IIt’s a story we’ve heard before and are hearing more and more: a person quits a stressful job (usually in advertising) in the city, moves to the countryside to reconnect with nature, and lives happily ever after.
“Well, it all sounds very idyllic,” Kathy Slack tells me. She would know, having moved to the Cotswolds hoping for a respite from the rat race. But, now, with an extra four hour commute on top of an already hectic schedule, burnout and depression have set in. She quit, not knowing what to do next.
It was in the garden that Slack found solace. Wandering, weeding, sowing the first seeds of what was to become a prolific vegetable garden from which she rebuilt a new career, a new life.
“Without sounding too flippant about it, part of the reason I love vegetables so much is because they were my saviors,” she wrote in her first book. Plant patch, which chronicles an entire year in the garden, celebrating its 10 favorite things to grow and the most exciting ways to eat them. This has since evolved into a podcast of the same name, in which she aims to provide “15 minutes of rural tranquility” to her listeners.
As her favorite time in the gardening calendar approaches (“Late August, early September is heaven…not too much work and the harvests are spectacular”), we take five minutes with the busy cook to talk about the effect switching to an agrarian lifestyle has had on her mental health, dealing with the ebbs and flows of a busy veggie patch schedule, and her advice for novices and green hands .
In your own words, how did you get to where you are now?
I’m not sure I would recommend burnout and depression as a way to discover your true purpose in life, but it was definitely the nudge I needed to turn things around, even if it was a bit dramatic. I’ve always dreamed of country life and the idea of growing up, although my only experience of it is a few potted fuchsias on my basement window sill in London and gazing at River Cottage. So it was a natural refuge when I was sick.
Once I recovered, I had no big plans to change careers and become a food writer. I just did things I loved, thrilled to enjoy anything again, and grateful to have the security and freedom to do so. I worked in a vegetable garden, then in a cooking school, then I did some private kitchen work, I started writing a little more, I started photographing vegetables and I continued to learning and loving it as you go. No direction except towards joy.
I think it’s sometimes tempting to create a simple narrative – I got sick, I got better, I had a bright, healthy life again – but it’s really not like that. Life is not Instagram. I wasn’t a linear progression, just bits and pieces that accumulate over time, and there were a lot of twists, wrong turns, ups and downs along the way.
How does being in the garden and growing and cooking your own vegetables affect your mental health?
It’s magic, really. Both soothing, but also energizing and inspiring. Seeing nature continue despite everything is very reassuring and reduces my worries. It also gives you agency, seeing something you sowed as a small seed grow into a huge plant is very empowering. And at the same time, all the harvests fill me with ideas and inspiration so it’s the perfect combination for me.
Name 3 of your biggest gardening mistakes and what you learned from them.
1. Thinking bigger is better. I had a few different grow spaces on friends smallholdings before I built a small raised bed at home. The first ones were large spaces, three or four times the size of the house plot, but I much prefer to grow small and grow in my house. It’s more manageable and so inspiring to see the vegetables from the kitchen window.
2. Running before you can walk. When I first started growing, I gave it my all and tried to grow crops that were, unbeknownst to me, very technical like melons and cauliflower. It would have been much better to start simple and have a few easy successes.
3. Grow potatoes. I know this will be controversial, but honestly, why did I bother? ! They take up a lot of space, are cheap like french fries (literally!) in stores, and don’t really taste any better than store-bought. I don’t even eat a lot of potatoes. If you have plenty of space then fine, but I crossed them off my growing list.
What is your favorite time of year to grow and/or cook vegetables and why?
Late August, early September is paradise. There isn’t too much work to do apart from weeding and watering, and the harvests are spectacular. You have the summer crops in full swing – zucchini, eggplant, beans, etc. — but fall crops like kale and other crucifers are just starting to arrive, too.
How organized do you need to be to keep control of the vegetable plot? Is it a full time job or do you just do it sometimes? Should you plan the rest of your life around planting and harvesting?
I have a lot of wing. I have a planting plan, but I never stick to it because I’m distracted, for example, by a bunch of x’s I see in a store I can’t resist and have to make room for.
I plan my vacation around the patch though. Why would you leave in July when the crops are plentiful and the plot probably needs a lot of watering. Besides, who could leave a tomato plant at this crucial stage?
Your first book From the Veg Patch (which I love, by the way), was shortlisted for a GFW award this year alongside winner Ruby Tandoh and Ed Smith. What did you feel ?
Thanks. I was pretty blown away to be honest. It’s nice to be among such a talented company and a real honor to be shortlisted for my first book.
Tell me about the process of creating a new recipe. For example, does it start in the garden by looking at what is growing here and there, or is there some sort of overall plan to pair the ingredients together?
Yes, it mainly starts in the garden. Either I sow seeds and think about what I will do with the harvest when it comes to bearing fruit. Or I’m cooking and staring out the window at the patch when I spot, say, the huge triffid-like tarragon plant and think, ‘oooh that would go with the mushrooms I’m about to fry’. The garden also guides you. “What grows together goes together” as the saying goes, so if it’s at the same time – basil and tomatoes, for example – you can be pretty sure it will go well together in a dish. It’s very organic, a pun, and, to me, that’s the most exciting part of the whole process.
Do you think growing your own vegetables made you go back to a simpler way of cooking or made you more adventurous in the kitchen?
Much simpler. When you’ve grown the vegetable yourself, you’re so thrilled with it that you don’t want to smother it in sauces, mousses, and thrift stores. You just want to put it on a plate and love it, the center of the meal. It makes cooking much simpler which I love. I can’t stand a plate feeling more full of chef’s tips than good ingredients.
The recipes in the book are vegetable-centric, but not necessarily vegetarian. I think a lot of people have a hard time accepting the idea of a vegetable being at the center of a dish (although that has changed in recent years). What would you say to these people?
It’s true. And I think the key is to get you out of the idea that a “good” meal has to have a central protein-based goal with supporting stuff on the side – which comes from the “meat and two” tradition. vegetables “. I think it’s really limiting when working with vegetables, as it limits you to nut roasts and quiches as a focal point or risotto bowls. But it is not necessary. As long as the flavors all work together, you don’t need a focal point for the meal.
The podcast seems like a very natural format for the book, which is peppered with such beautiful and easily digestible stories and tidbits, but I was perhaps surprised to learn that a podcast is such a great platform. form for gardening. What do you hope to instill in your listeners? Is it meant to be a guide for people to follow at home, or just listen on the go for some (very soothing) inspiration?
I’m aiming for 15 minutes of rural tranquility. I want to recreate the sense of calm and contentment I feel being in the vegetable garden as a podcast for people who may not be able to get into nature that easily. A listener told me he played the podcast as a way to relax and fall asleep at night. Which I take as a compliment!
Let’s talk about tips for people who are just getting started. What are some easy starter plants and your top tips, and what are your tips for someone growing on a balcony versus someone with a garden?
Just start. If you are growing in containers and have never grown before, don’t start with tomatoes. They are sometimes a bit tricky. Go for easy wins like lettuces or radishes that grow fast, delicious, and easy. Peas are also great in pots or small spaces and don’t need a lot of watering (which is a major consideration if you’re on a balcony).
For the seasoned grower, what do you recommend that they may not have tried before?
Kohl rabi. I had never grown one before this year and it is a revelation. Really easy to grow and so much sweeter and crunchier than store bought.
“From the Veg Patch” by Kathy Slack (Ebury Press, £25; photography by Kathy Slack).