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Quick Takes With: Claire Ratinon

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Quick Takes With: Claire Ratinon

March 31, 2024

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Claire Ratinon is a self-described “career changer grower,” a former documentary producer who fell hard for gardening after a chance visit to the Brooklyn Grange (a rooftop farm in New York) led her to trade in the cameras and lights for compost and loppers. She went on to grow edible plants in a range of roles, including growing organic produce for the Ottolenghi restaurant, Rovi. Today, she lives in rural East Sussex, where she finally gets to tend her own vegetable patch. She writes about her gardening journey in a regular column for the Guardian’s Saturday magazine and in books, the latest being Unearthed: On Race and Roots, and How the Soil Taught Me I Belong, a memoir that explores how working with the land has connected her to her Mauritian roots. Last month, Claire debuted her online course, “Grow Your Own Food,” via the Create Academy.

Read on to find out why the organic gardener and writer thinks “growing plants is the only thing that genuinely makes sense” these days. 

Photography courtesy of The Create Academy, unless otherwise noted.

Above: Claire shares her gardening wisdom in her columns for The Guardian. You can find them here.

Your first garden memory:

I’m a career changer grower, so although I have early memories of the sunny, blousy marigolds and fragrant roses that my mother grew in the garden where I grew up, my most important plant memory was stepping out of an elevator onto the rooftop farm, Brooklyn Grange, to see rows of crops basking in the sun. The orientation of my life changed in that moment.

Garden-related book you return to time and again:

Joy Larkcom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables is a bible for vegetable growing. I go back to it to double -check myself all the time and direct people towards it if they’re looking for guidance.

Instagram account that inspires you:

A Growing Culture shares fascinating and important content speaking to global issues around agriculture, food sovereignty, and land justice.

Plant that makes you swoon:

A July harvest of tomatillos. Photograph via @claireratinon.
Above: A July harvest of tomatillos. Photograph via @claireratinon.

Currently, I’m eagerly awaiting the return of the tomatillos. We grew them on the farm where I work last season and the plants yielding an abundance of delicious fruit so I ate them pretty much every day. I’m hoping to do the same this summer!

Plant that makes you want to run the other way:

Can’t get on board with celeriac.. sorry!

Favorite go-to plant:

Above: Claire practices the “no-dig” gardening approach, mulching her vegetable beds with a layer of compost every year and leaving it for the soil life to incorporate.

Tomatoes. Not exactly original but homegrown are simply better than anything I’ve ever bought in a greengrocer or supermarket. I grow the varieties ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Purple Calabash’ every year.

Unpopular gardening opinion:

That most edible plants can’t be grown indoors. Not really an opinion as much as it’s a fact, but people don’t like to hear it!

Hardest gardening lesson you’ve learned:

Claire attempted to grow margoz, also known as bitter melon, a vegetable she grew up eating in her Mauritian household. &#8\2\20;These two are off in the post to my mum and dad and maybe next year I’ll do better than two small bitter melons,&#8\2\2\1; she wrote in an Instagram post. Photograph via @claireratinon.
Above: Claire attempted to grow margoz, also known as bitter melon, a vegetable she grew up eating in her Mauritian household. “These two are off in the post to my mum and dad and maybe next year I’ll do better than two small bitter melons,” she wrote in an Instagram post. Photograph via @claireratinon.

That no matter how much you know, how hard you try, how desperately you want it, some crops just won’t thrive under your care that season and the causes of that failure will often be beyond your control—so it’s not worth getting too upset about.

Old wives’ tale gardening trick that actually works:

I’m not entirely sure it actually works but every season, I organize my seed sowing following the lunar calendar—sowing seeds during the new moon phase and avoiding doing so in the last quarter of the month. It feels significant to align my growing to the practices of our ancestors. [For more on biodynamic gardening, see Jane Scotter, on Biodynamic Growing: “I Wouldn’t Farm Any Other Way”.]

Favorite gardening hack:

Keep an old toothbrush handy to clean the soil and gunk out of your harvest knife and secateurs after a busy day of growing.

Favorite way to bring the outdoors in.

Claire&#8\2\17;s homemade damson jam. She writes about the fruit in Unearthed: “So dark an indigo that it is almost black, with rich yellow flesh that clings tightly to its stone, it’s a fruit that asks you to work for the privilege of its flavour, as they are bitter and unkind to eat raw. You have to cook them before they give themselves up to you, and it might be that this effort is part of why I cherish them as I do.” Photograph via @claireratinon.
Above: Claire’s homemade damson jam. She writes about the fruit in Unearthed: “So dark an indigo that it is almost black, with rich yellow flesh that clings tightly to its stone, it’s a fruit that asks you to work for the privilege of its flavour, as they are bitter and unkind to eat raw. You have to cook them before they give themselves up to you, and it might be that this effort is part of why I cherish them as I do.” Photograph via @claireratinon.

The first space I’d been tasked with growing on produced a glut of loganberries and I decided to turn the fruit I hadn’t sold into jam. Ever since then, I’ve jammed any fruit I can get hold of as I love how it preserves a fruit’s precious flavour for long after their season has passed. Damsons are a favourite and I have a recipe for chocolate and raspberry spread which is utterly delectable.

Every garden needs a…

A sunny patch filled with soft fruit. They’re straightforward to care for once they’re well established, are often abundant, and freshly picked are infinitely more delicious than store-bought.

Tool you can’t live without:

Portrait of radicchio and an Opinel harvest knife. Photograph via @claireratinon.
Above: Portrait of radicchio and an Opinel harvest knife. Photograph via @claireratinon.

I’m never without my Opinel harvest knife. I use it for the salad harvest every week at the farm where I work although it’s handy for lots of other growing tasks. I’d be lost without it.

Go-to gardening outfit:

I don’t really have outfits that I wear to work, but I do love my waterproof trousers—they’re the kind that dairy farmers use—as they make me feel invincible!

Favorite nursery, plant shop, or seed company:

I’m a huge fan of Real Seeds. They produce and preserve the seeds of rare and wonderful crops and encourage their customers to learn how to save seeds themselves.

On your wishlist:

I finally tasted a tayberry last summer and it was remarkable, so that’s the next plant I hope to grow once I find somewhere to put it.

Not-to-be-missed public garden/park/botanical garden:

A few years ago, I travelled to Lisbon and visited Estufa Fria, and I just found the place overwhelmingly beautiful. Well worth a visit when you’re not eating pasteis de nata.

The REAL reason you garden:

Above: Claire’s vegetable garden in East Sussex.

Honestly, growing plants is the only thing that genuinely makes sense to me. At this point in the climate crisis, it can feel like every choice available to us is either extractive or destructive but growing plants is the only practice I’ve found that offers the possibility of giving more to the earth than it takes.

Thank you, Claire! You can follower her on Instagram @claireratinon.

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