RIGHT ON THYME
Nick Woodhouse meets Jekka McVicar – an organic herb farmer, author, RHS winner, and former prog rock musician
ekka’s Herb Farm is often described as a living book of herbs. Home to both the country’s first herbetum and its largest collection of herbs, the farm now boasts over 500 varieties at the last count. It was a hive of activity when I spoke to Jekka McVicar, the name behind that very living book. All hard surfaces on the farm were being meticulously washed down to avoid harbouring pests over winter and potted plants were being treated to a root prune and a good feed of organic fertiliser. Whilst the farm holds her name, Jekka is quick to explain that it’s a family affair.
varieties of thyme with names including Jekka’s Bee Haven and Jekka’s Autumn Spice. Not the obvious career path perhaps for a former member of progressive rock band Marsupilami, one of the bands to play at the very first Glastonbury. It was however a path that started in 1983 when Mac was dispatched to French Guinea to launch a satellite. In his absence, a friend popped over to see Jekka and asked if she could help herself to some of the French tarragon in the garden. It was then that Jekka’s father’s advice came to mind; find a business that no one else was doing. And at the time, there were no suppliers of fresh herbs, let alone organic ones. Jekka was soon receiving orders from clients such as Fortnum and Mason, which she would deliver in recycled fruit boxes in an old mobile veg van they fondly named Sid. Jekka’s enterprise soon outgrew their back garden and new premises needed to be found. Their search brought them to a derelict blacksmith’s cottage in Alveston, just north of Bristol and the site on which the herb farm now sits. The family soon embarked on the construction of polytunnels and a glasshouse, with the former pigsty converted into a potting shed. In 1993, Jekka was invited by Mavis Sweetingham, the first show manager of RHS Chelsea, to exhibit at the event. Jekka knew she had to do it but getting the plants there was going to prove problematic; they had no lorry, just Sid. They found a horse box instead, and unable to afford a hotel, camped in a Battersea car park. That year saw Jekka win the first of many RHS medals, including the prestigious Lawrence Medal in 2009, awarded by the Society for the year’s best exhibit. Show gardens soon followed, most recently The Modern Apothecary, a garden now enjoyed by patients of London’s St John’s Hospice. Herbs, Jekka explains, are plants of the
“Jekka has been creating herb gardens for over 30 years” Husband Mac was behind the 2013 construction of the farm’s herbetum; a project aimed to ensure that the vital history and role of herbs is preserved and understood by future generations. Mac proof-reads all of Jekka’s books too; eight to date including Jekka’s Complete Herb Book, which has now sold well over a million copies. Son Alistair, who has a doctorate in Climate Change from Imperial College London, combines his passion for both the environment and food in his ‘Food for Thought’ supper clubs, as well his master classes in herb-based diets. And daughter Hannah, a renowned illustrator and printmaker, has recently designed a new collection of homewares inspired by the herbetum itself. When it comes to plant families though, Jekka explains, Lamiaceae is her favourite. It’s an extensive family, one that includes thyme, rosemary, sage and nepeta. Such is this passion, that the herbetum now holds over 70 different
56 I BATH LIFE I www.mediaclash.co.uk
people. She has been creating herb gardens for over 30 years now for clients ranging from hotels and chefs to private residences, and spaces ranging from medicinal gardens to thyme lawns. It is her recent work on central London’s The Quiet Garden though that truly made her realise how just how green spaces can heal. The garden was built with the help of St Mungo’s initiative, Putting Down Roots for Young People, aimed at supporting vulnerable young people though gardening and its therapeutic benefits. Here, Jekka explains, she met the most wonderful man. Once homeless himself, each night he would gather the bread left out by bakeries and take it to the homeless under the nearby arches. Several years passed until she saw him next. At last year’s Chelsea Flower Show, she heard a voice call her name; he was there working on a show garden. Plants, says Jekka, had helped restore him. Jekka still works closely with the local homeless charity Caring in Bristol, and recently hosted a ticketed Christmas festival at the farm to raise funds for the charity. Sadly, the current pandemic did however put pay to Jekka’s first HerbFest, a three-day event planned for this summer, one that was to offer street food, local artisanal stalls, workshops, and demonstrations by renowned chefs, designers, herbalists and authors. As with many good things at present, we will have to wait that bit longer for the festival’s launch, and plans are afoot for the event next July. I think those herbs will give some much-needed healing, then and for many years ahead. For more: www.jekkas.com
Nick Woodhouse is the co-director of interior and garden design company Woodhouse & Law on 4 George’s Place, Bathwick Hill, Bath; 01225 428072; www.woodhouseandlaw.co.uk