In the greenhouse, the sofas may be empty, but apricot blossoms have appeared, like white lace cuffs, on the edges of branches.
The staff pollinated these earlier in the year with goose feathers on sticks.
The pigs are rooting about in their muddy quarters, and bees are popping from the hives, like furry cola bubbles, with heftier ones being bungeed on spring tailwinds.
Although coronavirus means that it’s closed to visitors, this is a busy time of year at Edinburgh’s six-year-old Secret Herb Garden.
Seasons change, while humans are worrying about other things.
We’ll have to wait a bit longer for the owners of this venue, Hamish and Libby Martin, to fully realise their collaboration with Scott and Laura Smith, proprietors of two-year-old Edinburgh restaurant, Fhior. (Also temporarily closed, though running a Root to Market scheme, in order to connect their suppliers with customers, sign up at Fhior).
The plan is that this nursery and garden will incorporate Fhior Kitchen Garden, which will supply the organic vegetables, fruit, herbs, plants and honey, for the Smiths’ Broughton Street restaurant and their year old project, Cafe Party at Jupiter Artland.
The Smiths will also have control of the menu at the Secret Herb Garden, where they will head the food offering for guests in the greenhouse, current cafe area and the private dining room in what’s currently teaching area, The Schoolroom.
Expect a rotating list of four or five dishes, as well as a more familiar and casual cafe menu of soups, scones, quiches and cake, which they created so as not to alienate this destination’s dedicated clientele.
Eventually, the Fhior owners will also be responsible for weddings, and, in the shop, they’ll offer preserves and pickles, made from any glut they might end up with.
The group met a couple of years ago, when Hamish was one of the suppliers for Scott’s former restaurant, Norn (“edible flowers were big for them,” says Hamish), and, later on, at the garden’s regular summer sell out Full Moon Suppers, which involve guest chefs cooking for diners in the greenhouse.
They made their plan, rather spontaneously, a few months ago.
“Hamish and Libs mentioned that they were looking to get rid of the catering part of the business,” Aberdeen-born chef, Scott, explains, “Their distillery is doing really well and they wanted to shift their focus onto that. I’d probably had a bit too much wine and thought I might be interested.”
They take me for a pre-lockdown walk round the garden, pointing out the areas that will be repurposed. Previously Damhead Organics, the land has been organic for 40 years.
On my visit, there was already fennel, lemon balm, nasturtiums, mallow and rhubarb. Other plants are slower, taking their time to percolate.
“It’s difficult to get anything of substance for about a month or two, which is frustrating, because I want to get going,“ says Scott, then blissfully unaware of the impending crisis.
In the sheltered greenhouse, which is lined with baby potted herbs, he points out the rather unassuming looking apple marigolds – a herb with an apple flavour and citrus undertones. Then he picks a small and shiny leaf off a tree, which stands in the middle of the space.
“Try this,” he says. “It’s lemon myrtle and tastes like bubblegum, before the flavour changes to a bitter version of bay leaf.”
Indeed, I’m having a Violet Beauregarde moment. Anything he doesn’t like?
“There’s a plant there called tangerine sage,” Scott says. “I’m sure most people would think it’s disgusting, but we could always use it in a cocktail as a bitter or to balance the flavours of something else.”
There’s already a lot growing in this peaceful space, cocooned from the rain that’s beginning to hit the glass, but there’s more to see outside.
“You couldn’t have chosen a worse day,” says Hamish, as we trudge through the mud and Scott dashes back to the car to change from baffies to hiking boots.
Out here, it all looks like generic green stuff to me, but Hamish points out stevia, juniper (you can smoke fish over it), lemon balm and aniseed hissage.
“That’s what I’ve loved about working with Hamish,” says Scott. “His knowledge is unbelievable, and when you walk about with him, he says ‘try this, try this’ and your mind starts racing with ideas.”
Before we’d even heard of social distancing, they planted over 120 additional fruit trees over the course of three weeks. These include the intriguingly named Bloody Ploughman apples.
Are they named after a real person?
“Well, yeah, but he’s dead now,” says Hamish.
“He got shot stealing apples,” says Scott. “They’re pinky red inside. His wife thought it was his blood on the apple, which is how they got the name.”
There are other heritage cultivars – white Melrose apples, varieties of French 19th century pear, as well as vegetables like Shetland black potatoes and Musselburgh leeks.
“I’m really interested in these old varieties. Maybe they’ve been forgotten for a reason and we won’t do them again next year, but I want to try,” Scott explains. “Things have been cross bred out of existence because people want higher crop yields and more resistance. That’s fine when you’re a commercial business, but we’ve got an opportunity to grow stuff that’s a bit more unique and specialist and bring it back.”
These crops aren’t planted in military style rows. This is not Mr McGregor’s garden.
Hamish believes in mixing things up – that plants grow better alongside other things.
“I can’t bear that monocultural thing,” he says. “I want to make sure we have stacks of interest. Plants are like us. We like to have a bit of time on our own, but they’re social and they like to be interacting. They rejoice from that a bit.”
They have plans to build a wetland area and there are bird feeders everywhere – “an invitation for nature to come” – and he’s a great advocate for so-called weeds, though don’t call them that.
“I love growing beautiful wild plants in raised beds to challenge perceptions of them,” he says. “Huge swathes of sweet woodruff, Scots lovage, yarrow and wood aven – our only indigenous spice, with roots that taste like cloves. Scott can turn these things into beautiful dishes.”
Eventually, if the weather cooperates, there will be an abundance.
“We’re hoping that this time next year, we won’t be buying fruit or veg from anyone,” says Scott. “All three businesses will be supplied solely from here. But we accept that there might be a hill storm and we’ll lose a crop.”
It will be a different way of working, as it cuts out the middleman.
“When you work with producers and suppliers, you still need to pick up the phone every day and go on the trust of somebody else,” says Scott, who had just launched a 10 course tasting menu at Fhior when lockdown kicked in. “When we talk about what dishes there will be, we don’t know yet. That’s the exciting thing, you’re being reactive and you have to work with what’s available.”
While the world is in chaos, it’s a natural plan that’s slowly coming together.
For now, some of the produce will gradually be appearing on the Root to Market list.
However, once this crisis is over, we can make plans to visit the Fhior Kitchen Garden at the Secret Herb Garden, eat at one of the Smiths’ restaurants, and maybe even sneak a taste of that Hubba Bubba-ish lemon myrtle.
For more information on Root to Market and Fhior Kitchen Garden at the Secret Herb Garden, see Fhior or follow @root_to_market or @fhiorgarden on Instagram; Secret Herb Garden has launched a contactless herb collection service, see their Facebook page for updates, see Secret Herb Garden