meIt’s a story we’ve heard before and are hearing more and more: a person leaves 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 reprieve from the rat race. But now, with an additional four-hour drive on top of an already tight schedule, exhaustion and depression set in. She gave up, not knowing what to do next.
It was in the garden that Slack found solace. Wandering, weeding, scattering the first seeds of what would eventually become a thriving orchard from which he rebuilt a new career, a new life.
“Without sounding too glib about it, part of the reason I love vegetables so much is because they have been my saviors,” she writes in her debut book. From the vegetable patch, chronicling a full year in the garden, celebrating your 10 favorite things to grow and the most exciting ways to eat them. It has since evolved into a podcast of the same name, in which it claims to provide “15 minutes of rural tranquility” to its listeners.
As her favorite time in the gardening calendar approaches (“Late August, early September is heaven…there aren’t too many jobs and the harvests are spectacular”), we catch up with the busy cook for five minutes to talk about The effect. switching to an agrarian lifestyle has taken a toll on her mental health, managing the ebbs and flows of a busy veggie patching schedule, and her advice for beginners and gardeners alike.
In your own words, how did you get to where you are now?
I’m not sure I’d recommend burnout and depression as a way to discover your true purpose in life, but it was certainly the push I needed to turn things around, albeit a bit dramatic. I always longed for country life and the idea of growing, though my only experience was a few potted fuchsias on my basement window sill in London and seeing River Cottage. So it seemed like a natural refuge when he wasn’t well.
Once I recovered, I didn’t have a big plan to change careers and become a food writer. I just did the things I enjoyed, delighted to enjoy something again, and grateful to have the safety and freedom to do so. I worked in a vegetable garden, then cooking school, then did some private cooking jobs, started writing some more, started photographing vegetables and kept going, learning and loving them as I went. There is no direction apart from towards joy.
I think sometimes it’s tempting to create a narrative that’s simple: he got sick, he got better, he made a new life that was bright and healthy, but it’s not really like that. Life is not Instagram. It wasn’t a linear progression, just bits and pieces that build up over time, and there have been many 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. At once calming, but also energizing and inspiring. Seeing nature continue despite everything is very reassuring and makes my worries seem smaller. It also gives you agency, seeing something you planted as a small seed grow into a big plant is very empowering. And at the same time, all the vintages are filling me with ideas and inspiration, so it’s the perfect combination for me.
Name 3 of your biggest mistakes in the garden and what you learned from them.
1. Thinking big is better. I had a few different grow spaces on my friends’ small properties before I built a small vegetable garden at home. The first ones were large spaces, three or four times the size of the plot of the house, but I prefer to grow small and grow at home. It is more manageable and inspiring to see the vegetables from the kitchen window.
2. Running before you can walk. When I started farming, I went all out and tried to grow crops that were unknowingly really technical like melons and cauliflowers. It would have been much better to start simple and have some easy hits.
3. Cultivation of potatoes. I know this is going to be controversial, but honestly why did I even bother? They take up a lot of space, they’re cheap as potato chips (literally!) at the store, and they don’t really taste much better home-grown than store-bought. I don’t really even eat a lot of potatoes. If you have a lot of space, that’s fine, but I’ve crossed them off my growing list.
What is your favorite time of year to grow and/or cook vegetables and why?
End of August, beginning of September is heaven. Aside from weeding and watering, there isn’t much work to do, and the harvests are spectacular. You have summer crops in full swing (zucchini, eggplant, beans, etc.), but fall crops like kale and other brassicas are starting to arrive as well.
How organized do you have to be to stay on top of the vegetable patch? Is it a full time job or do you just improvise sometimes? Do you have to plan the rest of your life around sowing and reaping?
I’m glad. I have a planting plan, but I never follow it because I get distracted, for example, by a pack of x I see in a store that I can’t resist and have to make room for.
However, I plan my vacations around the patch. Why would you leave in July when crops are bountiful and the patch is likely to need a lot of watering? Besides, who could possibly leave a tomato plant at this crucial stage?
His debut book From the Veg Patch (which I adore, by the way), was shortlisted for a GFW award this year along with Ruby Tandoh, who won, and Ed Smith. How did you feel?
Thanks. I was pretty dumbfounded to be honest. It’s wonderful to be among such talented company and a real honor to be shortlisted for my first book.
Tell me about the process of coming up with a new recipe. For example, do you start in the garden by looking at what is growing at the time, or is there some sort of general plan for combining ingredients?
Yes, it mainly starts in the garden. Or I am sowing seeds and pondering what I will do with the harvest when it comes to fruition. Or I’m cooking and looking out the window at the patch when I see, 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 you’re growing, say, basil and tomatoes at the same time, you can be pretty sure they’ll pair well in a dish. It’s very organic, with a play on words and, for me, it’s the most exciting part of the whole process.
Do you think that growing your own vegetables has made you go back to a simpler way of cooking or has it made you more adventurous in the kitchen?
Much simpler. When you have grown the vegetables yourself, you are so delighted with them that you do not want to suffocate them with sauces, foams and frying. You just want to put it on a plate and worship it, front and center of the meal. This makes cooking so much simpler, which I love. I can’t stand it when a dish feels more full of chef tricks than good ingredients.
The recipes in the book are vegetarian, but not necessarily vegetarian. I think a lot of people struggle with the idea of a vegetable being the center of attention on a plate (although that has changed in recent years). What would you say to those people?
It is true. And I think the key is to get rid of the notion that a ‘proper’ meal should have a core protein-based focus with additional things for support, which comes from the ‘meat and two vegetables’ tradition. I think this is really limiting when you’re working with vegetables because it limits you to pecan roasts and quiches as a central focus or bowls of risotto. But it is not necessary. As long as all the flavors work together, you don’t need a central focus for the meal.
The podcast seems like a very natural format for the book, which is sprinkled with delightful, easy-to-digest stories and tidbits, but perhaps I was surprised to learn that a podcast is such a good platform for gardening. What do you hope to instill in your listeners? Is it meant to be a guide that people follow at home, or just listen on the go for some (very relaxing) inspiration?
I’m aiming for 15 minutes of rural tranquility. I want to recreate the sense of calm and contentment I get from being in the vegetable patch in podcast form for people who might not be able to get out into nature that easily. One listener told me that they play the podcast as a way to relax and fall asleep at night. Which I take as a compliment!
Let’s talk tips for people just getting into this. What are some easy starter plants and your best tips, and what’s your advice for someone growing on a balcony versus someone who has a garden?
Start simple. If you are growing in containers and have never grown before, don’t start with tomatoes. They are a bit tricky sometimes. Choose easy gains like lettuce or radishes, which grow fast, are delicious and easy. Peas are also great in pots or small spaces and don’t need a lot of water (which is an important consideration if you’re on a balcony).
For the experienced grower, what is something you recommend that I may not have tried before?
Kohl rabi. He had never grown it before until this year and it is a revelation. Really easy to grow and much sweeter and crunchier than store bought.
‘From the Veg Patch’ by Kathy Slack (Ebury Press, £25; photography by Kathy Slack).