A wildflower wonderland in East Devon
PUBLISHED: 13:54 06 June 2016
On a farm in East Devon millions of tiny wildflower seeds are being harvested, as Catherine Courtenay discovers
Old tools hang on the cob walls of the barn, an apple press stands in a corner and Nipper the dog watches me from his makeshift cider barrel bed. Over by an old farmhouse table Julian Pady is digging deep into a box of seeds; he pulls out his hand and opens it, thousands of the tiny grains spill back into the box, releasing an intense and evocative smell - of cut grass on a hot summer’s day.
The cider shed where I’m standing is Julian’s office - or at least, as much of an office as the founder of wildflower seed company Goren Farm needs or, I suspect, wants; and it’s a world away from his former life.
Julian arrived at Goren Farm in Stockland in 2001; he was 28, and had come from London where he had a career in IT and oil exploration. The farm belonged to an old family relative who had been living more or less as a recluse in a couple of rooms of the farmhouse, which although a listed building, was dangerously close to falling into dereliction.
Julian had decided to come and live in this 70 acre plot of land, try and save the house and help Ken, who’d long since turned from dairy farming to hay production. It was these meadows which were to shape the future path of both Goren Farm and Julian.
“The first day I visited here I looked down at the grass and immediately saw it was different,” he says. What had struck Julian about these fields, which have never been ploughed in living memory, was the complexity and variety of plants growing in them. Having been raised in a Devon farming family, he knew the signs, and he was inspired. “I’d never been into flowers, he confesses, “I’d had a small garden in London, but the wild flowers were completely new to me.”
The native wildlife had flourished over the years, partly due to Ken’s gentle and old fashioned approach. Rejecting modern farm machinery, “all Ken had was a small blue tractor, a sickle, a billhook, a Devon shovel, a bowsaw and a mattock,” says Julian. “He didn’t want to be noisy,” he adds.
But inspired by his meadow moment, and wanting to restore what remained of the formal gardens, Julian enrolled in a horticultural course at Bicton College. “It also gave me an excuse to get away one day a week,” he laughs. Indeed, with the farm buildings in such a bad state, those first years were tough. Julian was earning no money, and there was no hot water, or heating. “I’d go and play squash just to get a shower,” he recalls.
It was a comment a neighbour made on seeing the yellow rattle growing in the meadows, “that place is full of weeds!” that started Julian thinking, “I wonder who would want these seeds?”. It was only a matter of time before the wildflower business began.
Nearly all the seed comes from the farm’s meadows, verges and hedgerows.
Julian uses an old winnowing machine, bought on EBay, to sift the seeds which are gathered, or more accurately brushed, off the meadows with a brush harvester and laid out on sheets to dry - and let any trapped insects escape. Under guidance from Defra, he cuts later in the year but this has its downside, as Julian reveals. “Orchids have flourished, we have hundreds of thousands of them, but some flowers arrive later, so some species struggle. Although a perennial will keep coming back, they still have a life span so will eventually, within about five years, disappear if they’re not allowed to set seed.”
Once sifted the seeds are kept chilled and stored in containers - plastic ice cream containers, of which Julian has a seemingly endless supply. Orders for his seeds come from county wildlife trusts, the National Trust, city and county councils, as well as private businesses and individuals, and he’s often called upon to give help and advice. “Growing a wildflower meadow isn’t easy and it will take four years to establish. You need patience, it’s not an instant thing,” he encourages.
Alongside the seed business, the restoration of the house and its walled garden continues, Julian being fastidious about using natural and environmental techniques, like lime plastering. Across the farm too, he insists on proper walling and hedgelaying. When he first arrived the walled garden and greenhouse was totally overgrown with brambles and mature ash trees. Now cleared it’s been turned into a productive vegetable garden and provides space for growing much needed annual flower seeds, like cornflowers, poppies and marigolds. Two orchards have also been restored and are now producing cider.
It’s not unusual for people to bring him bundles of plant seed heads either to identify, or simply to make use of.
One nearby farmer offered him seeds from his meadow which, as it was cut earlier in the year, had many different but still local species, like sneezwort, betony, saw wort, zigzag clover and devilsbit scabious.
And it was a visiting botanist who spotted a solitary corky fruited water dropwort. “It only grows in Devon and he found one plant in a field, but now it’s full of it,” says Julian, who encouraged the plant, simply by not cutting and allowing it to set seed.
Julian shows me the different seed mixes, some smooth to the touch, others so fine they’re like a cloud of dust, pointing out moth eggs which were gathered up and have turned into cocoons. Julian doesn’t use insecticide on his mixes, so the cocoons develop. He sifts them before sale.
Over in his cider barrel, Nipper lifts an ear as Julian opens the fridge and pops back the sealed carton of seeds.
“I’m now learning something for life,” he reflects, when I ask him to compare his former computer based work, with that of a wildflower grower. “I’m learning for life, that’s what I enjoy. And it’s about sharing the information I pick up with other people who want to learn - that’s a great side effect of the whole thing.”
Part of the National Gardens Scheme gardens open for charity, you can visit Goren Farm and walk through its flower meadows every evening from June 4 to July 17 from 5-9pm.
It’s also open from 10am - 5pm on June 4&5, 11&12 and 18&19.There are homemade teas too. For the first time this year Goren Farm is hosting the Goren Festival on July 9&10 with local foods, live music, circus skills, nature walks, camping and a host of activities for all the family. See the website for more details