Inspired by his childhood memories of secret gardens, Rupert Sheldrake suggests a way modern families today could enjoy the same kind of productive outdoor space.
When I was growing up in Nottinghamshire, I was fortunate to have not just one but two secret gardens. The first was from my earliest years. Near the centre of my hometown, Newark-on-Trent, there was a large walled enclosure owned by the parish church, which contained about six gardens. We had one of them, bounded on one side by the high wall between the garden and the street, and on the other three sides by tall hedges.
Inside this garden was an orchard, providing us with apples, pears and damsons. We also had raspberries and gooseberries, a vegetable garden and flower beds. And there was a revolving wooden summer house, essentially an ornamental shed, with a veranda. It rotated on circular rails, so that it could be pushed round to face the sun. In spring and summer, the garden was always full of butterflies and birdsong. And unlike the garden around our house, this ‘secret garden’ seemed remote from domestic concerns; it was another world, although it was only five minutes’ walk away from my home.
I spent many happy hours there with my father and brother, and later on my own. I could look at plants, think, watch birds, read, or simply daydream. But then the land was needed for a playing field for the parochial school. The wall and the gardens were replaced by mown grass, bounded by wire-mesh fences.
Soon afterwards, my great-aunt died. She left us her house, which had a separate garden about 100 yards away, again behind a high stone wall, and enclosed on the other three sides by fences and hedges. It was bigger than our previous garden, about half an acre, and had its own powerful magic. There was a well-established orchard, fruit bushes, a vegetable garden, flowerbeds, and a large lawn that we used for tennis and croquet. We moved the revolving summerhouse there. After our parents’ death, when the house and garden were sold, we hoped the buyer would use it as his family garden. Instead he sold it to a developer, who built six houses there. Another secret garden was gone forever.
These might seem like purely personal memories from a vanished past, but a few years ago I realised that many people could still have similar experiences, if only it were possible to create family orchards. And there is, I believe, no reason why it should not be possible.
In Britain, gardens of various sizes are usually attached to houses. In addition, many people have a vegetable garden at some distance from their house, in the form of an allotment. But allotments are usually small, normally between a thirty-secondth and a sixteenth of an acre (125–250m2). They are also very functional, and not at all secret. It is almost impossible to find a larger piece of land for gardening, because urban land capable of being developed is too expensive, and farmland usually changes hands in units of tens or hundreds of acres. So if you want to buy or rent an orchard, you can’t. It seems impossible.
But look at this situation from the point of view of a landowner. Imagine you own agricultural land near a town or city. Imagine you take just one acre and divide it into five gardens, each about one fifth of an acre (about 750m2). These would be quite large, certainly large enough to contain an orchard, a vegetable garden and grassy areas, as well as flower beds. Such a garden could be, for example, a rough rectangular shape 25 by 30 metres. These gardens could be surrounded by hedges and laid out with access paths, a parking area for cars and bicycles, and maybe even a communal picnic area with a fire pit for barbecues.
How much would these family orchards cost? Well, in 2013, the cost of agricultural land in England rose to £8,000 per acre. Imagine, for the purpose of argument, that the value of this acre is even higher – say £10,000. When divided into five, the land-cost of each orchard would be about £2,000. Assume that the cost of putting in the pathways and hedges, laying out communal areas and perhaps installing hand pumps or connections to a water supply adds another £3,000 to each orchard. Thus, each of these five family orchards would have a cost price of around £5,000. And how much could they be sold for? I would guess at least £15,000. Maybe much more, if there’s a low supply and high demand. In other words, this project would probably be very profitable financially, and would not require grants or subsidies.
Farmers or landowners who already have land near towns might be reluctant to sell part of their heritage, but might instead want to rent or lease their orchards. How much might they fetch in rent? I would guess at least £20 a week, or roughly £1,000 a year. And, again depending on supply and demand, rental or lease values might be much higher. For comparison, average rental levels of arable agricultural land are currently about £100 per acre per year. The same acre rented out as five family orchards would bring in at least £5,000 a year.
Of course there would have to be legal provisions that enabled orchard-holders to restrain their neighbours from using the orchard as a residence, or as a scrapyard, or as a place to make loud noises. There could be an orchard-holders’ association with a joint share of common parts such as paths, parking areas, water supply and collective barbecue garden. In other words, the orchard complex could be run along the same lines as many blocks of flats.
In Russia during the Soviet era, as still today, millions of people had dachas outside the city where they would stay at weekends and in the summer, and use their gardens to grow fruit and vegetables and keep chickens. The area of a typical dacha is about 600m2, slightly less than the orchard size proposed here.
The family orchard scheme would differ from dachas in that these gardens could not, and should not, be used as residences – otherwise they would soon degenerate into low-grade suburbia. Instead they would be more like the Schreber gardens in Germany, of which there are over a million, each usually smaller than a dacha, but larger than a British allotment.
The orchard scheme should not raise major difficulties for planning permission because it does not involve building houses or structures for living in. Agricultural land would be turned into horticultural land, in both cases dedicated to the growing of plants.
Imagine what would happen if a trial scheme of just one acre proved a success. The demand for family orchards would increase rapidly. There would be a strong incentive to supply them. And many families would then have orchards where their children could play, where they could grow their fruit and vegetables and enjoy an oasis of peace. There would be far greater biodiversity too, because orchards with hedges, fruit trees, flower beds and vegetable gardens contain many more kinds of plant and animal than a monoculture of oilseed rape, or winter wheat, or grassland. All this is possible, feasible and desirable.
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author. www.sheldrake.org