Gardening: Overcoming city limits ...

Phil Rooksby not only moved to the country - he lives off the land.

Anna Pavord
Friday 25 October 1996 23:02
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Sowing the seeds for his first-ever garden was, says, Phil Rooksby, "a nightmare". He worried about it so much that he couldn't sleep for two nights. Boy, can this chap worry. He's city born and bred, now just approaching 40, and, with his partner Maureen, has for the last five years lived the self-sufficient Good Life in a cottage in north Yorkshire.

There are pears and plums spilling out of the trees in their orchard. His polytunnel (18ft x 48ft) is stuffed with aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, mizuna and okra. Huge leeks line the path through his circular vegetable patch. Orderly, parallel raised beds near the house have produced more pulses than a health food shop could ever dream of. And still he worries.

In five years he has become more resourceful than most of us manage to be in a lifetime. From scratch, he has learnt how to be self-sufficient in the matter of fruit and vegetables. He has built his own beehives. He has made a hexagonal palace for his chickens. He has dug monumental ponds by hand, one of them 2 metres deep and 25 metres long. Repairing the van when it broke down was beyond him, but he and Maureen held a Christmas bazaar in their cottage, making all the presents to be put on sale and using the proceeds to pay their garage bill. Now their Yorkshire neighbours are badgering them to have another bazaar. And still he worries.

Nine years ago, when they first arrived in north Yorkshire, Phil Rooksby had a "proper" job, at the University of Leeds. But he was made redundant, dipped deep into a trough of depression, then crawled out of it slowly by learning how to garden. Having lived most of his life in city flats, he'd never had one before.

If you ask him what gardening has done for him, you get textbook bits of jargon about "taking control of your life", "personal space" and the like. My guess would be that he's already way beyond the jargon-makers. He's impatient now with the gurus of permaculture, who at first he felt were going to lead him to The Truth. "Spend all their time at conferences talking about it. Never doing". He's still undecided about "biodynamics", a movement that took off in the hippie Sixties with theories based on the effect of the larger cosmic environment on plants and animals down here on earth, and on the mutual interdependence of all living things.

That last bit soon becomes self-evident to anyone who gardens. The first bit I find more difficult to take. Why weed by the light of the moon (one of the tenets of the biodynamics cult) when common sense suggests that it's very much more efficient - and cosier - to do it in the full light of day?

We got on to the business of moonlight because of the bottles in the garden, which edge nearly all of the gravel paths between the beds. They are wine bottles from the bar of a theatre in Leeds, and Mr Rooksby has knocked them into the earth upside down so that just the top couple of inches sticks up above ground. When it rains, water rests in little pools in the concave glass bottoms of the upturned bottles. At night, these glass circles shine out as brightly as glow-worms, showing the way round the garden.

That's an idea I would have thought naff until I saw it. Phil Rooksby has made it work. That's partly because, being a control freak, he likes to do everything perfectly. All the bottles are knocked in at exactly the same height. Different coloured bottles are not randomly used, but sorted to make edgings of a single colour along each particular path. The cardboard of the boxes that the bottles came in makes an underlay for the paths, when covered over with gravel.

The garden isn't neat, in the conventional sense, but it is logical and orderly. You can't be neat if you garden with the organic fervour that Mr Rooksby does. There have to be nettles - there are great banks of them round the perimeter of this one-acre garden - partly to provide food for caterpillars, but also to make nettle juice to feed to the fruit and vegetables.

A great vat of the stuff stands outside the polytunnel, next to another filled with comfrey juice, made with leaves from the big comfrey patch alongside the polytunnel. Mr Rooksby just stuffs the vats full of leaves from one or the other plant, tops up with water and leaves the brew to stew.

The nettle brew saved his polytunnel crops from whitefly and greenfly this summer. It didn't kill the pests, but plants fed with the mixture flourished so spectacularly that they outgrew the depredations of the bugs. It's a lateral solution to the pest problem, but rather typical of the way he goes about things. He has an innate suspicion of received wisdom. That is no bad thing in gardening, where your own experiences in your own plot will always teach you more than anyone else can.

We had an ideological argument about the polytunnel. It wasn't in any way serious, but I was curious to know how anyone who goes along with the fundamental beliefs of biodynamics - man working in harmony with the natural environment - could justify a polytunnel. I wasn't thinking of the amount of plastic that it represented so much as the totally artificial environment that it created, where everything has to be watered to survive.

Yes, said Mr Rooksby. He did worry about the ecological incorrectness of the watering. Another reason to stay awake at night. But the advantages of the polytunnel outweighed the disadvantages. It was 94F and still high summer in the tunnel when I was there last week. Outside, frost had already blackened the leaves of the pumpkins and courgettes. If you live in north Yorkshire, any device that extends the growing season is to be welcomed, and damn the ideology.

Quite right. Mr Rooksby swapped his word processor to get the polytunnel. That was a big commitment, but he has made it work hard for him. He likes it, too, because it helped define the space he had to work in, and stopped him feeling overwhelmed, defeated, by the sheer size of the task ahead when he started to garden.

That's also why he laid out the big circle, bounded by a beautifully grown and clipped hazel hedge, that you walk through on the way to the polytunnel. It was another way of making the original wilderness manageable. A path cuts the circle in two and the semicircles inside the plot are further divided so that there are four rotating plots, where vegetables grow alongside tumbles of marigolds and nasturtiums.

Beyond is a mown path which wanders along past the native trees that he originally bought as "whips" (30p each) no more than 1ft high. Now they are fine young trees, 5ft or 6ft tall. This autumn, he's selling them so that he can buy some decent hedging plants to fill in gaps along his perimeter.

Mr Rooksby hasn't made life easier for himself by feeling that he has to reinvent the wheel at every stage of his gardening education. Nor by feeling that there necessarily has to be some great "-ism", behind it all, some defining ideology that makes sense of what is going on when we grow things in our gardens.

But though I didn't always agree with him, I admired what he has achieved at Midsummer Cottage - and the self-reliance that it represents. He doesn't feel the world owes him a living. Now he wants to move on. He feels he's ready for a fuller-blown version of the self-sufficiency ideal: reed bed sewage systems, wind power, the lot. All that is going to need more room, so Midsummer Cottage, at Sessay, North Yorkshire YO7 3NL, is for sale.

For details call 01845 501443. Mr Rooksby has also written and produced a pamphlet about living the alternative life. Send pounds 1 and an SAE to receive a copy.

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