hopes to open on the one-acre site.
“We were living in Oxford, but Hugo comes from Suffolk, and I’m from Essex,” says Anna. “We were keen to come back here and we chanced upon it when we were visiting family one weekend. We didn’t look anywhere else, and it happened really quickly but I think it’s good to go with your gut instinct.”
Gardening is at the core of their project, but for now it has been relegated to a polytunnel and waiting for the ‘green manure’ to transform the field into the fertile soil of an organic market garden.
“Everything feels a bit haphazard at the moment,” says Anna. “We’re hoping to have things finished for next summer. But we’re working regeneratively and organically and I realise I’m trying to do things differently – it all takes time.”
Despite the unforeseen building delays and lockdown, the garden school is now taking shape with a stunning, rusted steel, single storey annexe in place, protruding from the barn. Here, Anna plans to share her knowledge and passion for growing vegetables, fruit and herbs in day courses for adults and children.
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Having generated a sizeable following on Instagram with her helpful videos and beautiful images of produce and planting, she is likely to have plenty of interest. “There were a lot of new gardeners as a result of lockdown,” she says and these were the people she had in mind with her new book.
“There are so many gardening books and I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but seeing all these people, and particularly friends too, who wanted to know how to grow things and hadn’t done it before - I wanted to write something that was just for them.”
Anna recalls receiving messages with very specific requests. “There were so many people saying things like ‘my basil’s not germinating, what do I do?’ or ‘how do I prepare a raised bed?’ or ‘where do I get compost from?’
“And my friend in London, when I told him he needed to cover his tomatoes in fleece because he had planted too early, thought he needed to get them woolly jumpers. The terminology can be bewildering for people unfamiliar with gardening.”
Her book is jargon-free, then, but nevertheless provides extensive and inspiring advice and Anna hopes it appeals to the novice as well as people who have already taken the leap into gardening.
She explains how to build raised beds as well as growing in the ground, in pots or on the windowsill, and there are profiles of her top 30 crop choices of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit. There’s a year-round planner for monthly tasks and seasonal planting and there are also some delicious and surprising recipes. The pages are clean and clear in text and design, and there is a glorious selection of images from award-winning garden photographer Jason Ingram.
“I wanted it to feel more like a cookbook,” says Anna. “I enjoyed working on it – but I didn’t like having my photo taken!” This comes as something of a surprise because Anna, as a teenager and through her university years, was on the books of a leading modelling agency, and travelled all over Europe for leading brands.
“It was lockdown and there were no hairdressers,” she yelps. “I try to be an earthy gardener but when you’re shooting a book, you want to look your best.” This wasn’t the only hurdle raised by the extraordinary events of recent months. Shortly after the book was commissioned, there was a seed shortage.
“It was crazy. I had a photographer booked but I couldn’t get hold of any seeds. Every supplier in the country just ran out. I was rummaging through my old seed packets, trying to find anything. Luckily one company had a window and I just got in.”
Anna is used to adapting though – she has met many different challenges in her gardening career which started almost by accident. Having left modelling and after a foray into journalism, it was while she was waitressing for Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen in Cornwall that she met local suppliers and decided to start growing produce herself. She found the process so rewarding, she never looked back. “To see what I’d grown on the menu, and to talk to the guests about it, that was really exciting.”
She sought more experience and knowledge by working at The Lost Gardens of Heligan where vegetables were planted in precisely measured lines just as they had been in Victorian times. Then, in America, she established a sustainable gardening programme at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles after completing an apprenticeship at the University of California.
But, missing England, she returned and joined Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire where a typical task for the gardeners was to grow 10 different varieties of carrots in order to find the one with the best flavour for chef Raymond Le Blanc. Anna then went on to create the fruit and vegetable gardens for Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, and has won awards at Hampton Court Flower Show and designed Kew Gardens’ first vegetable garden.
“I went back to my old school recently to talk to them,” she says. “I never considered gardening as a career when I was young. It was never cool, or an option. I think gardeners are often viewed as lowly creatures, and aren’t given the kudos they deserve. “I have a genuine desire to share it all, to try and encourage people to get their hands in the soil and enjoy it the way I have.”
Grow Easy is published by Mitchell Beazley