An interview with Lucy Hutchings
Lucy Hutchings is a couture jewellery designer turned edible garden designer, homesteader and gardening influencer (@shegrowsveg) with a passion for GYO, and designing The Secret Homestead at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.
Lucy believes that the GYO movement needs a rebrand to encourage the Instagram generation to try their hand at growing their own food, and she’s here to help. With more than 167,000 Instagram followers, a sustainable gardening school, and an exciting edible Show Garden design for BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2023, Lucy’s on a mission to get Great Britain growing. Lucy and her partner, Arctic adventurer and chef Mike Keen, have transformed a tumbledown wooden 1940s house in Suffolk, restoring both the house and its 1.5 acre site into Cedarwood Homestead, an oasis of fruit and veg and a hotbed of culinary experimentation. But don’t mention the Good Life!
Lucy Hutching’s Show Garden, The Secret Homestead, will be at BBC Gardeners’ World Live at the Birmingham NEC from 15th-18th June 2023. Visit the We Grow Stage to see daily talks on all things grow your own. Find out more here.
Lucy, the ethos you have created at Cedarwood is a wonderful fusion of you and your partner Mike’s careers in design, food and travel, and the hard graft of being self-sufficient. Will The Secret Homestead be a glimpse into what you’ve created in Suffolk – a mini Cedarwood perhaps?
You will definitely see references to Cedarwood in The Secret Homestead garden and that was part of the reason I chose the name, to draw those parallels right from the beginning. Coming from a background in the fashion industry, the aesthetics of edible gardens have always been as important to me as their productivity. I don’t think they have to be purely utilitarian spaces, they can be beautiful, dreamy spaces too. That was the ethos I set out with when designing Cedarwood. Yes, we wanted to become more self-sufficient and live as sustainably as possible, but we also want to create a beautiful environment that we would enjoy spending time in.
I approached the design of The Secret Homestead garden with the same goal in mind. I wanted the garden to at first appear purely ornamental, with dramatic black, purple and white foliage and pops of coral orange, hot pink and jet black from flowers and stems. On closer exploration you discover a mix of both conventional and lesser known edible plants proving that this garden does in fact offer an abundance of food as well as a feast for the eyes.
Just as the plants in the borders fulfil a dual purpose, so do the decorative elements of the garden, some of which are recreated exactly from what we built at Cedarwood. I have incorporated a wall sculpture mushroom garden, a mini version of our underground root cellar, complete with door painted by designer Lucy Tiffany, a sculpture come wildlife habitat I will be making myself. I will even be making jewel encrusted mosaic paving tiles inspired by the jewellery I used to create. Every part of the garden is beautiful and every part is useful.
To get more people giving home growing a go, you’ve said that you think something has to change. What does next gen GYO look like for you?
There has never been a better time for people to embrace growing food. It is real step in the right direction of a more sustainable life, reducing food miles, single use plastics and dependence on intensive farming. It also increases food security in a time of soaring food prices and shop shelves emptied by panic buying. All that before you consider the myriad mental and physical health benefits. Additionally, GYO is arguably the most accessible part of gardening, everyone can get excited about food, therefore everyone has the potential to get excited about growing some of it. GYO tends to be portrayed as having a fairly home spun and traditional image which is a lovely part of British heritage, Dig For Victory, the dungaree wearing allotmenteer, Tom and Barbara’s back garden Good Life. However, there are a huge number of people with whom this traditional vibe simply does not resonate at all.
With that in mind, I think it’s time that GYO got a makeover or if not a makeover, at least have an alternative image presented that might appeal to a new audience, one that may not have considered it otherwise, after all only good can come from more people growing plants. If we are going to get more people growing food, we need to find a way to make edible gardens appeal to ornamental gardeners, house plant lovers, those with limited space who don’t want to have to choose between form and function, and let’s not forget the foodies. My aim is to try to break down the divide that so often seems to separate ornamental gardening with food growing and offer an entirely different view of what a food garden might look like. There are so many traditionally ornamental plants that also offer incredible and underutilized food crops as well as myriad highly ornamental forms of more conventional food crops. When you get rid of the idea of rectangular raised beds with rows of perfect cabbages, marrows and leeks, and start approaching edible planting just as you would an ornamental border, you can start to create some really exciting dual-purpose spaces
For visitors to BBC Gardeners’ World Live that might be new to GYO, are there elements of The Secret Homestead that would be simple to try at home in the garden or for a small growing patch?
I am approaching the creation of this garden in a very different way. I want to take the Gardeners’ World Live audience on this journey with me and show firstly just what goes into creating a beautiful garden for the show but mainly, by sharing this journey with me, I want people to see that it is possible to do a part or all of what I’m doing. I will be growing almost all the plants for the garden myself from seed and am sharing a weekly video diary on Instagram so that people can watch the progress of the plants, following their journey all the way from tiny seed to being planted up at the NEC in June. I will be building the sculptural elements of the garden myself and sharing how you can create something similar. I will even be building the garden myself including everything from laying slabs to planting semi mature trees. Yes it is going to be a huge amount of work, with many highs and lows, but this is what I love doing and I hope that by sharing my journey to BBC Gardeners’ World Live, I will get people just as excited as I am and hopefully give them the confidence to roll up their sleeves and create their own dream food garden.
Heirloom veg varieties are one of your great loves, particularly tomatoes. Can you tell us more about the appeal of growing these old-fashioned veg, and will they be a feature of The Secret Homestead at BBC Gardeners’ World Live?
As a general rule, if you are growing food, you are primarily doing it for the flavour. We all know nothing quite compares to the taste of a home grown tomato! Heritage crops have been grown for hundreds of years on the basis of how good they taste as opposed to modern hybrids which are generally designed to solve a problem such as disease resistance, early cropping or high yields. Yes, they can taste good but I’m yet to find a hybrid that tastes better than an heirloom variety. Hybrids will always have a place, especially in commercial food production, or for those living in parts of the country that offer a more challenging growing environment or short season. However, for the vast majority of people in the UK, heritage or heirloom varieties will perform equally well and offer advantages over and above their hybrid friends.
Self-sufficiency does not just cover food, growing heritage and heirloom plants allows you to save seed. Sadly, you can’t save seed from hybrids (often referred to as F1s), it’s an unstable cross that will not be the same as the plant you saved it from and may grow to be something you really don’t like or does not perform well. Open pollinated heirlooms will grow true to the plant they were saved from. You are then in a situation where you can buy one packet of seed and then never have to buy it again, saving you money. It also presents the opportunity to swap and share with friends and the wider community so that others can grow a plant that you have really loved, and I think that is a really beautiful thing. Each heirloom comes with a history, a story, and when you start to grow one of these varieties you become part of that story. Plus, if we don’t grow these amazing plants, they will become extinct. You don’t generally associate the idea of extinction with the humble vegetable, but it is a real problem since the rise of the hybrid. This is why I have been proud to be an ambassador for the Heritage Seed Library for a number of years now. I want to help as many people as possible fall just as in love with heirloom varieties as I have.
You’ll be hosting some fantastic talks from your show garden during BBC Gardeners’ World Live about the joys and the practicalities of growing your own food. You’ll be joined by a gang of gardening influencers that share your passion for GYO. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
I’m so excited about this part of the show and I can’t wait to share it with everyone. There is a whole new generation of gardeners that prefer to learn through knowledge sharing and personal experience on social media rather than traditional gardening book and print media. There is an incredible and very active global community of gardeners online that I feel privileged to be part of, with an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience they are hungry to share. It’s a bit like the world’s biggest gardening group but without the monthly village hall meetings. I’m really excited to be working with BBC Gardeners’ World Live to create this new area for talks right next to my show garden and give this community an in real life place to come together.
We will have a host of fascinating and well-respected people talking about subjects that possibly don’t get addressed as much at gardening shows, but that are hot topics of discussion online. We will be looking at everything from permaculture, mushroom growing and small space garden design, to foraging, no-dig, apothecary gardens and more. I will be hosting the stage and also talking myself so it should be a really exciting area to come, learn something new and chat to like-minded gardeners.
In the current challenging economic times with food bills rising, is GYO a money-saver?
We live in scary times at the moment, twice in recent history our food security has been threatened, with empty supermarket shelves in the pandemic and now with seemingly ever rising food prices. Growing some of your food can be really empowering and yes it can help to lower those grocery bills. It’s not going to be a complete solution to the problems we are facing but there is always a way to grow some sort of food, whether it be micros greens or window boxes full of salad and herbs. It is realistic, achievable and can be approached cheaply. Anything that people can grow for themselves increases their food security and puts them back in a little bit of control. Additionally, it is a genuine way to make life more sustainable which is another thing we are all looking for at the moment. Really there is no way to lose when embracing food growing, you just need to discover the way that fits best with your life, be realistic and find crops that work best for you.