Food Focus: Getting back to nature with earthworks team

AS soon as you arrive on the earthworks site you know you are in a very special place. Hand-painted signs, mosaic art placed in the wildflowers and Elvis playing set the scene for what must be the funkiest garden and allotment in St Albans.

If, like me, you don’t have much space to grow your own fruit and veg, earthworks is a great place to find locally-grown, seasonal produce. Situated near to Highfield Park and close to the Alban Way cycle path, it is open 9.30am-3pm Monday to Friday and anyone can drop in to buy produce.

There isn’t a permanent shop on the site, so the idea is that when you arrive you can check the chalkboard and see what is available that day. The small team will be busy working on the site so simply wander around until you find someone and ask them for help. As they don’t know how much they will sell each day, they wait until customers arrive and then go and cut what you need. You really can’t get any fresher than that!

On the day I went rainbow chard, rhubarb and lettuce were available at very reasonable prices, and Michelle took me to where the rhubarb grows and we cut the amount I needed.

As we go through the seasons, you will also be able to buy spinach, spring greens, salad leaves, cucumbers, tomatoes, french beans, peas, broad beans, courgettes, radishes, onions, garlic and all sorts of herbs. In the autumn there should be cooking and eating apples and pears available from their heritage orchard. They also produce apple juice (made by Shenley Park for them).

You will also find more unusual varieties not often found elsewhere, such as lemon cucumbers, nun’s belly button french beans, St Pierre tomatoes and purple basil; it is a terrific place for foodies. If you do have space to grow your own, you can buy small potted seedlings, and I am sure they will give you a few growing tips too.

Earthworks has two beehives on the site and they were labelling pots of honey when I visited; it wasn’t cheap but the clarity and the flavour of the honey is wonderful and my family have eaten most of it in just a week. Apparently the bees are feasting on the nearby rape fields at the moment; I assume the honey changes flavour through the year!

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Team members Jason, Michelle and Gareth showed me around the whole site and I was delighted to hear that they grow everything with organic principles, although being the laid-back people they are, they don’t go on about it. I asked how they control bugs and pests, and the answer was simply “we just grow enough for them too”.

They make their own fertiliser by steeping nettle leaves in water, and that is enough to produce some fabulous crops. They net some varieties to keep birds awayand although one or two things don’t make it, enough do to keep things ticking along. The site is not on the mains sewage system, nor does it have electricity, so they are a very environment-friendly lot. They recycle water using a grey water system reed bed.

If you have urban kids, this is a great way to show them where fresh produce comes from. Local schools go for regular visits so they are very used to children turning up. You can visit their farmers’ market stall (St Albans, second Sunday each month) too, but get there early as they sell out fast.

Mid-morning we sat outside in the sunshine and had tea and biscuits, and I was quite sorry when I had to leave. If you find that you feel the same and are a keen gardener, they do welcome volunteers. If you don’t have green fingers but love good food, being part of your community, and are a whizz with marketing or websites, that would be useful too!