Xanthe dives into a forest of courgette leaves with a rustle and a downpour of water droplets that have gathered in wells from the morning’s rain. She slips her hand into her pocket, draws out a knife, grabs hold of a plump fruit with one hand and releases it from the plant with the other and smiles exuberantly.
Here, in the garden, is where Xanthe feels most content, most happy, most excited. Most herself. With every fruit and vegetable she harvests comes pride and gratitude. And this underpins her spirited approach to both life and the garden.
But she hasn’t always been so sure of her direction in life. After growing up in the wilds of Scotland, relishing in the freedoms of being outdoors and immersed in nature, she followed her peers to London, where she landed a marketing job in the food and drinks industry. Food had been an interest of hers for some time, and while at university, she delved into books, watched tonnes of documentaries and became highly interested and passionate in food sustainability and growing. But she just never had the confidence to make a career of it. She’d never even grown her own food before.
Xanthe didn’t take to city life. In fact, it made her miserable. One teary evening on the phone with her parents, she was confronted with the question, “Why are you doing this? You are so unhappy!” That was Saturday, and by Monday, she had quit her job and moved to Wales intent on becoming a grower. For the first time, she plunged her hands into the soil and pocketed tiny seeds into the earth. She was doing it. She was a grower now. And she was all in.
Following three months in the garden, she attended the world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School, sited on an organic farm in Ireland, to complete a Food Sustainability course. It was everything she was interested in. More than that, after struggling academically and in an office job, she had found what she thrived at.
Today, Xanthe tends the beautiful walled garden on the Hawarden Estate in North Wales as an organic grower, runs baking and growing workshops, hosts supper clubs, offers private catering and is the Director of Food and Food Sustainability at Hawarden, Glen Dye and The Good Life Experience.
“It still feels surreal to be eating food I have grown myself. The best moments are when I have a meal that comes entirely from the garden, with bread I’ve made myself and eggs from my hens. I don’t think that will ever get old.”
Could you tell us about your relationship with nature?
As a chef, organic grower and baker, my relationship with nature is really at the centre of everything I do. I am hugely passionate about bringing awareness to society’s relationships with food, and I see cooking delicious food as the perfect way to bring light to how connected we can be with the plants we grow, sourcing our food and nature on the whole.
My connection to nature stems from growing up in rural Scotland with five siblings. My strongest memories are of spending hours on end outside, building mud pies, riding horses across fields and swimming in rivers until we couldn’t feel our toes. It was only a few years ago that I began to realise how incredibly blessed I was to have grown up like this. However, this feral, nature-loving side of my personality was something I lost touch with as a teenager and in my early twenties, as other things became supposedly more important. When I moved to Wales to start growing food and started to spend more time outside, I began to reconnect with being in nature and realised how much I loved it.
I feel good when I’m outdoors, in nature. Work and life take me back to London a lot – or at least it did pre-pandemic – but the minute I get back to Wales, I feel myself immediately relax. I feel like I can breathe properly when I’m outside.
Two years ago, you quit your marketing job in London and moved to Wales, and that was the first time you grew your own food. Could you talk about the experience of learning and being in the garden for the first time?
That’s right. And in only two years, I have learnt so much, and yet, I know there’s still lots more to learn. Today, particularly on social media, there’s a wealth of images of perfectly manicured gardens and perfect vegetables, but there are rarely images or shared experiences of the low points of being a gardener. As a result, I was quite hard on myself at the beginning. But the best thing I learnt, and am still learning, is to give yourself a break and just get going and learn along the way. There are so many great resources out there today to learn from, and I have always found YouTube a useful resource as I am a very visual learner.
Could you talk about the experience and magic of growing your own food?
It still feels surreal to eat food I have grown myself. The best moments are when I have a meal that comes entirely from the garden, with bread I’ve made myself and eggs from my hens. I don’t think that will ever get old. In my old life, I had always envied people with vegetable gardens and never thought it was something I’d be able to have myself. Now, it feels hugely empowering to be so connected to the source of my food, and it may sound crazy, but I really feel it nourishing me from the inside. It has given me such a different perspective on the way I eat and the way I cook. I respect food so much more than I used to, and I am always more willing to invest in my food and support small food businesses because I know it is worth it – worth supporting food producers who care and are connected to the land.
A huge problem with our food system today is that we have little to no appreciation of the real cost of our food. As a society, we are so far removed from our food and where it comes from that very few of us understand the processes involved or what it takes to grow food in a way that’s healthy for both us and the planet. I’d really like a focus of my work to be on bringing back value to our food, and growing and eating my own has shown me this.
Xanthe’s hens are rescues from a battery farm. These little ladies bring Xanthe a lot of joy.
Tell us about your garden?
I grow in a walled garden in North Wales. The walled garden is a special place because it was tended to and loved by my grandfather before I took it over shortly after he passed away. It also has a rich history of its own: it once was used to grow vegetables for the entire village, and there are alcoves in which fires were lit to warm the walls so the vegetables would grow better. Before me, it hadn’t been used to grow vegetables for a long time, so it feels really good to be taking it back to its origins. My grandfather planted an orchard of 20 heritage varieties of apple trees, as well as a number of other fruit trees and wild edible plants, so it is so diverse and beautiful. Another incredible feature of the garden is the beautiful Victorian greenhouse, which I have hosted supper clubs in before. Last year, the super talented sign-writer Robert “Umberto” Walker painted a beautiful mural that reads “GROW” on the wall behind my raised beds, which I absolutely love. I feel that I’ve only just begun my work in the walled garden, and I am so excited about what’s to come for me there.
Growing organically begins with organic seeds. Xanthe also saves her own seed, which means through the generations the plant will get to know her garden, soil and climate.
What lessons has being in the garden taught you?
It may sound cliche, but the garden has taught me to slow down and focus on what’s really important to me in life. I love working with my hands, and it feels extremely liberating to work as a gardener because for a long time, I was ashamed that I had never thrived academically or in the office environment. Then I realised I just hadn’t tried doing what I was really suited to yet. Becoming a grower and chef has shown me that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to life, but actually we are all likely to go on completely different paths, and this is a path very suited to me.
That’s not to say that this hasn’t come with moments of serious self-doubt, but I’m learning to fight through those moments. I’ve definitely had times when I question whether I can do this – grow food – especially when I see a caterpillar has destroyed my whole broccoli plant or a slug has munched through my kale or my beans are yellowing. Things like that though are sort of the magic of it – when you reassess and remember that this is what it should be about and the sanitised food in supermarkets isn’t really what food should look like. Food should have holes in it. You are sharing it with the rest of nature.
I’m a big advocate of organic growing. I’m only a really, really small-scale farmer, but the more I learn about the negative effects of industrial agriculture compared to the positive impacts of organic and regenerative farming, the more unable I am to sit with anything not organic.
So let’s talk about the intersection of food and sustainability! What first caught your attention in this space? And could you talk about your journey so far?
The intersection between food and sustainably is central to my work. I have always been interested in cooking, but a few years ago, as I started to get more interested in sustainability, I began to read more about sustainability in food production. I think renowned chef and author Dan Barber is responsible for piquing my interest in food sustainability; I watched his episode of Chef’s Table and then read his book The Third Plate, and his opinions and point of view on food systems changed my life.
When it comes to food sustainability, the more I know, the more I want to know and the more I want to educate and enlighten others. I am a big reader, and 90 percent of the books I’ve read in the last few years are related to food and sustainability. A phrase that is recited regularly but is worth repeating is: we cannot live without food, and at least three times a day, we make the decision on what to eat. Therefore, through our food choices, we have the power to vote for the food systems we want to support and the planet we want to live on. It’s in our hands to make better food choices. I understand that it is a privilege to have the space and capacity to grow my own food, but there are so many other ways to get connected with the food we eat. For example, visit a farmers market, get to know producers, get a weekly vegetable box, get involved with a community garden or city farm or simply just check the source of your vegetables on the packaging, which is always displayed as it’s a legal requirement in the UK.
The more connected we are with where our food comes from, the better choices we are likely to make.
Composting is a fundamental part of organic growing. Not only does it eliminate waste from the cycle, it makes the garden flourish, naturally.
Even though you consider yourself a small-scale farmer, could you talk about being a young female working in this space?
It is, of course, intimidating being a young female in this space – I don’t look like your typical farmer. However, it definitely feels like there is a shift happening at the moment. I have two mentors, and they are both female farmers, which feels very empowering. My hope is that space in conventional farming is slowly changing to be more inclusive, diverse and female-led. There are so many incredibly exciting farming projects popping up across the UK, for example, Fern Verrow, The Estate Dairy and Four Brothers Cheese. There’s a new generation of food producers, and it’s so exciting.
What are your motivations and ambitions with the work that you do?
My main ambition is to educate people, and this is something that motivates me every day in how I get my messages out there. I am in a very fortunate position where I love what I do and want to keep learning, but I also want to inspire people to feel good about their food decisions and offer people a space – both online and in my workshops – where they can learn something new about food, foraging, growing, baking, chickens and the rest. It feels amazing when people tell me they’ve cooked my recipes or I’ve inspired them to grow tomatoes for the first time, or they’ve read a book I recommended, or they’ve started composting. I want to keep pushing for this.
“A phrase that is recited regularly but is worth repeating is: we cannot live without food, and at least three times a day, we make the decision on what to eat. Therefore, through our food choices, we have the power to vote for the food systems we want to support and the planet we want to live on.”
Xanthe charring her own home-made bread.
Are there any final insights that you’d like to share about working with nature, forging a personal relationship with plants or food sustainability?
I think that sometimes it can feel overwhelming when it comes to growing our own and making better choices. But I want to show people that it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach – we all start somewhere and can implement small changes in our lives to be a bit more sustainable and feel good about that. And it really does feel good – it feels empowering, particularly in the terrifying shadow of climate change. Growing plants and eating well can be our pushback, our rebellion. There are so many books, documentaries and people to learn from, to be inspired by, that can help us led a more sustainable life, no matter where we live, be it in the city or the countryside or anywhere in-between. It’s about feeling positive and being open to giving it a go.