Real gardens: Otter Farm

Mark Diacono runs a farm nestled in a valley. He grows peaches, apricots, kiwis, olives, grapes, persimmons and szechuan pepper. From that list, you might be forgiven for thinking Otter Farm is in Italy or Greece. But the name ‘Otter’ betrays its location: this farm is in East Devon, England. It’s a climate change farm, taking advantage of rising temperatures to grow delicacies whose shipping previously contributed to the damage.

How did this revolutionary farm come about? You might imagine Mark spent years dreaming and carefully planning before he purchased the site. Instead, he tells me: ‘We saw the place on the way back from getting married. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with the land: I just knew I wanted to grow something.

‘After two months with mulberries as the length of my decision making, I had a bath, read Jane Grigson’s fruit book, and the penny started to drop.’

Mark made a list of the food he loved, and after scoring out the impossible, set down to planting his climate change farm. Five years on, the 17 acre site boasts a vineyard, a collection of forgotten fruit and a forest garden, which flourish in the warm and wet East Devon climate.

The aim was to become a viable business growing unique edible food. ‘Equally importantly we wanted to see if we could grow food normally grown overseas,’ adds Mark. ‘If we could it would be a first for low carbon food – wiping out the carbon associated with normally very high carbon fruit.’

Mark documents the highs and lows of his experiments in his beautiful blog from Otter Farm. Not everything has gone according to plan. In one entry, he writes: ‘For the last three months I’ve watched as olive tree after olive tree turned yellow, dried out and lost leaves. I searched through books, took pictures, and Googled into the small hours. No-one had the cause, much less the solution.

‘Only yesterday, staring over a cup of tea from the bench by the barn, did I think of getting the thick gloves on and delving around in the stingers at the base of the trees. And there it was. The trees were experiencing a deficiency alright, caused by voles having ring-barked the trees, starving the branches and leaves.’

Fortunately, these setbacks have been minor, and the site is now producing: olives, apricots, apples, grapes, medlars, quince, almonds, mulberries, szechuan pepper, nepalese pepper, japanese pepper, artichokes, bay, peaches, carolina allspice and nepalese raspberries. The site is certified organic by the Soil Association, and Mark is now creating a similar climate change garden at Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall’s River Cottage, where he works as head gardener. He has also written the most incredible book about growing vegetables which earn their keep in your plot, based on his experiences at River Cottage and Otter Farm, Veg Patch: River Cottage Handbook No.4

For any F&F readers now desperate to grow their own climate change garden, Mark suggests you rush out and buy some apricot trees. ‘The new varieties flower later but still ripen in time for most of the country to get fruit – especially if you live in the city with the shelter and higher temperatures that you get there,’ he says.

If you’re hooked, visit the Otter Farm climate change nursery to snap up some trees and plants of your own.

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