David and Sheila: A Pair of Extraordinary Gardeners

My grandparents, David and Sheila, are the most remarkable gardeners I know. Now both in their eighties, and still living largely off the land, they were growing organically long before the phrase was coined. When I was growing up, their garden in Bedfordshire, England, was a magical place. Chasing the guinea fowl and running beneath the asparagus fronds is most likely what led me to a career in landscape architecture. I spoke with them recently to find out how they developed their distinctive style of gardening.

David, Sheila and the feed

What stands out most about David and Sheila’s garden “operation” is its scale. Redcurrants, whitecurrants, loganberries, gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries all jostle for room in one of their fruit cages, while three glasshouses burst with tomatoes, cucumbers and peaches. Their neatly arranged vegetable plot spans the generous double block, and in its heyday continued into a second block of land across the road, nestled among one of their orchards.

At one point their bee-hives were producing thousands of pounds of honey a year, while glass carboys were bubbling with hundreds of litres of cider and mead. Assorted flocks of poultry roamed around, prestigious heritage turkeys alongside rescued battery hens. It was a riotously productive garden.”

As David told me, “for a domestic garden, we tend to produce things on a rather heroic scale. At one point, we ended up filling sack upon sack of potatoes, many more than we could eat in one year. Once we produced more than five thousand pounds of honey in a summer! We weren’t geared up to be such a large operation”. No-one else I know produces food at this scale as a hobby.

Gymnastics near the Greenhouse

David, a Cambridge educated botanist, has lived a life coloured by plants. While on an expedition as a young man, he “stumbled upon an undescribed moss in Columbia”, which now bears his name. Working for part of his career as a plant breeder has given him a particular way of looking at the garden; “In gardening I’m a great believer in horses for courses, go with the flow. For example, all these people in England, keeping exotic cactuses in artificial conditions, you can just sense nature peering in, wondering what terrible things to unleash.”

Sheila is the “head gardener”. She began gardening as a young child, helping her mother who grew vegetables out of necessity to feed their large family. Under Sheila’s careful gaze, only plants of sufficient merit earn their spot on the team. Sheila’s enthusiasm for growing vegetables remains undimmed in her eighties. “Its tremendous to go out, pick a good vegetable, take it in, cook it, and eat it.”

Together they run a tight ship, the garden requiring a regimented approach to maintenance, harvesting, and even eating. What they can’t eat, or freeze in their selection of oversized chest freezers, goes in barter and gifts.

David and Sheila don’t subscribe to specific philosophies or gardening movements, their pragmatic and frugal attitude, combined with a scientific approach, has led them to develop a style of their own.”

Despite having a mild distrust of the word, it’s striking how similar many of their practices are to Permaculture. But they often have different rationale for their decisions. Their reasons for producing their own honey? Frugality and efficiency. Their reason for saving seeds and growing old fashioned varieties? Hardiness and flavour. Their reason for not buying insecticides? Thrift and caution. Their reason for not irrigating? Not wanting to encourage lazy plants.

This approach has led David and Sheila to do many things by hand which others do not. At one point, they were pressing their own wax foundation for their bees with an 18th century mangle, and experimenting with weaving old-fashioned straw skeps. They have never bought a new hive but prefer to refurbish abandoned ones. There is no Instagram aesthetic here, it’s about function and the lifetime of objects. Obsessive care for their tools means a cheap plastic rake will last decades and decades. Broken garden brooms are sawn in half and repurposed into two brushes.

As you can imagine, trips to the garden center are uncommon. A complex yet organized system of compost heaps means they rarely require fertilizer. Aside from giving their greenhouses water collected from the roof, they never irrigate. Like Wendell Berry or Masanabou Fukuoka, they have discovered that a garden can be created with one primary input, their labor.

Sheila the Beekeeper

Bee keeping is perhaps the cornerstone of their operation. I asked Sheila how she first became interested in apiary; “I just thought bees gave you something for nothing. They collected stuff that people weren’t going to use and turned it in to honey and you got it. I thought it was for nothing… it wasn’t for nothing! But it’s a tremendous thing to do. It teaches you about the environment, woodworking…” Caring for dozens of bee-hives has led Sheila to a sensitivity to the local ecology. She always has a sense and curiosity for what is in flower around her, even when abroad. Sheila is a master beekeeper, and at one point roamed her county inspecting the cleanliness of hives for local beekeeping societies. The current plight of bees weighs heavily on both of my grandparents.

I had always thought of my grandparents as environmentalists by default. Subscribing more to a philosophy of stoic hard work and progress than most current environmental doctrines, I was surprised to learn the depth of knowledge they shared about environmental concerns. David tells me even at university he,“had a lecturer who used to mutter darkly about what we needed was more control of the chemists and less chemical control… These sorts of themes, and his mutterings, they stuck in my mind. It was before Silent Spring and before her [Rachel Carson] views were articulated, but nevertheless, there was a sort of groundswell of opinion that all was not well, in fact. The zap everything, school of thought, that is.”

David and Sheila’s gardening practices can seem unremitting, obsessive. Each year they grow huge, bountiful chilli bushes, despite not liking chillis, just because they grow so well. In mid-summer their gardening regime is so demanding they rarely find time for anything else. But perhaps working so hard on this grandest of projects is part of what has preserved them so well.

I ask the pair if they know anybody else who gardens in the same manner as them. David jokes; “Descendants. It’s a school.” But although they have certainly bred a large lineage of gardeners, I think Sheila’s answer is more honest. “Nobody else really. I don’t know anybody else who does it in the same way.” Sheila is worried that in her village not as many people grow their own food as they used to. “These days it’s easier to just go to the shop and buy, rather than grow your own. Much easier. But I’d rather grow my own. While I can, I will do.”

Pruning the raspberries