Mr and Mrs Owen from Hereford are a lively couple of retirement age who have undertaken the enormous project of transforming four large fields of agricultural land into a beautiful hilltop garden. Over the past few years they have created a small lake, three ornamental fishponds, an extensive fruit orchard, a rose garden, herbaceous borders, vegetable plots, a scent garden – and all without the use of chemicals.
But it wasn’t always this way. When the Owens first started gardening together, some 40-odd years ago, they bought all the usual sprays, weed killers and pest control products offered to the public to keep their little piece of England nice and neat. But as their part-time hobby grew into a full-time passion, they became more in tune with the plants they were handling and the habitats being supported.
On reading horticultural literature and speaking to fellow enthusiasts, they quickly learned just how damaging garden poisons can be. Mrs Owen says the most difficult product to give up was glyphosate (a commonly used weed killer sold under various brand names) and spent long hours trying to tackle persistent weeds such as Ground Elder and Bindweed without its help. But statistics for this kind of product make for stark reading with the American Cancer Society linking its use to Leukaemia in March 2001, so she reduced its use to an absolute minimum.
Safe Haven for Wildlife
As their knowledge and expertise developed, Mr and Mrs Owen came to realise that not only could they improve the environment for their plants and soil, but that they were also providing a safer habitat for wildlife. Gradually, they began to use fewer pest-control sprays and were surprised how little different the change seemed to make. The breakthrough really came when they moved house and realised that a collection of sprays tucked away in a cupboard had been forgotten and remained untouched for years.
Another fundamental stepping stone into the world of organics was the creation of their own compost heap and over the years the Owens perfected the gardener’s art of producing rich organic matter with which to improve their soil rather than relying on shop-bought sacks of inert material. This philosophy progressed to collecting rainwater in water butts to reduce the amount of hard tap-water used in the garden and then to re-opening access to an old water pump to conserve water supplies.
Return of the Songbirds
A fairly immediate difference that Mrs Owen saw in cutting out the chemicals was the increase in the number of songbirds that began to visit their garden. Whereas previously, there had only been the occasional robin, now there were significant numbers of many different types. What she also observed was that the birds tended to feast on all the pesky bugs and beetles which might normally have been killed off with chemicals. This began a relationship with the environment which saw the couple introduce a pattern of companion planting where a plant which attracted one type of pest would be planted next to another, attracting its natural predator.
Creating Natural Habitats
Finding so much enjoyment from the birds which came to feed, Mr and Mrs Owen then planned particular areas of the garden to encourage and attract more garden ‘friends’ and offer protected habitats to wildlife. One such section was a scent garden to encourage bees and butterflies, and another, a wetlands area to provide a natural habitat for frogs, newts and toads. Logs and leaf piles provided shelter for hedgehogs and trees were planted to create a mature orchard for future generations.
Another huge undertaking was the decision to grow completely organic food. Initially, back in the early days, a few tomatoes were grown for fun, and then more food as the couple worked to feed a young family. As the years progressed, and spurred on by the superior taste and health benefits of fresh, organic food, the Owens became more and more adventurous until today they grow almost every conceivable variety of fruit and vegetable available.
Simple to Go Organic
Standing fit and healthy, the Owens are a good advertisement for organic gardening. Asked if it is difficult to do, they laugh and wonder what all the fuss is about. “The only people with a vested interest in us using chemicals are the companies that produce them. For us, the environment and the wildlife, organics is the only way to go”.