By Pippa Rosen

I started my business in southwest Wiltshire in the UK over 20 years ago, concentrating at that time on herbs and beans which were, and still are, my passions. I gradually expanded the herbs-in-pots business to about 100 varieties to include medicinal, aromatic and culinary herbs, selling these out at markets and from trade-stands. Although never using any chemical sprays on the herbs I was uncomfortable, even back then, in using artificial fertilisers or peat in the compost mix. The horticultural industry continues to deplete peat reserves and I no longer wished to be part of it. I call myself a private herb nursery and still grow a few potted herbs to order using my own-produced potting compost. I came to doubt that to produce organically-certified herbs in pots on a small scale would be commercially viable, so I started to concentrate on growing herbs and beans for seed production and developing a mail-order business. I also sell from trade-stands at some of the larger shows and events as I enjoy meeting home growers and allotment holders. I find that having a background in growing herbs and some vegetables is very useful for answering the many questions I get!

The beans I grow are almost entirely French beans: climbing and bush. I now have a collection of about 300 varieties. They vary greatly in their uses – some will be for eating the fresh pods, some for eating fresh-shelled bean seeds, some for drying the seed for later use in soup or casseroles, some are for growing in conditions that are hot and dry, some for wetter conditions, and so on. Some beans are rare and would become extinct but for me, and others like me, growing them out. It is certainly important to keep the gene pool as diverse as possible for whatever weather we will get in years to come.

Stockfree organic

Shelling beans

My seed business has been certified organic since 2003 and, as such, the organic certifying body inspects my land and my growing and seed-processing activities each year. At my second annual inspection, I remember the inspector telling me that he did not see any reason against using animal manure and that I could source some from an organic farm. This idea jarred with me, however, as my past experience made me realise that there is another way. After all, I had already been working this land successfully for some two decades using stockfree methods. Now I buy in organic seed of varieties which need a large area for production, leaving me to grow as much as I can on my own very small ‘plantation’. I mainly focus on producing seed of herbs and vegetables that are unobtainable as organic elsewhere, or are in short supply or are prohibitively expensive to buy in. My own-produced seed appears to give better germination than brought in seed – this will be because it is fresher (current year’s harvest). I never trade in hybrid or genetically modified seed. All seeds on my lists are open-pollinated and I positively encourage seed-saving from seed I send out which will always come true-to-type.

Maintaining soil nutrients

Bumper beans

Fortunately for me most plants’ whole raison d’etre is to grow up and set some seed and then to disperse it. No problem for me there then. However, I am aiming for good quality seed and preferably a lot of it! Nature has it that a plant moving towards the formation of seed will take all possible benefits for making that seed good for the next generation. Therefore an exceptionally good balance of soil nutrients is the key to my particular end product, that of seed. The fact that I grow so many beans does not necessarily mean that these plants, being legumes, will provide sufficient nitrate in the soil for any following crops. Because these beans have gone as far as their seed stage means that any nitrate left behind, although beneficial, is fairly minimal. An additional source therefore has to come from nitrogen-fixing green manures which are only grown to their leaf stages. A lot of nitrate will give leaf at the expense of seed, and while growers of leaf crops may require this, my plants need some nitrate for good early leaf but then potash for flower and pod formation. Much comfrey is used for this during May and June.

Rotations

My system of culture is 4 plots for annual crops on a 4-year rotation, plus perennial beds for some herbs. Composting is done on site, various mulches are used, and hedge clippings are shredded. As well as the many beans, some of the herb and vegetable seed I produce include Red Orach, Lovage, Sorrel, Wild Rocket, Chicory, Garlic Chives, Winter Savory, Amaranth, Anise Hyssop, Chamomile, Yarrow, Watercress, Valerian, Salad Burnet, Good King Henry, Nigella, Scorzonera, Welsh Onion, Angelica, Thai Basil, Holy Basil, Basil Ararat, Parsnip, Parsley grune perle, Fennel, Mustard Spinach and small amounts of Buckwheat and Blue Lupin. I have very recently joined VON as a business member and look forward to learning a lot from other members.

Editor’s note: Contact Beans and Herbs at, 161 Chapel Street, Horningsham, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7LU, UK. www.beansandherbs.co.uk.

Website ordering is preferred but you can send an A5 addressed envelope with first class stamp for a copy of the catalogue.

As not all seeds are grown on site, Beans and Herbs will be happy to advise which ones are grown vegan-organically. Supplies of some varieties are limited, so it’s first come first served!

Pippa’s suggestions for best bean: ‘Black Croatian’, Pippa describes this as “the most delicious bean in the world”. ‘Lazy Housewife’, from Andalusia, rare and has a beautiful texture and flavour, these keep their shape in a casserole and are large and easy to use. ‘Meuch’, a flat-podded very tender one. The long brown bean ‘Tung’ is a pencil pod, excellent for drying.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 21 (Summer 2008), p37.