Visits that cultivate knowledge

On 15 July 2009, the Horticulture Group joined the Bristol and South West Regional Group and the South West Growers Group for a visit to Home Covert Gardens and Arboretum. This took them to the 33-acre garden of John and Sarah Phillips in Roundway near Devizes. Starting from rough woodland in 1959, the Phillips quickly replanted 35,000 trees of various species and varieties. Now, after 50 years, Home Covert is one of the most influential and largest plantsman’s gardens in England. The tour was led by John Phillips, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the tree and plant names, together with his anecdotes, made it a unique and memorable experience.

The group then moved on to the 340- acre Mullens Farm at Woodborough, where Vitacress Ltd grows baby leaf salad crops to supply supermarkets like M&S and Sainsbury’s. Vitacress was originally based around growing watercress in the upper tributaries of the Hampshire Test. It has since diversified into salads, with sites in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Kent and now forms part of the Portuguese RAR Group, alongside Wight Salads, one of the country’s major tomato growers.

General manager Andy Elworthy showed how crops are grown on six-foot-wide raised beds. Tractors drive up and down straddling these beds to cultivate, sow, spray, and harvest them, always in the same wheel tracks.

A sophisticated GPS system ensures not only that the beds are straight and parallel, but that when they are reformed they can be in exactly the same place to within 25mm. This means that the soil that has been compacted by the tractor wheels in a previous crop, and which has not had any fertiliser, remains outside the crop beds. Otherwise the result would be uneven cropping and uneven fertiliser spread. Getting this process right is essential to the success of the system. Each field is cropped for two years before being rested under grass for one year.

The group saw baby spinach, red and green lettuce, red chard and a relatively new crop of pea shoots ready to be harvested. A section of the farm was used for organic production. All crops are cut to within an inch of the ground by the tracked harvesters. The company aims to have harvested crop put into a vacuum cooler within 45 minutes, where it is then chilled to 3ºC before it is taken to St Mary Bourne in Hampshire. Here it is washed in nothing more than spring water before being packed.

At peak times Vitacress produces over one million bags of baby leaf every week. UK production is integrated with production in Portugal, Spain, Kenya and the USA to provide the year-round continuity its customers require.

Raymond Holland, SCI Bristol and South West Regional Group, Tony Gardener and Peter Grimbly, SCI Horticulture Technical Interest Group

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