Gardener and hen keeper Arthur Parkinson’s first book ‘The Pottery Gardener’ is a celebration of the garden which is his charge at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke-on Trent. Here he has turned a concrete dominated space into an archipelago of bee attractive flowers and hen houses.
Smallholder asked him about the challenge.
Cochin chickens feature much in your book, what is it about them that makes you like them so much?
They are very docile, kind and intelligent birds. They are purely for decoration of course, I have probably had less than four dozen eggs from my three ladies so far this year but they are just lovely to have around the place their presence makes you forget about eggs all together.
They don’t do much damage to the plants (pecking aside) provided I give them a big area of dry to soil to dust bath in and they are content to spend most of their time plodding about the garden paths.
Cochins don’t flap about either, they are so heavy that they don’t wish to perch up at dusk and so they puddle down onto the floor of the hen house happily.
Duchess Deborah Devonshire famously kept them at large in the garden at Chatsworth in Derbyshire so for me they carry her legacy. My original pair came from Duchess Deborah’s Cochin line so I keep them also for nostalgia just as they do still at Chatsworth farmyard today.
They get a lot of visitor attention as they are often unlike any variety of chickens that people have seen before. The popularity of the Buff Orpington I think has done some harm for the Buff Cochins as they are easily mistaken for the former but the cochins have feathered legs and are fluffier.
I’d love to keep a larger flock of cochins, I think the partridge are very pretty but for now I just have the Buffs. Sadly, my cockerel Christopher died last winter. I haven’t replaced him because the mighty size of the males does do quite a bit of damage to the hens and they are certainly tamer without one. What chickens do you wish you could have if space wasn’t an issue I love dark brown eggs so I’d have Copper Black Marans whom are very smartly plumed and maybe Welsummers but they tend to be rather scatty! Cream Legbars are very elegant hens for blue eggs and Golden Silkies I think are adorable.
What are your top thoughts on combining both the garden and farmyard?
Be realistic with the space you’ve got. You can cram plants together but you cannot do the same with livestock – they’ll suffer and so will your land.
Some of us just have to accept that a pair of bantams is as far as the good life can go because that’s all a small, town garden can support. That said, even a small space can bring the essence of a farmyard into it through using their familiar props, old cattle troughs I love as planters and I like old galvanised chicken drinkers dotted about the place too.
Keep a garden space in any case totally free from plastic and bamboo canes, use silver birch and hazel for your garden supports instead. I gather this from road side verges through the winter and store it in bundles to use in the spring, I think an indulgent potager look is a great thing to aim for, a modern cross between Chelsea Flower Show and dig for victory!
You’re mainly a cut flower grower but do you like vegetables?
I like them more lately. My nannar used to insist that her vegetable beds were double dug each winter so that put me off liking a true vegetable garden. Now we are told we shouldn’t dig much at all, aren’t we!
I don’t like to see vegetables grown in sharp, unnatural rows and, to be honest, I think when you do this you’re just saying to pests “here’s dinner!” but I do like mixing some veg into my flower beds. Kale ‘RedBor’ I really like to over plant tulip bulbs with so I sow this in July for planting out in October. Its foliage looks beautiful throughout the winter too.
I like lots of herbs through the garden, rosemary hedges I think are fabulous, ‘Miss Jessop’s Upright’ is the best of the lot and I’ve planted raspberries through a bed of roses. I like the surprise element that vegetables and fruit can give.
Dried lavender I like to put into the hens nesting boxes I think it helps deter mites. I’m growing a beautiful pumpkin purely for the indulgent purpose of still life arrangements called ‘Marina Di Choggia’ – what a fantastic name! Leeks if allowed to go to flower are fantastic, becoming so tall and the bees love them, alliums after all are their close cousins.
Do you keep bees?
I don’t but all the flowers I grow are bee friendly. I get a huge sense of contentment when I see bees in the garden and we get a lot now despite the factory being in the middle of a city.
I like to think the worker bees go back to their hives and do the pollen dance directing their sisters to the factory’s flower beds.
I grow a lot of tender salvias and single dahlias, the best salvia is ‘Amistad’ the bumble bees go crazy for its long, Cadbury wrapper purple trumpets. The green manure phacelia is fantastic, it self sows itself and is rarely without a bee upon its hairy, wisteria scented blooms. I spend a lot of time trying to get the best shots of bees visiting my favourite flowers, it can take hours to get the best shot of them in a flower’s middle.
What plants give you satisfaction and what do you find difficult to grow – I love roses more and more because once they are planted you’ve got them for life. Provided that they are in good soil and get a good feed of muck in early spring, they just get better and better with age. ‘Tuscany Superb’ is my favourite.
I like foliage plants because they give a good foil for the garden to rely on, I don’t think you can have too many bronze fennels! I’m trying to establish artichokes but they don’t like the northern winters very much.
Annual cosmos I think are the worthiest cut flowers to grow from seed, they just flower and flower and they thrive on being cut for the vase. Alliums I think are very valuable because they give such presence in May and June, are welcomed by bees then in July you can take them inside to dry for Christmas decorations and provided that they are in well-draining soil will prove to be perennial in habit.
You’ve kept chickens since you were little despite coming from suburbia what are your top tips for new urban hen keepers?
Make the hen house and run fit into your garden space visually well, it really doesn’t need to look shabby. I think if you’re just going to have a few hens then a good sturdy, light summer house is the perfect garden set up, sheds are easily cleaned and accessed, you don’t want pokey little damp arks! A mesh panel can fit over the doors so these can be open during the day allowing fresh air in and paint the whole thing a good shade from the Farrow and Ball colour chart!
Raise the house a foot off the floor and feed your hens either two times a day or liberally through a peddle feeder to avoid attracting vermin.
The big thing is keeping your birds safe from both foxes and stray dogs. Nothing is more heart breaking than these incidences, you can turn your back for less than a minute and return to find all of your girls strewn around headless so making sure your gardens boundaries are secure is vital if you’re going to have them ranging about.
Buy galvanised feeders and drinkers as the cheaper red and white plastic ones look ghastly on the eye and quickly break anyway! I think bantam Wyandottes make beautiful, easy going pure breed garden hens for the first-time keeper. The garden hen writing pioneer Francine Raymond keeps both these and Speckled Sussex bantams in her garden in Kent. What’s next for you?
I’ve started my next book which focuses on my mother’s tiny front garden so I’m enjoying building the archive of photos up for that. Hens will feature in this new work too and I’d also like to do a range of cards using my favourite photos of hens, bees and flowers. I take things season by season really, the garden at the factory is getting known about now which is fantastic and I’m really proud of it. I have lot of broody girls at the moment so by August I’ll have lots of hen families parading about.
‘The Pottery Gardener: Flowers and Hens at the Emma Bridgewater Factory’ by Arthur Parkinson is available now, RRP £25.
Arthur’s hen and garden photography can be viewed at his Instagram account Arthurparkinson_.
The garden at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke-on -Trent is open daily between March and October.
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