The Herb Garden


The Herb Garden gets Sheilagh Matheson’s vote for the most unusual – and one of the most beautiful – new restaurants to open for many a year

There’s a life-size model horse on roller skates at the entrance and the lighting floats above like clouds. But what is most astonishing about the new Herb Garden restaurant in Newcastle is the wall of sci-fi cylinders filled with herbs and salad leaves.

While trains on the East Coast mainline rumble overhead, in the restaurant a range of plants including basil, chili, alpine strawberries and salad leaves flourish in 26 hydroponic carousels, designed, built and installed by the young owners and filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling.

Owners Richard Marks, 30, and Ryan Darrington, 28, believe their system, which is the focal point of the restaurant, is unique outside of the space shuttle.

“Plants are grown hydroponically on manned space shuttles, as seen in the film Gravity, but they’re usually ugly, industrial-scale systems,” says Richard. “We use exactly the same principle, but ours are much smaller and look amazing. Customers are intrigued to see healthy herbs and edible flowers growing in our carousels and then appearing seconds later on their plates.”

Stacked in rows, each carousel revolves silently and imperceptibly, the verdant young shoots inside encircling a central white light. They appear to be suspended over their tanks of water and nutrients and each cylinder contains different species, from parsley to dwarf tomatoes.

“Growing plants like this and opening the restaurant has been a life-changing experience,” says Richard. “It’s been a massive experiment and a huge learning curve.

“We wanted to open a first-class pizza restaurant using plenty of fresh herbs and offering generous salad dishes. Growing our own this way guarantees quality and freshness.

“Different species need different amounts of nutrients like base minerals. We can add these to the tanks so the plants get exactly what they need. The rate of growth is so phenomenal that we harvest on a daily basis.”


The herbs are tended by gardeners Ross Finlay, a former chef, and Nicola Rose, a musician and furniture maker.

Nicola says: “We have incubators with more than 1,000 seeds planted in rockwool plugs at any one time. When they are big enough, we transfer them into bigger plugs and put them in rows into the cylinders.”

Each cylinder is about half a metre in diameter so the plants can only grow up to 8ins high. Nicola is experimenting to find out which plants thrive best in these circumstances. She also changes the lighting from a blue spectrum to red to control the rate of flowering. All the pollination is done by hand, using cotton wool buds and fine paintbrushes and everyone involved is fascinated to discover how prolific some species can be. The best so far is Salanova lettuce.

Nicola says: “I note down every single thing that happens. For instance, on December 28 the strawberries had six flowers. I changed the lighting and on the 30th there were 14 flowers and on January 2 we had 49!

“Some plants grow amazingly well. But we’ve discovered that spinach doesn’t like it so we need to try different strains to learn which grows best. Thyme and rosemary aren’t suitable, but chives can double in size overnight.”

The Herb Garden uses everything it grows in an unusual menu of pizza, salads, steak and lamb and a range of daily specials. Sunday is the day for an alternative brunch called Six Ways On Sunday – baked eggs with six combinations of ingredients from jalapenos, black beans and coriander to green pesto and cherry tomatoes. With special ‘recovery drinks’, it’s a perfect morning-after antidote.

Recipe: Sassafras Duck

Everything is served on wooden platters handmade by Ryan and Richard. There is little these two cannot turn their hands to. “We had to be totally hands-on and nearly everything is recycled – even the water,” says Ryan. “We made the solid oak tables and doors, did all the painting and decorating, polished the floor, made taps from radiator valves, used wood panels from a redundant church for the pizza prep area, and put in an old school desk at reception.” The main dining room is lit by 280 white lanterns with 4-watt light bulbs, which give the impression of clouds floating overhead.

Upstairs is a private dining room where up to 14 can sit round a solid oak table subtly lit by 70 tiny lanterns, “Long-term, we have big plans,” says Richard, “but in the short term I want to show people that salads can be a fantastic full meal. Everyone knows about pizza and steak, but salad is even better with the range of different ingredients we use.”

What’s their favourite?

For Ryan it’s the Asian turkey with mixed leaves, coriander, carrot, onion, mint, turkey, cranberries, sesame seeds, clementine, lime and soya dressing. Richard prefers mixed leaves, mint, beetroot, walnut, feta and pomegranate.

Even if you aren’t hungry, it’s well worth calling in for a drink and a look around. It’s hard to miss – there’s a life-size model of a horse wearing roller skates and leggings in the door. Why? Just because they like it. But it’s the horse with no name, so any suggestions will be gratefully received.

The Herb Garden, Arch 8, Westgate Rd, Newcastle, NE1 1SA, tel 0191 222 0491

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