SLMan Meets… Chef & Gardener **Johnnie Collins**
SLMan Meets… Chef & Gardener **Johnnie Collins**

SLMan Meets… Chef & Gardener Johnnie Collins


Johnnie Collins is gardener and chef in residence at Oakley Court and 180 Studios. We asked him how this came to be – and tapped him up for his cooking and gardening tips…
Photography @johnniecollins

So how did you get into gardening then, Johnnie?

I grew up in a small village in the countryside and was lucky enough to spend most of my childhood outside. My mum, Angela Collins, is an amazing garden designer. I remember when she started, I watched her transform our garden around us. We developed our veg garden at home together, she’s a constant source of inspiration, and a daily guide on my own ideas and projects.  

We’re hearing gardening is pretty popular these days – what’s going on?

I think many people took the opportunity to pause during lockdown and realised the incredible benefits of spending time in nature, including taking care of our own outdoor spaces. Being in nature is a great respite from the hustle and bustle of life – and from our phones. It helps me mentally too – being able to grow things to feed myself and loved ones gives me immense satisfaction. There are also always new things to discover when gardening, which keeps life moving and goes against the grain of our focus on fast consumerism.

What’s new and trendy in gardening right now?

People are really focusing on the soil. On a large scale, over the decades, our use of chemicals and the mass production and industrialisation of farming has really had a negative impact on soil health. People are looking at regenerative ways to farm and grow things that improve soil health. This applies to home gardens too. Growing a mix of cover crops over winter to add nitrogen and nutrients to the soil, and focusing on less disruption of the soil to keep the structure, instead of breaking it up each spring, are both things you can do to help create a healthy garden.

What does anyone need to consider when thinking about a garden revamp?

The soil, the light, how much time you have, and your resources. And what you want out of it – do you want to grow vegetables to eat? Or do you want somewhere easy to hang out?

Would you recommend calling in a pro for bigger projects?

I have always been a learn-by-doing person. I didn’t train as a chef for instance, I just got in the kitchen, and with the first veg garden I did, I just got in the garden – though I had a foundation of knowledge and passion for both from my mother. But if you are taking on a big project that needs landscaping or if you need some technical planting knowledge, then it’s probably wise getting someone to help.

Where are the good sources of gardening inspo?

 There’s so much great stuff online – I probably spend too much time looking at garden Instagram accounts on my phone. Sarah Raven has a great podcast for home gardening. But the best thing to do is go to other gardens, see what they do, look at the plants they use and talk to your neighbour who loves gardening or people who have allotments.

Is now a good time of year to be doing stuff in the garden?

You can always be planting things! As soon as it starts getting warmer in February or March, you can start filling up windowsills with little seed trays. Once you see something growing, you’re more likely to get to the next step – finding a space for it in the garden or a pot for it to go in. In November, you can do tulips and alliums to arrive with spring. But if you don’t plant things, you will never grow anything – and the satisfaction you’ll get from the growing process will be much greater than just buying a plant.

Give us some easy ways to spruce up an outdoor space…

Pots are a great way to spruce up any space. They are easy to plant into and easy to maintain – and you’d be surprised what you can grow out of them. Right now, I have pots with tulips, chillies, tomatoes, sunflowers and cucumbers – and it’s only April.

“If you don’t plant things, you’ll never grow anything – and the satisfaction you’ll get from the growing process will be much greater than just buying a plant.”

Any tricks for turning a small city garden into an urban oasis?

In my garden in London, we’ve planted flowers, veg and herbs all together. We’ve got kale and fennel growing alongside tulips and roses. Instead of cutting the whole plant when it’s ready to eat, we pick a leaf here and a leaf there. Kales add structure and abundance, and are easy to grow – plus they have beautiful little yellow flowers which you can eat too.

And if you’ve got a medium-sized garden?

Three main things apply to any space: you need good soil, good seeds and a little love. You can transform any space in six months. 

What are the best ways to green up a balcony space?

 I like to use things that grow and come back, so herbs, some lettuces, rocket and rainbow chard will all take a few snips and then grow again. This means you can maintain a constant green space and have some lovely colours and bits to eat.

Is it easy to create a home allotment?

If you don’t have much space, use pots. Use a sunny windowsill to get things started early and then transport them outside when the weather is better, and the plants are strong.

Have you got a magic formula for enjoying weeding?

Put some good music on and go spot by spot. Or just do it little and often to stay on top of them. When you look at a very weedy patch it can seem daunting, but once you get into it is one of those simple tasks that is very satisfying to complete.



How do you approach watering?

 The main thing is to look after plants when they are seedlings; water them a little but never over water. When plants are established, they can survive with one good water a week, depending on the soil. I prefer to water by hand than use irrigation. Nothing beats rain though. Plants love rain.

Any final words of advice for a rookie setting out to raise their gardening game this year? 

Trust your gut. I think most of gardening is common sense: you are going to plant and nurture a garden, and deep down it’s pretty easy to know what that means. Look after the soil, don’t use any chemicals, start small so you don’t get overwhelmed and, most of all, enjoy it.

Turning to your other job then, Johnnie… What are you enjoying cooking at the restaurants right now?

Some people love autumn, but spring is my favourite time of year because I love seeing things coming back to life. I have just picked the first asparagus we have growing at Oakley Court and when you pick them so fresh, they don’t need much – a little salt, a little oil and a little kiss on the grill.

“I still love making sandwiches. They taught me a lot about flavour, balance, texture and taking your time.”

What are your favourite spring ingredients?

There’s a lot in the hedgerows and woods right now – nettles, wild garlic, wild asparagus, sorrel, jack by the hedge. These signal the start of spring; they haven’t been growing over winter but have just burst as the temperature has warmed and the days have got longer.

Do you have any ingredients you couldn’t live without?

 I’m constantly on the search for the perfect tomato – this year we’ll be growing over 200 tomato plants at Oakley Court. I also love interesting-looking leaves – mizunas, shungiko, orach and leaves that have great individual flavour as opposed to varieties that we see everywhere.

What was the first dish you learned to cook?

I grew up having sandwich-making competitions with my brothers and I think that’s the first thing I ever made myself. They taught me a lot about flavour, balance, texture and taking your time. I still love to make and eat them.

Which restaurant do you go to most often?

Lyle’s in Shoreditch is one of my favourite places to go. I like to go in for lunch, when you can order à la carte. Make sure to sit up at the bar.

Do you have a favourite chef?

One I admire a lot is Merlin Labron-Johnson from Osip. His flavours are always so clean and his menus are veg-centric, based around all that he grows.

What’s your favourite recent restaurant or bar opening?

We live round the corner from one of my favourite places, Oren. It’s a little spot serving immaculate and generous Mediterranean-inspired dishes. They’ve just opened a deli near Broadway Market serving homemade fluffy pittas stuffed with gorgeous things and much more.

Thanks a lot for your time, Johnnie. Last one… What do you cook if you’re entertaining at home?

Usually something simple and generous, ideally cooked on a grill outside – some nice fish, a good salad, a good sauce and very good home-made chips. People love it when you make chips.

Visit & follow Johnnie at @JohnnieCollins

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