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Pilling’s Growing with Nature is the UK’s longest running vegetable box scheme

PUBLISHED: 18:46 12 November 2017 | UPDATED: 18:46 12 November 2017

Growing with Nature

Growing with Nature

Archant

It’s the home of the UK’s longest running vegetable box scheme and is showing no signs of slowing down. Mairead Mahon reports

Alan and Debra Schofield of Growing with Nature Alan and Debra Schofield of Growing with Nature

When Alan and Debra Schofield are invited to dinner, they know exactly what to take as a gift – an organic veg box. It’s a natural choice as the couple run Growing with Nature, an organic market garden which is home to the longest running veg box scheme in the country. It is 25 this year. Based in Pilling, they grow two tonnes of produce annually and it is all done without a single chemical in sight. Although this is no mean feat, it’s not surprising when you discover Alan has been chairman of the Organic Growers’ Alliance, is on the board of the Soil Association and everyone from government officials to PhD students come to him for advice.

‘Organic vegetables are now hugely popular,’ said Alan. ‘However, we began our vegetable box scheme in 1992 as, at that time, demand for fresh, organic vegetables was beginning but sourcing them was a problem.

‘We felt directly delivering our freshly picked produce was an answer. Back then, we had a relatively small group of customers but now we deliver from Preston to Morecambe and all along the Fylde Coast. It has grown massively, not only because people take an interest in where their food comes from but because the vegetables are as fresh as can be. They taste delicious and there is a fabulous variety available. ‘Sometimes, people expect an organic veg box to contain nothing more than a shrivelled carrot and a boring potato, so it’s great to see the delight on their faces when they are handed a box containing a glorious variety of colourful vegetables.’

Potatoes, carrots and swedes used to be the mainstay of their boxes when Alan and Debra began but, even back then, they were never shrivelled or boring. Although these vegetables are still important to the scheme, they have been joined by many others.

Alan Schofield with some curly green kale Alan Schofield with some curly green kale

‘There are fashions in vegetables and, here in Lancashire, people are very keen on making sure they get a good variety,’ said Alan. ‘As well as traditional vegetables, such as four varieties of cabbage including Jersey King, we also produce beetroot, kale, squash, kohlrabi, cobra green beans and florence fennel to name but a few. We never actually stand still, maybe that’s why we’ve been so successful – that and our passion for organic vegetables. This year, because of popular demand, we produced baby leeks and pretty delicious they are too, especially chopped and lightly fried in a stir fry.’

At the moment, Alan is experimenting with growing a vegetable that is poised to revolutionise the Christmas dinner – the flower sprout!

‘It is much more open and loose than its traditional cousin, the Brussels sprout and has a purple tinge,’ he said. ‘It also has a milder flavour, which should be good news for those who dread the appearance a sprout on their Christmas dinner plate!

‘I predict people are going to want to eat them throughout the growing season.’

The veg boxes reflect the seasons, although some items, like salad ingredients, remain popular all year round. It is little wonder Alan and Debra haven’t had a proper holiday in ten years.

‘With our son, we do most of the work ourselves, including delivering the boxes and making sure that we attend farmers’ markets for those who live too far away to get a regular delivery,’ said Alan. ‘We also have days when volunteers, including young families, can come along and get stuck in so, between us all, it ticks along nicely.’

Visitors can also go along to their honesty shop at Growing with Nature and if, while there, they also want to learn more about the produce, there’s a good chance either Alan or Debra will show them around. One of the regular questions people ask is how on earth do they manage to produce two tonnes of such a wonderful variety of produce without any chemical help at all.

‘As well as human helpers, we also have a great team of spiders’, laughs Alan. ‘They enjoy eating predators such as green and white fly. They do bite from time to time, as we’re harvesting but luckily we’re not arachnophobic and so we just chalk it down as a price worth paying.’

The other important ingredient in keeping the site chemical free is an area of red clover, which is cut with a flail mower five times a year.

‘The roots reach down about three feet or so, harvesting all the nutrition in the soil,’ explained Alan. ‘We then cut it and leave it on the topsoil, where all that lovely nutrition provides food for the soil and the things that we grow in it.

‘It provides roughly the equivalent of five tonnes of manure, so no need for chemical help, no problems with fertility and the proof of our veg pudding is definitely in the eating.’

The success of Growing with Nature means it may be another ten years before Alan and Debra get a holiday. But they will never be short of an invitation to dinner.

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