Back to the Garden

And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.    Joni Mitchell

Minturn Till is a fourth generation fruit and hop farmer. His great-grandfather, Walter Till moved to Worcestershire in 1896, renting land and buildings in order to fatten chickens for the White Star Shipping Line. Walter also raised livestock and planted hops. He was passionate about farming and, over the years, was able to buy a few small plots of land.

Jim, Walter’s son, fought in WWI and, like many men of his generation, he struggled with his physical and mental health. After Walter died, Jim took on a foreman to manage the farm on his behalf. Jim’s own son, George, inherited both the farm and a lack of enthusiasm for a career he would never have chosen for himself. As soon as his son, Minturn left agricultural college, George sold a few parcels of land and invested his money on the stock market. At 53 years old, he retired from farming and spent the rest of his long years chairing committees, including the board of governors of a large local state school, fishing and playing golf.

Fortunately for the farm, as well as for the ensuing generations of the Till family, Minturn inherited his great-grandfather’s passion for farming. I have known ‘Minn’ for more than 40 years and, once or twice a year, I drop by for coffee, a chat and a walk round the farm. Minn’s apples are the best I have ever tasted.

As a result of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen Minn for a while and so, when I visited him late last year, I asked him about a project he had first mentioned to me 10 years ago – a walled kitchen garden. It’s finished! he told me triumphantly.

When Minn was a small boy his mother used to send him into the garden to pick herbs or pull carrots. He was mesmerized by the variety of colours and shapes and would invariably return to the kitchen with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, arranged in his basket like a Cezanne still life. At the age of five, I decided that when I grew up I would have a walled kitchen garden of my own, he told me.

Minn has lived at Nevergood Farm all his life and his sense of place and memory resides in the land. His garden is the result of accumulated wisdom combined with objects, thoughtfully collected, over six decades. An apothecary-style cabinet in the potting shed is a perfect example of this. Worn smooth, water-stained and the size and width of a single bed, its many drawers reveal seed packets, twine and small gardening tools. I know this because my granddaughter opened every one. When Minn was in his late teens, he spotted the cabinet standing on the street outside the village hardware store. A builder confirmed that it was destined for the bonfire. Minn returned with a flat bed truck and took it back to the farm: In my imagination, I already had a purpose for it, he said.

This sense of vision combined with attention to detail defines Minn Till’s legacy as a farmer. His passion is contagious and although I am entirely without knowledge or understanding of how to grow food, I asked Minn whether I could return and hear more about the story of his kitchen garden.

Two months later, I was back at Nevergood. Carrying a pot of strong coffee and two mugs, Minn and I retired to the greenhouse.

In the beginning I made a lot of mistakes, he explained. As a commercial farmer and grower, I had spent a lifetime cultivating fruit, hops and cereals but I had never planted vegetables before. I learnt, for example, that carrot root flies can’t jump and that you can stop them with a physical barrier. I installed mesh which kept the caterpillars from the brassicas (that’s cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts) but allowed sun and water to reach the plants and soil. Melons hate draughts and need a lot of sunlight and so I cover them with glass cloches, which also keep the pests out. Minn doesn’t use synthetic fertilizer, pesticides or fungicides in the garden. He kills aphids by tipping dirty bath water over the beans and cherries. Predatory insects do the rest.

As I sat on an old wicker chair, feeling the warmth of the spring sun through the glass and the first kick of caffeine as it entered my bloodstream, I asked Minn about the many varieties of fruit and vegetables in his garden. He grows apricots, nectarines, peaches, rhubarb, cherries and a full range of berries. He grows parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, artichokes, fennel, shallots, runner beans, broad beans, aubergines, chillies and, against a sunny wall, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Everything is grown specifically to use in the kitchen because Minn is not only a very good farmer, he is also an outstanding cook, known for his ability to whip up a delicious meal out of so-called ‘nothing’. The day I was there, he was expecting a friend for dinner. I’ll pick a few radishes and carrots and make crudités with fresh tartare sauce, using shallots and parsley. For the main course, I might grill a couple of salmon fillets and serve with asparagus, the last of the spinach and some new potatoes. For dessert … maybe  stewed rhubarb with cream…. What’s good in the garden today is my guiding principle.

Minn’s walled garden is not only beautiful, a rival to any of its National Trust equivalents, it was created pretty much instinctively. As his father, whilst an excellent nurseryman, was neither a hands-on farmer nor a dedicated gardener, Minn learnt much of what he knows from Ernie, the retired farm worker who planted and tended his parents’ kitchen garden almost 60 years ago. My motto was always listen, listen all the time to what others are saying because one day it’ll come in useful. The glass on the greenhouse roof, for example, has been cut using ‘beavertails’. This directs the rain water to run down the middle of the glass panes, thereby protecting the cedar frame from damp and rot. I remembered that detail and wanted to include it in my own garden. I have, of course, had a long time to think about things. I designed and sourced everything myself and I managed the project from start to finish; I have absolutely no building skills but the wonderful 70 year old carpenter and his team who built the garden allowed me to work alongside them as an apprentice labourer.  

Minn finds many of his treasures on eBay. By the entrance to the greenhouse stands a water tank; empty, it weighs 600kgs and was used in the Welsh mountain railways of the early 20th century. In the potting shed is a Victorian pot-bellied stove. The mine lamps in the greenhouse are from the 1940s and the light switches come from an old factory. The rain buckets, forged in a Glasgow foundry, were made for a Scottish country house. They’re cast iron and when I bought them at auction they were coated in thick gloss paint. You could hardly see the beautiful Regency pattern underneath. I power blasted them and then powder coated them with zinc to prevent them rusting.

In the centre of the garden is an enormous 19th century French copper cheese vat which has been repurposed as a fountain. This creates an attractive centrepiece but more importantly it maintains a steady water level in the dipping pool. Rain water from the gutters is channelled underground where it collects in a 3000 litre onion-shaped tank. A small electric pump circulates the water and irrigates the trenches during planting time. It maintains water levels on the same principle as a loo, Minn explained.

The garden was originally an old meadow that had never had pesticides used on it. The next process, as Minn described it, reminded me of baking a multi-layered birthday cake. He stripped away the top soil so it was not damaged during building works, laid out the raised beds and then brought back the soil. He subsequently spread 4 inches of horse manure over the soil, then covered everything with 4 inches of leaf mould. I am using a ‘no-dig’ approach to all my growing; as long as I keep topping up the beds with the leaf mould every year, I don’t need to disturb the soil and this preserves all the flora and fauna – especially earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi. Every year, in kitchen gardens and allotments across the land, Minn explained, people double dig the soil going in to winter. This, he told me, was like demolishing your house once a year. You spend the spring and summer building it and then, just as you’ve moved in and the winter winds start to howl, you knock it down again. Deep cultivation destroys the soil structure, causes soil erosion and the bare, overwintered soil it leaves allows valuable nutrients to escape into the atmosphere. Leaf mould is akin to soil armour: it provides food and habitat for organisms and also prevents moisture evaporation and the germination of weed seeds.

Minn uses a small Dutch hoe to create a little crumb on the surface, which, as a result of the leaf mould above and the water tank below, is consistently moist but never wet. His weeding system is equally gentle. I watched as he tenderly ran the hoe through the soil to dislodge the few weeds that were there, leaving them to dry and die in the sun.

A local carpenter built the greenhouse and Minn bought the 25,000 bricks for the wall and the paving stones as a job lot from a local reclamation yard. The footings for the entire garden structure were cast as a single ring beam, so that it moves, floating imperceptibly like a platform over the clay subsoil. By moving as one, it prevents the walls cracking. Minn sources his flowerpots from a company in Yorkshire that also makes terracotta drains. Drains need to be frost and road traffic proof, so not only are Minn’s pots tall and beautifully proportioned, they don’t flake or crumble. I thought of the Watch with Mother characters ‘Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men’ (but without ‘Little Weed’).

It was five hours before we returned to the house. I learnt a lot, not just about kitchen gardens, but about holding a vision for a lifetime; holding it, like a tiny seed in the palm of your hand; being patient with it; feeding it with just the right nourishment; showing it to just the right people; listening carefully, with your ears and your heart and above all waiting, ever so patiently for the day when your dream can fly free. Although George didn’t physically cultivate his own garden, Minn was able to see what was created on his father’s behalf. Today, George’s grandchildren and his great-grandchildren are learning about food and where it comes from. They plant and grow their own seed pots and every autumn Minn judges the Till family pumpkin growing competition.

I went home, not I will admit, sufficiently inspired to plant a kitchen garden of my own, but certainly with the intention of introducing my granddaughter to Beatrix Potter because, well …  Thea loves her bunnies as much as Minn loves his brassicas.

Recommended Reading:

Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture Gabe Brown

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Future  Merlin Sheldrake