Organic gardening and cut-price gardening courses

I was 14 years old when my parents bought a market garden in the village of Carnon Downs in Cornwall, on the south-west tip of England. The property was owned by two ladies who grew cut flowers, bulbs, soft fruit and vegetables, all organically. They had reached retirement age and were considering selling up and somehow my Father had met them. People like my Father, it’s a talent he has, and the ladies decided to sell him the property and teach him how to grow. We didn’t have the money so the ladies accepted what we did have and agreed to take the remainder when we could afford it.

Cornish daffodils

The farm was run organically; this meant nothing to me, it was just the way we grew things. We lived in a house which appeared to have a spring underneath it: water flowed through the house on both floors for half the year and gave us colds. The beds were always damp and while Cornwall is relatively mild in winter, the continuous high humidity let the cold into your bones. The drinking water came from the well by the house, extracted to a tank by a hand pump, the handle of which mysteriously rose up and down, driven by a Heath-Robinson style system and an electric motor. People used to knock at the door to ask for a glass.

The main crops were daffodils, both for flowers and bulbs, strawberries and Pittosporum, which was cut for florists’ foliage in the winter and packed into huge sacking bundles to be sent by train to markets in London, Birmingham or Bristol. Other flower crops included Irises and Anemones, spreading the risk that one harvest may not achieve the prices hoped for from a system in which we had little or no control. Sometimes I helped pack daffodils until two in the morning and went to school a few hours later. Sometimes the flower boxes were crushed and ruined by careless railway staff. Some years the weather ruined the crop.

Wisley RHS gardens

While grim experiences were not rare, I somehow came through all of that with a love for plants. I was fascinated by them; by their Latin and common names, the way they grew, their beauty and their uses. We had a grass roadway called Wisley Lane, which gave access to many of the fields. The ladies would take a short holiday each year, visiting the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and acquiring a few cuttings. The resulting plants, often unusual, grew all the way down Wisley Lane.

Compost for the fields was homemade, created by cutting down the grasses and wild flowers of Little Moor, Lost Moor and Big Moor, three marshy fields at the bottom of the property. I used to do this each year with an Allen Scythe and still have nightmares remembering my struggles with the machine and the Horse Flies on hot days at the end of summer. Big Moor was covered with wild orchids. Later we came to an arrangement with the council works department, who dumped all the autumn leaves they collected on a piece of ground by the front road. The resulting organic matter was spread over the fields to improve the structure of our heavy, clay soil. Granular fertiliser was also used, made in Cornwall from fish waste, while liquid feed came from seaweed. Cornwall has a huge coastline and its products are part of the fabric of the region.

The site of our old nursery, now a garden centre

Times move on and our old nursery is now a garden centre. The house has long since been demolished and I lack the courage to see if Wisley Lane is still there.

There are more tales to tell, of course, but I wanted to mention that the Garden Design Academy’s offer of the month is £80 off the home study course ORGANIC GARDENING & CROP PRODUCTION an excellent new course we are pleased to be associated with.

Cut flowers, nuts and berries.

We have been working hard to provide new courses and add them to the Garden Design Academy web site. The latest batch fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the beginnings of my horticultural career as a boy in south-west of England.

My Father was a highly skilled tool-maker and precision engineer and still, in his eighties, makes skeleton clocks as a hobby, starting with sheets of metal and transforming them into a unique timepiece over the course of a year or more. Dedicated though he was to his work, his passion was gardening and his dream was to own his own nursery.

An opportunity came his way when a couple of elderly ladies who ran an organic smallholding wanted to retire. They liked my Dad (everyone does!) and decided to help him fulfill has ambition. An arrangement was made whereby he paid a lump sum and the remainder from future earnings; we were the proud owners of a house and 10 acres of Cornish countryside, with crops in the ground including bulbs, foliage plants and strawberries. All the machinery and equipment was left in the barns and sheds and at the age of fourteen the ladies taught me how to plough and showed my father how to grow the traditional crops organically.

Our Cut Flower Bulbs course would have been useful to Dad. We understood so little and the learning curve was steep. We made hugely expensive mistakes out of ignorance of the most basic techniques, but made up for it in enthusiasm and share determination. At harvest time it was not unusual for me to work until midnight and go to school the next day.

Daffodils were the major crop in our region and features prominently in the course. One year, I remember, we went out to check on a field which should have been close to picking, to discover the whole crop of nearly two acres had disappeared; they had been stolen over night and we were not surprised to see cheap Daffs for sale on the streets of Truro that weekend. We also grew Anemones, Dutch Iris and Kaffir Lilies outside and had a try with Freesias in the glasshouses we built together. These flowers were packed and sent by train to the markets of London, Birmingham and other cities; sometimes they fetched a good price but on occasions they made nothing. The trick was to have flowers for Mothers Day.

The other major inherited crop was strawberries. These were grown in the fields with a proportion protected under glass cloches to produce earlier crops. Ladies from the village used to come to help with the picking but Mother could outperform all of them, cutting them carefully with scissors and arranging them in punnets. The fruit were sold at the farm gate, in local shops and through wholesalers, where the price was lower but the volumes far greater. We grew other berry fruits to sell locally in small quantities, currents and gooseberries especially and these and many more feature in our new Berry Fruit Production course. We learned the hard way about Gooseberry Sawfly larva, which can strip the leaves from a whole plantation in just a few days if you are not attentive.

The Nut Production course reminds me not so much of my childhood, but of my current life in France, where we regularly pick sacks of hazel nuts, chestnuts and walnuts from local trees and bushes, storing them in the cool of the cellar for use throughout the year. Walnuts are grown here commercially, both for the edible nuts and for the oil, pressed at several mills in the area and in France generally, many nut crops are important to the local economy.

During forty years in the industry I have worked in most sectors of the horticultural industry and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students of the Garden Design Academy. Many more exciting courses are in the pipeline and I am enjoying working with students through the existing range. The RHS qualification courses are always stimulating and the vast subject of Garden History is fascinating, especially now that I can easily compare the English tradition with the French. Living in the Touraine with a Bordeaux-born wife gives an extra edge to our Viticulture courses, with one of our students owning a boutique vineyard in New Zealand. Garden design and landscaping courses involve art, craft and science in creating the gardens our clients demand and are hugely satisfying both for students and ourselves.

I have been saying for years that you never stop learning in horticulture and gardening. I get back as much as I give while teaching these subjects and trust this will continue for many years to come.

Checking for signs of life

I know it’s still January and we can expect plenty of winter yet, but after a hectic week of catching up my work I just had to get out in the garden.

I have spent a week in the UK and chose the week when snow had brought the country to a standstill. France had plenty of snow as well but we English like to make more fuss. After driving uneventfully across France it came as a shock when I arrived off the ferry at Portsmouth. They had decided to leave all the snow and ice on the ground and it took nearly two hours to get the few cars and lorries which had made the journey unloaded. Portsmouth town roads were not much better so I had little choice but to stay the night.


Fuchsia flowering in Newquay on the day of Win Elliott's funeral 9th January 2010

The next day I had a beautiful journey crossing the New Forest, Dorset Downs, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor before reaching my destination in Cornwall. My trip was a challenging one for other reasons. In addition to seeing a new client for garden design, I was here to assist my Father following the death of my 103 year old Grandmother at the end of the year. Walking with him in the freezing wind after the funeral we saw a few plants valiantly defying the arctic weather with a show of out-of- season flowers. She liked her plants did Win Elliott and I brought a few of them back to Chabris.

On my return there were clients to see, telephone and email, Garden Design Academy students to catch up with and a huge To Do list to work through. I’m slowly getting there…..

Fiddling about in the garden for an hour or so today was a well earned rest after the last few weeks of organised chaos. There is little happening but it was good to wander about anyway. Daffs are pushing up and nothing stops the weeds, but I was determined to lift and divide one of our clumps of Miscanthus. This was one of the plants brought out from the UK before we moved and put in the ground anywhere I could find a clean space. It is close to a lovely variegated Acer campestre which showed signs of scorch last summer. There are a number of possible reasons for this, but I thought that if I planted it on the other side of the Field Maple, the shade might help it.

I have cut the clump in two and replanted them close to a Daphne mezereum which I had thought was dead. A quick check revealed green under the bark so there is some hope it has survived. Last year, seeing signs of its ill-health, I sowed dozens of its seeds around it in the hope that if it died, it would live on in the seedlings.

Daphne mezereum

Planting and a bit of weeding done, I spent a little time looking to see what had suffered or thrived during the cold snap. Mediterranean plants are generally doing well, with variegated Sage, Rosemary, Artemisia (rooted from cuttings taken this autumn), Olive, Cistus,  Phlomis fruticosa and purpurea and many others all looking fine.

I have quite a few South African bulbs and herbaceous plants and while several of these are looking a mess I am sure most will pull through. Granny’s Crocosmia looks healthy enough but her Eucomis in the unheated conservatory is less so.

No doubt we will lose a few plants and there is still February to get through, but my spell in the garden was encouraging and raised the spirits of all concerned.

Plant hunting and garden design back in England

Every so often I am invited back to the UK to design a garden and my most recent trip took me down to Cornwall. This is the county where I spend most of my childhood and my Grandmother, now 103 years old, still lives there.

Many things in the gardens seemed so different to those of my new life in central France; orange Montbretia (Crocosmia) was everywhere to be seen, in gardens and hedgerows, a South African plant which has naturalised in the county.

France 325

Montbresia growing wild on a clifftop in North Cornwall

I lifted a few of the common form from Grannies’ garden and from a nursery bought a pot each of Buttercup, Emberglow and George Davidson for a new border at home.

Hydrangea macrophylla varieties were in full flower in the South West, while the one in my garden, brought over from the UK in the removal van, had finished long ago. I’m afraid I could not resist buying a Hydranea as well, but this time chose H. paniculata Kyushu to go in the shady border under the Sequoia, which is developing into a Japanese / Chinese planting area surrounding a large granite lantern.

Cornish Hydrangeas
Cornish Hydrangeas

The garden we came to visit contains many fine plants and any new design will have to take these into account as far as possible. Plans for a swimming pond will mean that a few lovely specimens will have to go and we hope that by working in the dormant season we will be able to save some of them.