Clodagh McKenna: ‘Food is much more exciting when you grow it’

 Clodagh McKenna in the walled garden of her 300-year-old house, Broadspear
Clodagh McKenna, 48, in the walled garden of her 300-year-old house, Broadspear - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

Where do you live?

Harry and I live in the grounds of High­clere Park, in Hampshire [where Downton Abbey was filmed], in a 300-year-old house called Broadspear, which has 100 acres of fields and woodland.

We moved in five years ago, and our priority was to focus on becoming self-sufficient. The house has its own walled garden, but it hadn’t been used to grow anything for more than 100 years, while the woodland had become overgrown. We had a lot to do.

Plot lines: the walled garden now contains 10 raised beds in which to grow vegetables
Plot lines: the walled garden now contains 10 raised beds in which to grow vegetables - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

What was your first job in the walled garden?

Over the years, the walled garden, which dates back to the 18th century, had become a dumping ground for ­rubbish and rubble, so we had to start by clearing it all out and then levelling the ground off. But the very first thing we did was to tackle the walls, which were crumbling and covered in dead black ivy. For six months, we spent our weekends gently taking it off the bricks with dining forks, so as not to cause ­further damage.

Did you have a plan for the layout of the walled garden?

There were no archives to tell us how it looked originally, so our intention was to recreate a traditional fruit and ­vegetable garden.

We built 10 raised beds in which we sowed everything from winter greens and summer salad leaves to all the ­staples – potatoes, carrots, leeks and onions. On the south-, west- and east-facing walls, we planted rasp­berries, blackcurrants and logan­berries, and espalier apple, pear, plum and peach trees. In one corner, we erected a flat-pack greenhouse, and in the ­middle, we began growing wisteria and jasmine to climb around a pergola.

McKenna erected a flat-pack greenhouse
The flat-pack greenhouse - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

What were some of your other projects?

One thing we noticed when we first arrived here was the lack of bees and butterflies. In fact, there was very little wildlife at all. So, in a couple of the meadows near the walled garden, we began sowing wildflower seeds. I confess, this failed for two years in a row. We were clearly doing something wrong, so we sought the advice of an expert, who told us to buy English wildflower seeds, rather than imports. We started all over again and last year we had the most glorious display. To see bees and butterflies appear was ­magical, so we have since installed five ­beehives nearby.

Did you have any other areas for flowers?

Our plan for a cut-flower garden was a big project and the area we had earmarked for it was originally Highclere’s dog kennels. They were dilapidated and riddled with asbestos, so they all had to come out. The soil underneath also needed replacing, but when we saw how expensive it was, we looked for another solution, and that’s when we heard about mushroom compost, which is made from well-rotted stable manure. It’s a fifth of the price of soil and we had a local supplier, so we ordered tons of it and then dug it into the soil over and over again.

The following year, we had tulips in the spring, cosmos, lavender and ­peonies in the summer, and dahlias in the autumn, all of which were out of this world.

Has growing your own vegetables for the first time influenced your recipes?

Absolutely! What’s wonderful is that it means I’m more in tune with the seasons. I’ll get a call from my television producer asking if I can cook something with corn next week, and I’ll think, “No, corn isn’t in season yet.” Food is also much more exciting when you see it come out of the ground. It makes me want to push myself as a chef – the quality of the ingredients, the way I cook them and, more and more, the way I preserve them. Nothing gets wasted.

pots garden Clodagh McKenna
Potted history: the aim was to recreate a traditional fruit and vegetable garden - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

What kind of things do you preserve?

I make chutneys, such as spicy apple, crab apple and rose jelly; then jam favourites such as rhubarb and ginger, summer berry and blackberry.

And, recently, I have become excited about pickling, because, if I have too many tomatoes, say, or too much beetroot, it’s a fantastic way to preserve them. Last year, for instance, we had a lot of carrots. I’d never pickled them before, so I did a few tests and came up with this combination of carrots, ­caraway seeds, garlic and apple-cider vinegar – all our own ingredients. Everyone loved it! I’ve now got my own pickling shed, too, so I can’t wait to try out more ideas.

Have you taken any animals on board?

Two years after we moved in, we got five Aylesbury ducks and 20 chickens – legbars, white olives and Burford browns. We also have seven Aberdeen cows, because they are the best and most sustainable way to manage land – they create more carbon capture in the pasture than anything else, more than compensating for the gases they emit. Since we have had them, we can see the difference it makes – I’ve noticed wild irises growing everywhere.

Of course, we also have our two ­doggies: Alfie, who is a cross between a husky and a pointer, and Nolly, our boxer.

Along with chickens and cows, McKenna's two dogs live on the farm, too
Along with chickens and cows, McKenna's two dogs live on the farm, too - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

Were there any keen ­gardeners in the family when you were growing up?

I grew up in West Cork, the youngest of four children, with parents who both worked full-time. Although my dad grew a few vegetables in the ­garden, our focus was on doing well at school. I really became a chef by accident – I got hooked and did a three-month chef’s training course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, in County Cork. That’s where I got my first taste of the field-to-plate philosophy, where every menu is dictated by what can be picked in the garden that day. I loved it so much, I stayed on training for another two and a half years.

What does the garden do for you?

To me, gardening is the best therapy. If I’ve had a busy day, I’ll go into the garden, and within half an hour I’ll have forgotten all my worries. I find happiness in watching things grow, and with that comes a sense of fulfilment. The woodlands are another source of positive energy.

Clodagh McKenna garden woodlands
Good vibes only: the woodlands are a well of positive energy for McKenna - Clara Molden for The Daily Telegraph

It’s where I walk the dogs, do my yoga and forest-bathe beneath the magnificent trees. One tree is particularly special to me. It’s a lime, about 300 years old, and it’s where Harry proposed to me in 2020. A year later, we held our wedding reception under it. There were 100 guests at three long tables and I baked all the soda bread!

Has all the hard work been worth it?

We now have our own fruit and veg, eggs, meat and honey, and we compost everything, so we are well on our way to becoming self-sufficient. At the same time, we also want to help create a sustainable community, whether it’s supporting local fishermen and farmers, or other local growers and food prod­ucers. It’s the reason I set up a shop last year to sell our produce. All the in­gre­dients I ever wanted in life are right here. I have everything I dreamt of.

Interview by Ria Higgins

Follow Clodagh McKenna on Instagram for recipe videos and gardening tips.

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