A kitchen gardener’s guide
to growing your own

Words by Sophie Churcher
Photography by Liz Seabrook

Famed for its breathtaking treetop walkway, aquatic garden and exotic greenhouses, Kew Gardens is home to one of the world’s largest collections of plants. But this beautiful botanical garden once housed more than just fancy flora; it was home to the royal family, their palaces and the colossal royal kitchen gardens. 

First established in the late-1700s, the Royal Kitchen Gardens dominated Kew’s land at around 12 acres (nearly six football pitches worth of fruits, vegetables, flowers and arable crops). But the deaths of King George III and Queen Charlotte in the early 1800s meant that the once-thriving gardens were abandoned. 

Fast forward to 2014: Kew gardener Joe Archer was hired to help restore and maintain this patch of history for the television series Kew On A Plate. Presented by Michelin-star chef Raymond Blanc and Kate Humble, the show followed the lives of vegetables ― from the sowing of seeds to the sautéing of produce ― digging up dirt and unearthing untold stories of the foods we’re so familiar with today. 
“another ingredient for the perfect garden: make the most of its limitations”
But how do you go about starting a kitchen garden from scratch? Can it be done on a smaller scale? We spoke to Joe to hear more about this unique project and the art of growing your own with a Michelin-star chef (who cares so much about fresh produce) watching over your shoulder with unrelenting enthusiasm.

Joe’s experimental attitude and creative approach offer its garden gloves to the idea of growing your own produce. Whether on a large scale, a small corner with sunlight, or simply trying to rejuvenate an old forgotten pot of windowsill herbs, Joe feeds this guide with hints and tips.


Location: space over size

The gardens for Kew On A Plate stand on the original royal kitchen gardens site, although today they occupy only a quarter of an acre ― a fraction of the original site. But size doesn’t always matter. Joe is constantly impressed by what you can produce with the right spot. 

“The most important thing is about getting to know the area you’re growing in ― whether you’re gardening at home or you’ve got a big kitchen garden like the one here at Kew. The eighteenth-century Kew gardeners certainly knew what they were doing with this location. It’s so open, and we get a lot of sunshine and heat from the walls. That and enough water is all you need.” 

Light, space and plenty of water are all necessities, but Joe recalls another ingredient for the perfect garden: make the most of its limitations. 

“We had a cracking bunch of leeks growing last year for Kew On A Plate, but we lost every single one to allium leafminer pests. Now we know that at Kew ― and in this surrounding area, it’s complicated to grow anything in that family. But that opens up the opportunity for different crops ― we focus on things that we know grow well, instead.” 

So although my window ledge doesn’t fit the bill for vegetables, I could grow a mean herb garden if I play to its strengths (a good mixture of sunlight and shade).

Picking your produce: think ahead

Certain produce may be easier to grow, but it’s essential to consider what you want from the garden. Do you want an aesthetically pleasing display? A challenge? Or simply good quality, delicious produce? The Kew Kitchen Gardens needed to be a combination of these, so Joe and Raymond chose their produce with this in mind.

“Spinach and kale are great for the garden because they just keep on giving,” he said. “It’s similar to cabbage, but it’s not gone once you’ve cut it, meaning there are no gaps in the display where something once stood.” 

For Joe, it’s about the experience as much as the flavour. “Tomatoes are great when they’re grown outside and ripened in the sun. We grew a large variety of heritage tomatoes for the series last year. I loved pinching out the side‒shoots, training them and watching them grow.”

Pesticides: less is more

Joe believes that if your location is right, pesticides and artificial fertilisers aren’t necessary, which is refreshing to hear. He keeps the kitchen garden as natural as possible, only doing a yearly mulch (a combination of horse manure and garden compost) as this is all the garden needs to thrive. 

It’s an experiment. I like to see how far I can push things without following the books word‒for‒word. I want to see how things will grow if we don’t use artificial fertilisers.” 

Maintenance: a garden isn’t just for summer

Starting his workday at 7.30 am, come rain or shine, Joe works all year round, although the workload differs from season to season. In spring, his time is spent nurturing and mulching as the crops come out, summer and autumn are mainly spent harvesting produce, and there’s a lot more office time in the winter. 

It all sounds idyllic, spending time outdoors doing something you love ― especially during the warmer months. But is it as good as it sounds? 

“I feel very lucky,” Joe said, “but I do get sick of it sometimes, running around in the summer with a hose trying to water the bloody things. I’m always a little pleased with year-end ― you can wipe the slate clean and start again, being sure to correct any mistakes you made next time around.” 

Harvesting: the time is right

I completely agree with Joe when he says that you’ll never look at a vegetable in the same way if you grow your own. You won’t turn your nose up at a knobbly carrot or discard a disfigured potato because you put time and effort into it. You won’t want to waste it. 

“Growing your own is all about the full circle, as clichéd as that sounds. Eating the produce is part of the fun. Plus, I haven’t shopped at the supermarket for months!” 

But all in all, it’s down to flavour ― I may be inclined to eat a wonky runner bean, but I know I’d draw the line if the taste wasn’t right. 

“Working with Raymond Blanc has shown me the importance of harvesting things at the right time ― not doing so can affect their flavour,” Joe pointed out. “Carrots can get more woody, for example. Aside from this, it’s also important to do them justice when cooking with them.”  

Once again, Joe stresses that practice makes perfect, but there’s no harm in doing a little research ― just try not to get tied down by it. “You can read as many books as you like, but ultimately it’s about getting to know your crops and how they behave. It’s all one big experiment.”