Meet Carmen and Chris from Staverton, South Devon, England.
“We are garden and history enthusiasts who love to retrace the steps of the past whilst adopting organic growing methods and considering future sustainability of a traditional walled garden. Fittingly, we got married in the garden during a lockdown window last year.
Our initial connection was around growing food – Carmen had recently taken on an allotment and Chris had a couple of growing seasons under his belt after a childhood of indoctrination from his nurseryman Father. Our first date was picking apples at the allotment. We became somewhat obsessed with the 1987 BBC series The Victorian Kitchen Garden which sparked a curiosity to reinvigorate the garden and experiment with some of the old ways, as well as modern sustainable production techniques. The series is inspiring and provides a window into history; the slow pace is perfect for a rainy Sunday’s watching. It’s also eye-opening to see how many chemicals the Victorians used in food production.
We sell a little bit of produce on the garden gate, but it’s mostly just the sheer joy of being able to harvest crops from our garden and be as self-sustaining as possible. Life has become so complex and surreal but eating something delicious that you have grown from seed is such a grounding experience. We also love to share our produce with neighbours, friends and family – you know you’re on the A-List when you receive a tree-ripened peach!
We’re based in a village called Staverton, near Totnes in South Devon, England. We’re lucky to live inside a 200 year old walled kitchen garden. The walled garden is around half an acre in size, with another half acre of old cider apple orchard attached. We’re using around half of the walled garden for food production at the moment, and the other half as ornamental/cut flower growing space providing materials for botanical products and herbarium art pieces.
We grow all of the usual vegetables that thrive in our climate but we’re also experimenting to see what can be done in the unique microclimate provided by the walled garden. We are particularly proud of our Peaches and Nectarines. This year we are trying Tomatillos and Earth Chestnuts (Bunium bulbocastanum) for the first time. We grow huge amounts of Lavender, Chamomile, Rosemary, Roses and Philadelphus to form the bases of our Walled Garden soaps, sprays and oils. Particular flowers such as Cosmos bipinnatus and a variety of Antirhinnum are grown for herbarium pressed flower art.
The soil in the garden has been improved by gardeners for the last two centuries so we consider it to be a heritage asset which needs protecting and ourselves as its custodians. Luckily we live in an area with an abundance of horse manure which we try to add to the growing beds annually in addition to homemade compost. We have started using green manures in early autumn to suppress weeds and lock-up nutrients in the soil – white mustard is a particular favourite as it germinates so quickly and beats the weeds.
We are also experimenting using mushroom compost as a thick mulch around crops – it tends to be sterile and less weedy than our homemade compost. All of our ornamental beds are thickly mulched with Strulch, a mineralised straw.
We’re enormously lucky to have two organic seed merchants within close distance of where we live; Tamar Organics in Launceston and Vital Seeds in Buckfastleigh. We buy all of our seeds/potatoes/onions from them. Increasingly we’re trying to seed save, and it was such a delight in the beginning of the pandemic lockdown last year to be able to share seeds with friends and family that were starting out in growing.
Last year we saved peas, climbing beans, various squash and coriander seeds, along with chamomile and calendula seeds to keep the supply for Carmen’s soaps up!
We both do other work and projects that pay the bills – Carmen in Heritage/ Conservation and Chris is a Sound Artist; balancing this and the walled garden is a delicate ecology that can be unsettled by life events, wild weather or even a bad day at work that skews your mindset.
There is an excellent local initiative we are members of called Orchard Link which is seeking to help preserve the rich heritage of apple production in this area. Living in a small rural community with an aging population, we’ve become acutely aware of the vanishing of traditional craft and growing skills – in 2020 the last commercial cider-maker left the parish, leaving orchards-full of trees laden.
The Staverton & Landscove Garden Show has been running since around 1920 and was formerly the big event of the summer where locals would compete for the longest leek or the heaviest potato. The show benches have thinned out in recent decades and we are currently helping to try and reinvigorate the traditions of the show and attract more younger growers from the local area.
For the last few years we have been trying to establish a wildflower meadow in our orchard and have been part of a wonderful community of local meadow makers called Moor Meadows. It’s an incredible resource and gathering of knowledgeable folk who are trying to do their bit for ecology and habitats.
We also love using Instagram to connect with other growers and gain the benefit of a fun and informal network. We’re a walk through the forest away from Schumacher Growers, Martin Crawford’s Forest Garden and the Walled Kitchen Garden at Dartington, a few miles and a river from Sharpham Walled Garden, and not too far from community and individual initiatives like Bowden Springs Farm, School Farm CSA, Edible Totnes and very successful local food business Riverford Organics.
It’s safe to say that gardening always, without fail, makes you feel better. You might find your mind is full of thoughts and worries when you start but after just a few minutes with your hands in the soil an incredible quietening starts to happen. Gardening really is a way of life – it pulls you right into the present moment but also embeds a sense of optimism and hope for the future. In a world that feels increasingly out of control it helps bring calm, and nature always rewards your hard work.”