Years ago, before our children were born and after two years of searching, my husband Tim and I found a dilapidated flint cottage up a lane on the edge of a semi-rural village in Hampshire. Its hideous ‘60s back half extension with no foundations was capped by a flat roof in dire need of repair … and the garden was the size of a handkerchief. But it overlooked fields and was near a footpath that led to semi-ancient beech woods and the South Downs Way. Its advantages meant we were in a beautiful location, and its disadvantages meant we could afford to buy it.
Our dream of having a bit of the adjoining field at the back of the house to extend the garden soon materialised in 1990 when we were offered the opportunity to buy a part of it. We begged and scraped together the cash and became proud owners of a third of an acre of bare, flinty subsoil that had been degraded by intensive farming and regular exposure to the elements. Our first job was to secure and build the soil, so we planted it up as a wildflower meadow bordered by a hedgerow made up of 23 native species, all grown from native Hampshire seed stock. The soil was poor and wounded like a scab. Nature quickly covered it with wildflowers, initially mainly ribwort, used as an ancient herbal remedy to heal infection and staunch cuts. Very appropriate.
We were amateur conservationists at that time and our focus was biodiversity. Then along came permaculture in the form of a Channel 4 documentary called In Grave Danger of Falling Food. Tim was smitten. Why couldn’t we have our conservation project and eat it too? I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to read about it and test permaculture out. But Tim had what I would describe as a brainstorm – he could see that conservation alone was not enough and his enthusiasm was relentless. He went on a forest garden course with Patrick Whitefield (a permaculture teacher and author) and the late Robert Hart (the pioneer of temperate forest gardens), and was soon working out a permaculture design for the whole site.
Permaculture uses nature’s principles as its guide and the principle of “stacking” – using every niche and level to create different layers of plants – is most useful when designing a forest garden. In a natural woodland, for instance, the top storey might be oak, beech or ash, with a shrub layer of hazel or holly, and an underlayer of bramble and other ground cover. We swapped this for walnut, apples, plums, cherries and hazel, on top of currants, gooseberries, goji berries, perennial kale and Himalayan rhubarb, on top of Nepalese raspberry, mint, wild strawberries … to name just a few of our many choices.
We initially planted more than 60 fruit and nut trees, all carefully spaced so that when they matured there would be enough room and light for them all. At first, the site was so exposed that we used spoilt straw bales as individual windbreaks to protect the trees and then, as the straw rotted, used it to mulch the trees.
Over the years a few trees have not survived and some have not been productive or tasty enough to warrant keeping. We are on chalk downland and so the soil is very alkaline. Quince doesn’t thrive. We have too much rainfall for outdoor peaches and almonds, and they get peach leaf curl. Apricots and green gages also struggle.
But this has given us the opportunity to indulge in our passion for planting unusual fruiting trees. There is so much that loves chalk downland so we work with species that thrive here and it also attracts all the native insects, birds and reptiles. We have added Chinese dogwood, Nanking and pygmy cherry, mulberry (Illinois Everbearing), saskatoon and our much loved Nepalese pepper.
I also have a little tree nursery where I am raising more trees in the hope that Tim will let me squeeze a few more into his design. Waiting to be planted next winter are two Szechuan peppers, an unusual raspberry and a juneberry. Last winter we planted a special apple – a Red Love from a Swiss nursery – which has a bark, blossom, fruit and flesh that is red, and is high in antioxidants. Other existing favourites include a Bardsey Island apple (a delicious and rare variety that thrives on chalk), Laxton’s Fortune (a quintessential apple in Tim’s book), Merton Pride pear (as juicy as a tropical fruit), and Oullins Golden Gage (sweet as honey).
We have also added further edibles into the hedgerow to grow out as standards above the hedgerow, such as cherry plum, damson, wild service, tayberry and Oregon grape. We have created a no-dig raised bed garden as well to grow annual veg for favourites such as broad beans, broccoli, spinach, cut-and-come-again salads and garlic (a fantastic money-saving crop).
We renovated a greenhouse that had been clobbered by the big storm in 1987 and added a Heath Robinson-style rainwater harvesting system to it. Here we also incorporate the idea of stacking with plants growing at different levels to make the very most of the light. Against the back wall is an “own root” peach tree that provides us with juicy red peaches every summer. Underneath, we have a variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet and chilli peppers, basil, coriander, tarragon, parsley, thyme and hanging strawberries from the roof frame. I use the ancient idea of an “Ollas”, a terracotta flower pot sunk into the soil and filled with water. The roots of the plants wrap themselves around the pot and draw the water from it. It is useful if you are going away for a weekend and don’t have someone to come in and water.
Time has always curbed our ambitions in the garden. We have always aimed for self-reliance, not self-sufficiency because when we started the garden we also had two baby girls to look after. They were, bless them, to grow up quite feral. They rarely wore shoes and became adept foragers from a young age. There also came the opportunity to start a small publishing company – publishing books on permaculture – and Permaculture magazine. With two kids, a business and later, in 1995, the opportunity to recycle 55 acres of a nearby redundant naval base into the sustainability centre, we were a little busy.
Our passion however was always permaculture, and in our case this was about eco-renovating our house to be as energy-efficient and happy a family home as possible, and creating our own little Eden of a semi-wild, biodiverse, 100% organic edible landscape.
Time has passed. The wildflower meadow has become a habitat for common lizards, slow worms and countless butterflies and other insects. We cut it in the autumn with an Austrian scythe – hard but satisfying work. Buzzards soar over us, and bats and martins forage in the evening light. Where once there was no wildlife at all there is now birdsong, buzzing insects, a paint palette of flowers and, of course, delicious food everywhere.
Our children have grown up. They once told us they thought we loved our garden more than we loved them. Not true! But the reality is – besides a period of teenage rebellion when they wanted PlayStations, high-street brands and fast food like their friends (none of which we could afford) – they have both grown up to love fresh, homegrown food and have become accomplished cooks. The time we spent outside together playing in the meadow and planting seedlings, picking apples, beans, plums, strawberries and sprouting broccoli, has formed them into healthy, independent young women with a love of nature, wilderness and adventure.
When we started we were the village hippy eccentrics. “What will they do next?” thought many of our neighbours. Then when the Brownies asked to do their green badge in our garden we knew things were changing. Within a few years we were filmed for the BBC2 programme Alan Titchmarsh’s Garden Secrets, which told the story of great formal gardens across Britain. Our wild edible paradise was the last garden in the series, and was billed as the future; sustainable (requiring few inputs), biodiverse and edible. We certainly offer sanctuary to flowers, bees, butterflies, birds and reptiles and a small collection of unusual edibles and we hope, in time, to another generation of our little family.
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