Harvest: Meet Newmarket's Veggie Gardener Matt
He’s just been appointed resident farmer at Folk Cafe in Fornham and supplies produce to some of Suffolk’s best-loved restaurants. Yet Matthew Hassan - better known to his Instagram followers as Veggie Gardener Matt - only started growing professionally last year, as Alice Ryan discovers
Rewind to 2013 and Matthew Hassan was a US serviceman living in a two-bedroom flat in Bury St Edmunds. Following a field-to-fork childhood, courtesy of parents who tended both crops and chickens, he was keen to grow his own. So he rigged up a vertical garden – a sequence of metal shelves fitted with automated lights and fans to simulate outdoor conditions – and planted it with everything from herbs to fruit and veg.
“Even in my small flat, I was able to grow lots of different edibles: radishes, alpine strawberries, basil, coriander, courgettes,” says Matthew. And so the seed was planted for what’s now Veggie Gardener Matt, the kitchen gardening business which sees him grow for some of Suffolk’s top restaurants – including The Northgate in Bury and Moulton’s The Packhorse – and has just led to his appointment as the first resident farmer at Fornham’s Folk Cafe.
“I was sharing my journey on Instagram in 2018/2019,” says Matthew. “However, at the start of the 2020 growing season, I decided to get much more serious about it: I wanted to showcase to the world what you can grow in your own backyard, the financial savings that come along with it, how it’s great for your mental health, and how it really benefits the nearby biodiversity.
“That’s when Veggie Gardener Matt came to be. I wanted to let everyone know that the stigma attached to gardening is so outdated; that it’s only for older generations. Especially with all the recent climate change concerns, gardening is very trendy.”
By September of last year, Matthew’s ambition to be a professional kitchen gardener had crystallised. Spotting a gap in the local market, he emailed The Packhorse out of the blue to offer his services: “Surprisingly, they responded and said it was a great idea. . .”
Since then, Matthew – who has now left the military and has a day job at Cambridge’s ARM Ltd, managing travel finance and data – has created raised beds in the grounds of The Packhorse, taken the helm of The Northgate’s kitchen garden, and supplied their respective chefs with endless fresh-from-the-soil crops, spanning herbs (dill, thyme, lemon verbena), salads (lettuces, radishes, spring onions), vegetables (broad beans, green beans, potatoes) and edible flowers, too (pansies, marigolds, nasturtiums).
The Folk project is a big one: Matthew is in charge of designing, implementing and managing the site’s fruit, vegetable and herb smallholding, liaising directly with the cafe’s head chef to synergise crops and menus. Plus there’s his home plot in Gazeley, which spans the best part of 25 square metres and comprises raised beds and two greenhouses, a Rhino and an automated Harvst.
“My current employer has been very supportive about me pursuing my passion during my off-time; so as long as it doesn’t affect me completing my day job, then they are onboard,” says Matthew, who is also in the process of launching a kitchen garden at ARM’s Cambridge office.
“It’s within a 90-square-metre area which will be accessed by thousands of employees,” he explains. “The goal is to get as many people involved to help grow food for the onsite catering team. My hopes are to launch this at our other offices internationally.”
Also nearing the end of his Bachelor’s in Information Systems Management, with only one more class to go, it begs the question: how on earth does Matthew find the time? “Whilst I need to ensure to take things slowly and monitor my mental and physical health to avoid burnout, I find that my day starts to get better the moment I either work on the farm or help the restaurants,” he says. “When you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like work at all. Not even for a second.”
The benefits of growing your own are, adds Matthew, pretty much endless: not only is it good for the health of mind, body and planet, it can save you some pennies, too. Tracking every item of food he grew for a full 12 months, curious to see how much he could crop and how much money he could save in grocery bills, Matthew “ended up growing more than 30 kinds of fruits and vegetables in 2020, which weighed in at about 77kgs and saved just over £450 in costs”.
Mastering the arts of intercropping (planting crops which won’t compete for space in the same bed) and catch-cropping (planting fast-maturing crops alongside slower growers, eg radishes amongst lettuces) has been key to Matthew’s abundant harvests, along with careful variety selection.
“I’ve always been a fan of Aquadulce Broad Beans,” he says, as an example. “They’re extremely winter hardy – they can survive down to -10C – require very little care, are excellent for pollinators and are generous croppers, too. Plus they fixate nitrogen in the ground, so if you follow on with leafy greens in the same space, you’ll notice a significantly lush harvest.”
Keen to share the grow-your-own love, Matthew says anyone and everyone should get planting. “My biggest piece of advice, that any gardener could tell you, is to embrace the failures. You’re going to fail, you’ll kill plants by accident, and you’ll encounter lots of pests and bad weather along the way. This is totally normal and all part of the learning process.
“However, with each new year you’ll get better. At the end of each season, you’ll remember back to what worked and didn’t work and you’ll try new things for the next season. If that doesn’t work, then that’s OK and you’ll do something different. When it does work though, it’s truly amazing!”
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More by this authorAlice Ryan