Transforming the garden with David Warburton

December 23, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

David Warburton, well known landscape designer, has decided to re-create his own home garden.

“I want to transform my property with something magical,” he began our interview. “That’s got a good start with the house and the river as an asset. That’s the easy part because it begins with the most prominent ‘me,’ which is the beauty.”

The Warburton home is a straw bale house, which they built in the late 1980’s. It sets the beautiful tone for the rest of the property. Where to go in a renovation of the earth?

For many years, Mr. Warburton was a “no-till” philosopher but time and experience teach a person different ways. Historically and still, he is always a promoter of growing things organically.

“I can see potential for what I want to do. There’s a load of dead ash trees killed by the emerald ash borer. That’s caused total devastation around here, where there are no ash trees living. It’s been a terrible scourge. I thought to cut them into logs and possibly grow mushrooms on them.”

In addition to the property’s river, there is a small pond where the water can be used for duck, fish, watercress, each supporting the other. Not really wild ducks: “they come to pair up and once they pair up, they take off; the pond’s too small for them. But domestic ducks would be alright.” 

A balance between hearkening back to farm kitchen gardens and agriculture so productive but also organic that it creates a reasonable income for a family.

Born in Swaziland (now Eswatini), Mr. Warburton commented, “The neighbours were a living situation in a rondavel, a round home with a thatched roof. In the middle of this yard was a marvellous polyculture but everything grew that would sustain them over the year. Something was always coming into harvest.”

“What I’m trying to square right now – my approach was to produce a small scale factory farm and the centre piece was an area of three and a half feet deep beds. The deep bed method is championed by English gardeners, who say that growing at a shovel and a half deep involves too much land area,” he explained.

This small acre farm would have to be incredibly productive and you compete with a few acres by efficiencies. The garden layout comes in rows of deep beds with narrow paths of hardened surfaces between them, so you don’t have to step on the rows. Still, the polycultures rows are the antitheses of the idea of planting something here and there, and David Warburton’s challenge is to blend those two opposing methods with areas where rows are appropriate and then by trees, cultivate something different. 

Taking in a variety of ideas, he visited the “farm up the road, owned by a retired teacher who is anything but retired. He has leaf spinach now growing in polyhouses.”
Polyhouses or green houses are ages old but the use of polyethylene, which is much less expensive than glass, is increasing as a method for culture around Europe and India.

For climate change, a polyhouse can control the temperature and conditions under plastic.

Mr. Warburton prefers the glass but admitted, “What I’m really hoping is that I’ll find somebody who has a glass house they want to decommission. A dream would be to have a situation that offers these extraordinary polycultures.” 

The ancient and organic ways of growing food flies in the face of the more recent “green revolutions” approach to increase productivity by huge farms and use of chemicals, by which soil productivity falls away.

“Europe has resisted Monsanto,” he noted, “but they took it to the third world.”

He recalled, “I used to talk to gardening clubs. I got push back about organic, when I said a home garden is more productive than a commercial farm. I told them that I represented the longest ways of farming that the world has ever used. 

“You have to prove that highly intensive planting and polluted soil doesn’t lead to ruined soil. What I put out there is just true: they’re the experiment and we are the way the world has fed itself to this point.

The soil on the Warburton property is not productive at all. It has to be amended in order to grow crops. There is a profoundly environmental method of enriching the soil, with compost and rock dust. Both things get the soil teeming with soils’ life of microbes and worms. It will take a couple of years, as he explained, it’s the equivalent of making yogurt or breeding a flock of birds.

Perhaps, the most important aspect of all this land treatment is to remember how crucial is natural law. In permaculture, they talk about leaving some of the property wild, which is to incorporate as much of natural law as possible.

“The more you follow natural law, the more success you’ll have and the more you go against natural law – the less success you’ll have,” he offered simply. “The reason I came to organic was I began to wonder why I was fighting so much – I was killing the natural element.” 

Interestingly, the deep bed method allows plant roots to grow very deep and the plants to grow very tall and be productive. Because the plants have such long roots, they can be planted very tightly without interfering with each other. The results are quite remarkable: “The plant roots were going so deep that the beans grew 15 feet high and the crop was astonishing.”

For plants that are only cut at the surface, leaving the roots, the re-growth was also much quicker, all using less land for more productivity.

“The enemy of quality is quantity; farming in the conventional manner is about quantity, is a number game that means they squander the value of the land.

“In my heart of hearts,” said David Warburton, “I do take a critical stand. I would love to excite people that there is excitement and practicality for small acreage but do it by not killing themselves and make decent money and that this model would come all over the country to make a good quality of work for couples and individuals that still want to grow things. I wish they would teach at school what nature is and the process of nature over time. There are not going to be any more glaciers to come and bring more soil.”

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