Gardening Podcast Pippa Chapman

Byther Farm Gardening Podcast – Pippa Chapman. Season 3 Episode 3

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Pippa Chapman talks to Liz Zorab on Byther Farm Gardening Podcast

Transcription of Byther Farm Gardening Podcast – Pippa Chapman


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Hello and welcome back to the Byther Farm podcast. I’m Liz Zorab and today I have with me an RHS trained, award-winning garden designer, forest gardener and permaculture educator, author of A Plant Lover’s Backyard Forest Garden and writer for Permaculture Magazine, trustee of the Permaculture Association and jolly good egg, Pippa Chapman. Hello Pippa.

Pippa – Hello, oh it’s lovely to be chatting to you today. Always a pleasure.

Liz — So thank you so much for joining me today. We are in, where are we? Middle of February. It’s almost Valentine’s Day. It’s, oh, is it pancake day today?

Oh, I don’t, do you know, I don’t follow that. And also we have pancakes every day, so.

Liz – We have some regularly too. It’s almost like un-pancakes today.

Pippa – Yes.

So, Pippa, I think we met, we met online first, didn’t we?

Yes, yes we did.

Through, probably through Maddy and Tim Harland at Permanent Publications, who we both have books out with. And then we met in person, was it last year?

At the Welsh gathering.

Yes, so the permaculture, the Welsh permaculture gathering sort of towards, was that beginning of September, I think it was.

September, yeah, there was two gatherings in September, permaculture gatherings, and I think it was the first one, so.

Liz – Yes, because I didn’t go to the one in England because, well, because I’d done my traveling about by then.

Pippa – Yes, I have to say that two permaculture festivals in a row was a bit much for me as well. It took me about a week to recall that.

Liz – So, because not everyone’s going to know you, would you like to explain a little bit about where you live? And the bit that I said about you at the beginning, I actually took most of that description, except for the good egg bit. Took it off your website, I added the good egg. Do you want to tell the little bit people about where you live and what you do?

Yes, so I live in Keighley in West Yorkshire. It’s a steep-sided valley in the Aire Valley, very near to Charlotte Bronte country. It’s steep sided valleys and moorland around where we live. I recently moved to a house on top of a hill. So I now have quite an exposed garden, but it’s very sunny, which is great because my previous place was very shady. It lost the sun in sort of November and then it didn’t get it back until March.

So even though we have much more wind and we’re higher up, I just love it because it’s sunny all year round. So that’s really improved my growing. My background is ornamental horticulture. So I did, I sort of did things in reverse really. After doing a degree in fine art, I realized I didn’t want to be outdoors. And so I got a job in a garden center, which is a really nice, small specialist nursery.

Then I progressed up to head gardener of a private estate, which was really nice. But because I’d sort of had such a fast career progression, I was in a job where I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I wanted to learn more. So I sort of did the odd thing of going from head gardener to horticultural trainee, which is a bit of an odd career move, but yeah, it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

Liz – So that was an RHS thing you did?

Yes, I went to do, it was like a year-long apprenticeship working at Harlow Carr in Harrogate in West Yorkshire, or is that North Yorkshire, I think. And also they were at the time, they used to flagship for sustainability within the RHS. So they were, it didn’t ever get planted, but they were just planning a big acre forest garden. They were building a sustainable learning center. So that’s sort of why I chose that. So that was a really brilliant year of rich learning and loads of fun.

And then I left there and set up my own business with my now husband, who wasn’t my husband at the time. So yeah, I poached one of their top employees from the RHS and we started our business together. And yeah, I mean, it’s evolved over time. It started sort of selling plants and forage jams and jellies and teaching courses.

And now over the last sort of 13 years, I think it is now, we’re mainly doing garden development and maintenance, mostly of gardens which have forest gardens within them. And we do consultations and I do some writing now, which, yeah, so it’s sort of really changed over time. But I really love where it’s got to at the moment.

So your book is about a backyard forest garden. So it’s an attainable thing. It’s, I think, very often the idea of. Let’s step back a bit, let’s go back a step and just talk a little bit about the idea, the kind of the overall idea of forest gardening and a forest garden, because we use the expression all the time, but I’m conscious that not everybody is familiar with it. So shall we just, do you want to talk a little bit about how you see a forest garden?

Yeah, I think, we’ve quite often in the UK started to use the American term, Food Forest. I’ve had people come up to me when I’m doing sort of book launches and things like that, book signings, and say, oh, I’ve got this shady bit in my garden, yeah, I’d love a forest garden. And I then have to explain, no, it’s actually, it’s all about a multi-layered food system, you know, a kind of ecology. A really nice microclimate and an ecosystem that happens to also be edible. It’s not about going and planting fruit trees in a forest. You know, that’s a very different thing.

So I think, you know, in some respects, it’s a shame that forest gardening is the term that we all use now because it can be a bit confusing, I think, to people who haven’t done it before. And so I very much use both terms because sometimes I’m designing a forest garden that’s not just about being edible, it might be medicinal or it might be to do with craft plants.

So I think, yeah, if we start at the very basics, it’s really about growing in a small space or a large space, but looking at growing in all the different vertical space that we can. Right from large trees to small trees and shrubs, and then the underlayer, the herbaceous layer and the ground cover and the root layer. And then climbing plants that will grow up through all of those layers. And I just love it because however much I love growing food, I do find quite often that growing just in blocks of vegetables is not massively inspiring. It doesn’t get me really excited about designing it.

So I love designing and looking after food forests. But I think as well, that when I first became interested in forest gardening, it was very much a kind of, oh, well, you have to move and buy an acre and then you can grow a food forest, you know, then you can do forest gardening.

And it wasn’t until I was doing my Permaculture Design Course and we were working on a project called Horton Community Farm, which is still going in Bradford, a really amazing community garden project. And I really wanted to design a forest garden, but my group got given the community area. So I was feeling really, you know, really quite annoyed because I was desperate to design a forest garden. And at the time, the RHS were doing a three meter by three meter vegetable plot.

So sort of trying to look at maximizing how much food you could grow in terms of annual vegetables in this three meter by three meter bed. I thought, great, I’m going to design a forest garden in a three meter by three meter bed so it can fit right in the community area. Really, it was my way of getting around the brief that I’d been set. And that sort of really set off my whole journey with small scale forest gardening. So it was just coincidence that that is, is that was the very first forest garden I ever designed was, was a very small one.

Liz – But the joy of them is, is that they do work over any size.

Yeah, absolutely.

Liz – The one that I’m creating at the moment is over actually quite a large area, but I’m doing it in strips. I’m doing these linear blocks, which actually if you took them all and squashed them all together, which you wouldn’t be a very big space at all. But I’m just doing these thin stripes, partly because we’re on a north-facing slope, it’s fairly wet and we’re in the middle of a wind farm, fairly windy. So it was about managing light and managing water.

And in my garden it’s a case of getting the water off the land rather than trying to hold on to it. I always look at things like, you know, when I’m looking at permaculture videos and they’re always talking about using swales and slowing the movement of the water off the land. I’m thinking, no, dig a big channel and get it off.

Yeah, get it off.

That’s just about working with the space that we’ve got.

Recently, I say recently, but time always goes faster than I think. Last spring I did a one, I think it was one metre by three metre food forest border for the Harrogate Flower Show. And that was really, I mean it was quite challenging to design something in such a small space, but actually you know it worked really well and it was really fantastic to have conversations with loads of people that came and talk to them about you know, well actually yes this is called forest gardening and you can actually fit it in this small border, you know, in most average-sized gardens this would fit in.

I’m nodding frantically here, yes.

Yeah. So yeah, even though I do love designing large-scale forest gardens as well, and I do that as part of my work, I find that the smaller the space, the more interesting the challenge is. And then if you add in, you know, boggy or shady or, you know, it’s, yeah, I think it’s good to narrow down your parameters.

Liz – Yeah, and actually, you know, I think we all know that the smaller the space, the more efficient we get with how we use it.

Pippa – Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’ve just moved from five acres to a suburban garden. So yeah, I’ve definitely found that you are much more efficient with how you use your space. And I have had to force myself to leave space for nature as well. You know, it’s very easy to want to cultivate every single square inch of your garden, but that’s not what permaculture is about. I am having to put in dead hedges and leave some weedy patches with log piles and things. But yeah, it’s been a completely different challenge to, before I did have five acres, but most of my gardening was in my yard, which is hence why I wrote the book.

But now I don’t have that lovely five acres of wilderness and wildlife to sort of plant here and there in a month. You know, I very much got a small front garden and a medium sized back garden. Yes, it does make you be more efficient.

One of the things it does do, not only does it kind of focus your mind, but actually allows you to be in something, it makes you be more targeted in what you’re choosing to grow. So have you noticed big changes in what you’re choosing to grow from your yard previously to your garden now?

Well, I think one of the main differences is that I have lots of sunshine in this garden. So this last summer when we had that heat wave, I mean, in West Yorkshire, we didn’t have any rain in six weeks, not a single drop, which was just unheard of. You know, we never really have to think about water shortages much on the hills in Yorkshire, but that was a real challenge and particularly suddenly having a really sunny garden that I haven’t had before.

I’ve been able to grow a different range of plants. I’ve just thinking of trying a Chilean guava here, which I could never have grown before because we didn’t get enough sun for anything to ripen.

Liz – And those are really pretty plants anyway aren’t they?

Pippa – They are, they are and they’re really delicious. So I’m really hoping, I mean we’re quite high up here but I think because it’s so sunny that if I plant it against the house wall that it should be, it should be all right.

Liz – I’ve seen them growing in pots in West Wales. So I think there is the potential for them to do quite well.

Pippa – Right. Oh, lovely. Well, I will keep my fingers crossed because that would be something that I could never have grown before in my previous house.

That was at Tao and Hoppy Wimbush’s place at Lammas Eco Centre. And that was fascinating to see that they had those in pots. And they were very excited about them.

But, you know, I’m terrible at growing in pots because I’m really bad at remembering to water, which is funny, really, because I had a plant nursery for about 10 years and watering was the thing I absolutely hated. Even though I love propagating plants, I loved having a plant nursery. I loved going and doing plant fairs and talking to people about, you know, all things plants. I don’t miss the stress of the watering.

Here at our new house I am trying to get everything in the ground and have almost nothing in pots. So yeah, that’s my mission here. But I think I’m having to be a bit more selective really in my previous garden because we also had quite a bit of land where we had lots of apple trees and pear trees and we had a separate vegetable garden that we could grow our potatoes and onions and some of our staple crops in. It meant that the yard forest garden could be more sort of just salady crops and some fruit and you know a bit of soft fruit. Now I’m having to try and incorporate all of that into one much smaller space.

I’m thinking definitely more about what each plant can give me, rather than just thinking, oh yes, it’d be nice to have some roses in the yard because don’t they look nice. Now I’m thinking, well, if that rose doesn’t have rose hips, then it’s not going to go, because it doesn’t have enough enough yields for me. So yes, I think I am definitely being more selective. Things have to work harder.

Yeah, and I think the good thing is you’ve had the time to try out different things in your last place. So, you know, for example, you know, you could you can try out more exotic, isn’t the right word, but more unusual plants and you know there are things like you know kales which I knew you grew a kale as a tree didn’t you? I remember seeing that on the internet or maybe I saw it on YouTube and I was like I want it to grow! I can’t remember if it was a Daubentons or a Taunton Dean.

Pippa – It was a Taunton Dean, yeah. Yeah.

Liz – And I’ve got one in the garden and at the moment and the stems are, we’ve got to about two and a half feet high, three stems that kind of starting to twirl around each other which hopefully will make quite a nice solid trunk but it’s so windy here it just gets knocked over all the time.

Well do you know it’s funny because that is I think the kale tree is the thing that most people talk to me about you know oh so inspired so I’ve grown a kale tree as well. And I think it started off a bit of a kale tree trend, which is great. But yeah, same here. We’ve moved house now and our garden is so windy here. There’s no way that I could grow a kale tree in our new garden.

Liz – The other thing that I decided was actually, however much I like them, that’s a luxury because we don’t actually eat kale. We don’t. I like the plants, but we don’t actually eat them. So we have that process of elimination.

Pippa – we eat a lot of kale. I think there was one year where every single day we were eating a combination of potatoes, kale, and pumpkin with something else, you know. So we do eat a lot of kale in our house. But it’s the same with us with rhubarb. I love how rhubarb looks, but I really don’t like to eat it.

In our new garden, I’m limiting myself to one small plant so that my husband can make himself some jam because I really, I really dislike rhubarb.

Liz – I wasn’t keen on rhubarb for the longest time. And now I’ve learned to have just a small amount of rhubarb and now I have it with Sweet Cicely rather than with sugar.

Pippa –
Oh yes.

Rather than so much sugar. I prefer it and I’ve also learned to put ginger in it. So I’m putting lots of things in it to kind of take the taste of the rhubarb away.

Pippa – Oh, okay. Well, maybe I’ll have to try a Sweet Cicely and a ginger, because I do like ginger. So maybe if we throw all that in, it’ll make a jam that I actually want to eat.

And then I use it for making wine. So, you know, we eat a little bit in the winter we kind of go okay we’ll have a rhubarb crumble which I then mix with an awful lot of apple, so that it’s apple and rhubarb.

Pippa -Yeah mostly apple flavoured.

Liz – So yeah so I’ve done the whole uh we’ve actually got a lot of rhubarb here we’ve got eight to ten plants of rhubarb. But I do use it for making rhubarb wine so I’m justifying it in that way.

Yes, yeah. Well, but yes, I’ve tried, I’ve tried wine making in the past, but I’ve never been successful yet. So maybe I ought to give that another go with my rhubarb. I’ve got all the equipment, but I think I tried it three times and it just never quite, never quite worked out right.

But I mean, to be honest, Andrew, my husband, he does loads of, he’s really good at actually processing things and making things. So he makes things like sauerkraut and he’s just started making a really nice fruity vinegar, which as far as I understand, because I don’t get too involved in these things, as far as I understand, it turns into wine before you turn it into vinegar. So maybe I ought to ask him to show me how to do it. Maybe rhubarb vinegar would be nice.

Liz – Sorry?

Pippa – Maybe rhubarb vinegar would be nice.

I think it would. Well, yeah. I’ve kind of, the thing that I don’t like about rhubarb is when it gets, when it’s very sour, when it’s very tart and it kind of turns your face inside out. But I also don’t like the texture of it very much. Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of a bit slimy and things, so which is why if I make it into a syrup or into a jelly or into wine it’s far more acceptable because then I get in the flavour without that sliminess.

Pippa – Yeah, yeah. I’ll have to give it a try and let you know.

Yeah, now the wine comes out, it’s not quite white but it’s got the slightest hint of pink in it, but it comes out really clear very quickly. But the thing that I’ve learned with all wines is however good they taste when you first make them, they taste 20 times better a year later or even a year after that.

Pippa – Oh, okay. Right. Maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong, trying to drink it all too quickly.

Liz – It’s definitely, I think wine making is a patience game. If you’re making fruit wines with no, you know, none of the kind of manufactured additives in it, it is a waiting game. It’s that thing of being really patient.

Right, okay.

Liz – But then we have that with gardening, don’t we? Yes, that’s very true. time and the waiting and that anticipation. What is it that you’re, what is it that you are looking forward to this growing season?

Pippa – Well we have moved our polytunnel into our new garden from our old field so we got as far as putting the frame up before it rained non-stop for months. And so it’s still got no plastic on it. One thing I’m really looking forward to is having a bit of undercover growing space so that when it rains and it’s horizontal rain that I can still get outside in our garden and do a bit of pottering about.

I think we have very much been concentrating on the house. The house has needed a lot of work. It’s still got its original 1970s kitchen. So, yes, very slow progress. And the garden has been a bit left behind, even though it is our most important thing. You know, it’s our joint passion for both of us. We’ve had to actually make a livable house, particularly for the kids. But we’ve got to the point of it’s livable now, so it might not be decorated or perfect and we might still have two bedrooms with no ceilings upstairs, but we have started to move a bit of attention to the garden.

Yeah, I think just getting out in our new garden, really. We have been here 12 months now, but actually in terms of developing a garden, that’s not very long.

Liz – No, it’s really not. So, but this year you are going to definitely be growing a load of your own food.

Pippa – Yes, definitely. And we did, in fact, we did start the front garden. So, when we moved in, the back garden was a jungle. There was huge overgrown Leylandii, there was brambles and the next door’s laurel hedge had grown about three metres into our garden, so it was very much, you couldn’t see sky really when you were stood in the back garden.

It’s like every gardener’s worst nightmare, Leylandii, brambles and… Laurel hedging.

Yes, and Laurel hedging. the front garden we very quickly put down cardboard, made some no-dig beds and put in some vegetables. So we were, you know, last year we still managed to grow some peas and beetroot and Swiss chard and kale and a few other annual things, some leeks.

We’ve got those beds ready to go but we are, yeah, we’re ready to get some more no-dig beds in the back garden and a polytunnel full of tomatoes. That’s the thing, Andrew’s big passion is tomatoes so he’ll be growing several hundred as usual at some point soon. He’s breeding his own varieties and yeah doing lots of trials.

Liz – That’s really exciting.

Pippa –
Yes, yeah it is. I mean we have a great blight resistant potato that he’s bred that we’re going to be sharing around soon. And he’s growing, he’s trying to grow, particularly because up here, we have a bit of a shorter growing season. You know, it’s the frosts come later than other areas and later in the spring and then start earlier in the winter. So we have to have some quite quick cropping tomatoes.

So he’s been breeding for plants that will crop quickly, but also dwarf tomatoes. So the trusses actually start producing fruit much nearer to the ground. In a polytunnel situation, you can get more tomatoes, more fruit in because the fruit all develops closer together, if that makes sense. But also flavor.

Liz – Yes, really useful.

Pippa – But flavor is the number one. So, you know, it might be blight resistant and really heavy cropping, but if it doesn’t taste nice, then that’s it, it’s out.

Last year, I tried six different varieties of tomatoes and I bought them on the grounds that they were supposed to be the best tasting cherry tomato and the best tasting. And I didn’t get a beef tomato because I’m not huge on those very big ones, but they were all supposed to be like these amazing taste ones. And of course, we had very little sunshine at the time when the tomatoes were doing anything and we had a lot of rain. So what I had was, I did have quite a lot of tomatoes before blight hit, but they all tasted really watery and there was no sweetness in them because they just hadn’t had the sunshine to develop the sugars. What a disappointment.

Pippa – Yeah, we had a lot of people last year who were getting in touch with us and saying, you know, why are my tomatoes really doing badly? And yeah, it was just a really bad year, a really bad year for tomatoes last year. I mean, because we had just moved house, that was our first year for a long time that we didn’t grow, well, I think we grew three outdoor tomatoes and that was it because we didn’t have anywhere to put them. I wasn’t too sad that we missed filling a polytunnel full of them seeing as they didn’t seem to do very well.

No, they didn’t do very well and blight seemed to arrive early because we’d had those very wet conditions. Yeah, in terms of tomato, tomatoing, I thought that was a very disappointing, you know, disappointing season. So I am looking forward to 2024 and starting over again.

Pippa –
Yeah, I think, I think, you know, we try and grow, I mean, Andrew is a bit of a seedaholic, so he’s probably got about 50 plus different varieties of tomato seed that he tries different ones off every year alongside his trials. And so I find it really exciting that every year we get to try a few completely new tomatoes that we’ve not tried before and assess them for taste. I mean, we grow everything from the cherries to the ginormous beefsteak ones.

And we make all our own passata. So it was a really difficult last year that once we’d used up our last jars of our own homemade passata, we had to start buying tinned tomatoes again, which I hadn’t done for a long time. So yeah.

Liz – They don’t taste the same, do they?

Pippa – No, they don’t taste the same. No. But, you know, and I know that mostly what I do is forest but we do grow a lot of annual things as well. And I really enjoy all the different flavors. I mean, forest gardening is fantastic for a lot of things, but I think if you’re going to try and be self-sufficient, you do need to grow annual crops as well, unless you happen to have a whole acre plus to try and forage off.

If you’re living in a small space, then you need some annual crops in there as well.

Liz – Yeah, so let’s move on a little bit from home and what you’re doing around home. What does 2024 bring for you work-wise?

Pippa – Well, yeah, I have all sorts on. I’m actually just about to be a guest speaker for a course at Harvard University, which is very exciting, bit nerve wracking. So I’m going to do that. I’m going to be teaching a permaculture design course in Saltaire, which is a town just down the road from here, and hoping to run permaculture design courses in Keighley as well.

Trying really hard to, I suppose, work out where to best put my energies in terms of helping mitigate the climate emergency. So I’m trying to do some more local work, I would say, trying to do things like set up a seed library, because let’s face it, if we have food shortages in this country and everyone decides to grow their own. I think Covid showed that seeds is the first bit where we all fall down because we can’t get hold of any. So I want to help start up a local seed library. I am doing more writing so need to get on with that.

Liz – Is that for a new book?

Pippa – Yes, yeah, that’s for a new book which I’m very excited about. So it’s going to be more design-based rather than just talking about forest gardening.

Liz – Do we think that’s going to come out this year or next year?

Pippa – Good question. It depends on, yes, how it goes with some of the other work that I’ve got on at the moment. I’m hoping this year, but we will see. Yeah.

Liz – So if it is this year, will you come back and talk to me in depth?

Pippa – Oh, yes, definitely. I would love to. Yes, I would love for it to be this year. But yeah, as always, I’m trying to juggle about 100 things at once. I have made a good start and I’m progressing. But yeah, I do have a tendency to sort of do a chunk of work and then something else will get in the way and then I’ll have a couple of months of doing nothing. I think because I do it alongside my other business work, it’s not like I sit down and have a day a week where I do writing or a couple of solid months where I do writing. I don’t have that luxury, unfortunately. We’ll see how that goes. But that’s quite exciting. I’m really enjoying working on that.

And I have another exciting project I’m working on, but I can’t tell anyone about what it is yet because it is a top secret project. But it’s a very exciting forest garden project, which I will be able to talk about in spring 2025. So maybe I’ll come back then and talk to you about that.

I looking forward to hearing about that. Oh, that’d be amazing to hear more about that. Okay, so Pippa, we are going to run out of time before too long. So would you like to tell everybody where they can find out more about you, where they can find you online and all of that sort of thing?

Yes, so we have our website,, that is mostly our sort of consultation design side of the business on there. I, but I do post quite actively on Instagram as Pippa Chapman underscore thoseplantpeople. And I do a bit on Facebook as well as Pippa Chapman, but mostly I’d say mostly I’m posting on Instagram.

And we do have a YouTube channel, but you may have noticed we haven’t put anything new on there in a while. That’s been one of the things that I’ve actually, I’ve videoed more content for, and I just haven’t had time to edit it together. So that’s been a bit frustrating. Yeah, it does. Time that I don’t have at the moment. So there are quite a few videos on there around forest gardening and ramial wood chip and perennial kales and things like that. And a few on tomato breeding, if you want to get nerdy about tomato breeding.

But yeah, I’m hoping to do a new set of a series of videos about our new garden, really, and how we’ve developed it, how we’ve designed it using the permaculture design process and the different elements within it. But yes, I haven’t got around to that yet, unfortunately.

They’ll come. They’ll come. I’ll make sure that I leave links to your website and to YouTube and to Instagram and Facebook in show notes. And all I can say is, Pippa, thank you so, so much for joining me.

No, it’s been lovely. It’s been really nice. Thank you for inviting me. No, it’s been lovely. It’s been really nice. Thank you for inviting me.

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