Aaron Bertelsen - The Kitchen Gardener
In the search to find a truly spectacular location to showcase our new Autumn Collections, many hours were spent, and many characters met. One such character is Aaron Bertelsen, vegetable gardener, author, and cook at Great Dixter. His mission of encouraging the growing and cooking of your own seasonal produce is inspiring. Read on for more of his fascinating life and work, along with some helpful tips for those green-fingered among us!
As a chef, gardener, and author you’ve accomplished so much – can you tell us a little about your journey to Great Dixter?
The first thing I need to point out is that I am not a chef, I am a gardener who cooks. This gives me a very different angle to my cooking; the fruit or vegetable needs to be the main player in the recipe. I came to England to be a student here at Great Dixter and the rest is history. After three years at GD I left to train at RBG Kew and then two years in Jerusalem. My time in Israel really opened my eyes to a new style of cooking, a fresher vegetable-based diet and produce that is very seasonal.
What sparked your passion for growing and cooking food and where did you learn your skills?
I have travelled a lot and always eat well, which allows me to bring new ideas back with me to try. I always give them a twist to suit what is in season. As a young child I had very good & interesting food that my Father made.
Your experience at Great Dixter led to you compiling two books to share your knowledge. Can you explain the inspiration behind Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice & Recipes from Great Dixter and The Great Dixter Cookbook?
The Great Dixter Cookbook came first. Andrew Montgomery and I worked together on an article for Gardens Illustrated and Andrew said we should now do a book! I, of course, had no idea what this would mean but I had an amazing set of photos to work from. That really did make things easier and then I started to think about developing the kitchen yard and showing how anyone can grow something—space does not have to be an issue. When you have less space, you have to get the plants to work harder for you.
What can we expect to find in the pages of your beautiful books?
I always wanted the books to be practical and of use. I am a gardener first and a cook second, so I want to show how to grow plants and then, when you have fruit and vegetables, what to do with them. It’s all about getting the best out of them.
What do you enjoy most about your work at Great Dixter?
I love growing plants and thinking about how to use them in the kitchen. There is something very therapeutic about watching a plant grow and giving it what it needs to do well.
Your gorgeous food often features local produce or fare you grow yourself. Do you have any advice for those who would like to follow in your footsteps in their own homes, especially those with little or no outside space?
Grow what you like to eat and use in the kitchen. There is very little point growing edibles if you are not going to use them. It is a great feeling to be eating your own food.
In most people’s minds, the autumn season isn’t synonymous with gardening as much as spring and summer. Which vegetables, fruits or flowers are at their best in the autumn?
There is so much that we can and should grow in autumn & winter. Kale is a vegetable that improves in winter when its sugar levels rise. It also looks great as a display in winter. There are also things like curly leaf parsley, carrots, French sorrel, chard, rocket…well, there are a lot of salad crops that do well in the colder months.
Do you have a favourite growing season?
I am not someone who has a favourite season, they are all great in their different ways & if you enjoy eating seasonal food there’s always something to look forward to. I get a lot of joy from working on the soil in the winter. Soil is one of the most important things for growing plants that you are going to eat. It really needs to be full of goodness, so your produce is rich in goodness as well.
Most people would think growing anything in the deeper winter months would be tricky, what advice would you give for growing winter vegetables?
Have a good amount of fleece for those cold winter nights so you can cover your crops. You would be surprised how few times over the coldest three months that you need to cover plants in pots close to the house. This is one of the reasons that I have enjoyed growing plants in pots, you can move them around to support them more.
You transformed the small kitchen courtyard at Great Dixter into a thriving container garden, what tips would you give to someone who may want to harvest their own fruit and veg in pots and tubs instead of the more traditional vegetable patch?
There is a lot you can grow in pots and it is a really fun thing to do but start off slowly with crops that you are going to use so that you get more out of it. You also need to understand what your plant is going to do so that you can have a pot the size the plant is going to need. You choose the soil for the plant, not the other way around, so there is more you can grow than the open ground.
Lastly, which crop is your most favourite to grow, and why?
My favourite is berries because when they are at their best, they are just perfect. At the end of the summer, its always figs when they are ripe. As you can see, it changes all the time, whatever is in season at the time is my favourite but only for its moment.