Seeds of the good life take root in Herefordshire

Click to follow
The Independent Online
So far this year Robert Milne, organic gardener of Pedwardine College, Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire, has spent 68 hours weeding his vegetable garden, 174 hours on general labour, 72 hours looking after his hedges, 14 hours working in the garden of his six-year-old son, Henry, and 12 hours on his own flower garden. That is what it takes to live the self-sufficient good life these days. It was never like that in the TV series with Richard Briers.

Mr Milne's hours of labour are all jotted down in a big ledger, together with notes of tasks accomplished. On the day I arrived to see the garden, he had collected bluebell seed to sow in his little flower garden behind the shed. He had sown a row of spring onions, together with rows of lettuce and radish. He had harvested his garlic (74 heads usable, 21 rotten) and had cut some poles out of the hedge to stake his tomatoes. He had hoed the paths between the beds in the vegetable garden and cut a low branch off an apple tree to lighten its load. And that was all before lunch.

He arrived in Herefordshire on his bike after a longish period of not sticking at things. "I dropped out before I ever got round to dropping in," he says, by way of explanation. There was a short spell at art school, a bit of teacher training, a spot of archaeology. But now he has made a vegetable garden and the purpose of life has become clearer.

Having found organic growing in the way that other people find God, Mr Milne produces tracts from his shed as pressingly as a 19th-century wayside preacher. On closely typed sheets of paper, hand-stapled, you can read his thoughts on weeding, hoeing and bonfires, compost and liquid feeding (with the family's own urine and faeces), garden tools and Back Caro and many other subjects central to the process of organic growing.

Based as they are on his hard-won experience, these are valuable documents, though some gardeners may balk at the thought of having to go back to an Elsan bucket after the ease of a flushing lavatory. "Oh, but you must use urine," says Mr Milne emphatically. "Think of all that nitrogen and potassium you would be wasting otherwise. It's the only way to maintain a cycle of fertility - each animal leaving its waste products randomly on the land that produces its food." Can't we make do with farmyard manure instead? I asked plaintively, but it was as though I had suggested using neat poison on the ground.

"Farmyard manure?" replied Mr Milne. "I wouldn't touch the stuff, full of weed seeds. Full of hormones, probably. And spray chemicals."

You certainly cannot fault the family's own product, for from an eighth of an acre of wedge-shaped ground, Robert Milne produces enough fruit and vegetables to keep his family (wife, two children) fed for the whole year. He grows potatoes and squashes, salad crops and beetroot, carrots and cauliflowers, artichokes and leeks. Walnuts and hazels are planted next to the house and the front garden is full of willow, for he wants to start basket-making as soon as he has grown enough of the withies.

And when did he start thinking organic, I inquired, imagining a kind of Pauline conversion as Mr Milne was pushing his bike along the Herefordshire lanes. "Oh, I've always taken that for granted," he replied briskly. "You know you're doing the right thing, don't you? It's a kind of altruism, saving all those fossil fuels and packaging and transport. Everything I do, I ask myself, 'Can I justify this?' Once you are aware of the adverse consequences of any other way of life, this is all you can do."

For a man living as he does, June is the hungriest month. Last year's stored crops have finished, this year's have not come on sufficiently to be harvested. And this year, said Mr Milne, he gave away too many leeks. And the spring cabbage failed because he transplanted it and that encouraged it to bolt.

But he has got on top of the root fly. A friend advised him to plant thyme in all his cabbage beds and it seems to work. He had purple-sprouting broccoli up to his chin. Having got the brassicas called to order, the carrots have been misbehaving. Germination has been a problem. He blames the weather: too hot and dry. He sows late as his patch is cold and wet, using a variety such as Autumn King which goes in during early June.

The vegetable garden, across the road from his cottage, bounded by beautifully maintained hedges, is a model one. It is divided by straight earth paths into five plots and each plot is further divided into a series of long beds, each about four feet wide. If you make the walkways permanent, he explained, you do not waste precious compost and liquid manure on the paths. His five-plot rotation is worked out according to the vegetables' own likes and dislikes. Some need a more acid soil than others and these are grouped together to be grown in the same plot.

Big 'Hubbard' squashes are a staple winter food and Mr Milne saves the seed as they eat the squashes, cleans it and sells it back to the seed company. The revenue from that pays the rest of his seed bill: "Ideal, you see. Tucked away out here, there is no danger that the squashes will get cross-pollinated by any other type of pumpkin."

The ground at Pedwardine Cottage works hard, with some plots producing three or four crops a year. Catch crops such as radish and rocket fill the ground when slower-growing crops such as potatoes have been lifted. After harvesting the garlic, Mr Milne was planning to sow vetch, partly to act as a soil cover, partly to use as a green manure. He leaves the vetch to grow as long as possible, then hoes it off with a sharp spade so that the roots with their nitrogen-bearing nodules stay in the ground to feed the next crop, which will be brassicas. The vetch haulm is carted off to one of the compost heaps.

"Do you get pleasure from all of this?" I inquired seriously, after we had criss-crossed the paths through the vegetables like pieces on a chess board. Mr Milne seemed to be so busy counting the hours of labour (120 hours' weeding in 1988). I was worried that the delights of gardening might have passed him by. Fortunately not. "Enormous pleasure," he said. "It's cerebral as well as manual. And what can be more worthwhile than growing your own food?" With that, I heartily agree. But he is never going to get me converted to the Elsan.

The garden at Pedwardine Cottage, Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, is open August bank holiday weekend (26-28 August) from 2-6pm. Admission pounds 1.20; also open by appointment (01568 770489). Mr Milne grows three varieties of authentic French garlic, Cristo, Germidour & Thermidrome, from Jennifer Birch, Garfield Villa,

Belle Vue Road, Stroud, Gloucs

(01453 750371)

Comments