Book Review: The Elements of Organic Gardening: Highgrove, Clarence House, Birkhall by HRH the Prince of Wales with Stephanie Donaldson

This may seem an unusal resource for prospective homesteaders, and, granted, I only picked it up because it had Superfogey’s name on it, but it proved to have some great ideas I think are worth stealing.  What I love about organic gardening is that it is not a list of approved products but a lifestyle. There is no mathematical formula for eradicating weeds and creating the perfect lawn, but there is an almost Zen balancing act of natural forces that the gardener influences to encourage the garden to produce what s/he wants.

In HRH’s gardens he has just about perfected these principles. Obviously, in converting the gardens to organic cultivation he ceased to use pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, but he also introduced (Or re-introduced, really. Highgrove is 150 years old, and the other two could be older for all I know. Many organic methods are, well, old-school.) systems I aspire to: efficiency of labor and productivity, sustainability of materials, and good old making do.

Efficiency of Labor and Productivity:

    Animals are used to reduce the labor of the people. The laying hens are rotated through the Orchard to eat pests and windfalls. Suffolk Punch horses plow and rake the wildflower meadow and Black Hebridean sheep graze the meadow’s grass and trample in the wildflower seeds. Bees, kept in a Slovenian bee house that houses ten hives and all the equipment that goes with an apiary, pollinate the crops and ornamental beds alike. Numerous water features attract wild ducks, who control slugs and snails.
     Arches over pathways are planted with useful plants such as apples for eating and sweet peas for arrangements, thus turning paths into productive spaces.
    In the Woodland Garden and Arboretum was a larch plantation. As the larches mature and are logged, the remaining larches are underplanted with trees that will eventually form an arboretum. While some towering larches remain they will shelter their ornamental successors from wind, frost, and snow until they are established.

Sustainability of Materials:

    He makes all his own potting and other soil mixes from materials onsite. “Virtually all the water used a Highgrove, both for water features and for watering plants, is recycled through the reed-bed sewage system or harvested from the roofs of the various buildings. It is then stored underground, [in a 23,000 gallon tank] before being pumped to where it is needed.” Hazel and willow are coppiced to create all the pea sticks, bean poles, runner bean tunnels, and hoop-style ornamental plant supports that may be needed. Any still in good condition at the end of the year are stored for reuse. Broken ones are chipped and used as mulch.
    Highgrove once bought in all the cut flowers needed for “the house, the garden supplies materials for fund-raising events . . . and an floral gifts, tributes, and posies that may be given by Price Charles.” Now, from April to October they all come from the estate.

Good Old Making Do:

    Highgrove soil is variable. “Some is deep, fertile loam, while other parts consist of poor, shallow soil.” Where practicable the soil has been improved with infusions of manure from the farm’s cattle and chickens and from the compost that is cranked out in only 12 weeks. Where it is not so easy to improve or alter the soil he works with it rather than against it. In one area near the house the soil was Cotswold brash, “a thin, stony, poor soil 4-6 inches deep over a limestone base.” Nitrogen is the bane of wildflowers, so the area was made into a meadow.  Apple trees in the Orchard, which were producing fruit available at every supermarket, were grafted with disease-resistant and less common varieties rather than removing and replacing the established rootstocks. “Instead of conventional lawns, Highgrove as species-rich green spaces which are mown regularly to give the appearance of lawns.” Apparently they contain quite a bit of moss and PC is OK with that. Welcoming, rather than hand-pulling non-grasses in the lawn also saves an incredible amount of labor (efficiency!).
    In the Woodland Garden and Arboretum Prince Charles had what, in my part of the world, would be called a stump ranch. Rather than bulldoze the mess and start over, he pushed the stumps to the periphery, cleared paths between them, and planted ferns, hostas, gunnera, and other shade lovers on the stumps themselves. The end result was a sort of half-wild Victorian naturalist’s retreat.

Each garden has presented its own set of challenges. While Highgrove belongs solely to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) and is situated in a favorable microclimate, it is so very large that it was impossible for the previous owners to keep every acre up to par, and some had run to neglect and bad practices that had to be remedied.

Clarence House is in central London on a major highway, making it much warmer than at Highgrove, but this also means that air pollution and mildew can be problems. The smaller size of the site means that not all the activities that are performed at Highgrove can be carried on at Clarence House. Compost and leaf mold for Clarence House are made at Buckingham Palace and plant supports are brought in from Highgrove. Visiting ducks come from St. James’s park, where they are too well fed to deal with slugs and snails, so a garlic-derived product is used to control them here.

Birkhall is in the Scottish Highlands, where the soil tends toward acidity and the ground can stay frozen for most of the winter. Additionally, Charles has less freedom over design at Birkhall and Clarence House, as both gardens were inherited from his grandmother and changes therefore must be more subtle and respectful of the late Queen Elizabeth’s intentions.

The final chapter of this book “The Blueprint” gives recipes for Highgrove’s planting mixes, descriptions of organic methods and tools, a planting and garden work calendar, resources for further advice, and lists of the edible and ornamental varieties of plants from all three gardens. I was very excited to see that HRH has grown the ‘Sugarsnax’ carrots and ‘Sunrise’ lupines that I am trying this year!

— Amanda

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