Ash Tree Farm
Stevie Rogers - Ash Tree Farm and Nursery
If there’s one thing that irritates Dartmouth gardening expert Stevie Rogers it’s a tidy garden – especially in the winter.
For 25 years, Stevie has been transforming the gardens of Dartmouth with her eye for design and her knowledge of plants, but always with the aim of creating habitats where wildlife will thrive, and where nature’s balance will keep pests at bay.
A garden pruned, dug and cleared in the autumn might look text book tidy, but it’s not going to provide shelter for birds or places for their favourite bugs to thrive, and it’s certainly not going to offer any protection to plants from the frost and snow.
“I can guarantee that people who cut off all the dead growth from their plants back in the autumn will have lost loads over the cold winter, and will now be looking at empty beds,” Stevie said.
“People are obsessed with tidiness, but forget about the wildlife, and don’t realise that pruning a plant sets off a chemical reaction. If you cut yourself, your body diverts energy and effort to the injured place to heal it. It’s the same with plants. Rather than being dormant they are sending out goodness to try to heal the bit that has been pruned. That leaves them exposed and prone to frost.”
Stevie has worked the land at Ash Farm for a quarter of a century. The farm is under an Environmental Stewardship, which means that the land is farmed in ways which are beneficial to the environment, are wildlife friendly and maintain existing habitats. Hedgerows are preserved, fields remain fallow in winter and are not over-grazed, there are no pesticides, and new planting creates habitats to benefit wildlife. The plant nursery, open to the public between March and October, grows plants for sale and use locally and is the only nursery in Devon where British wildflowers are grown and sold.
Stevie’s family were all keen gardeners, and when Stevie left school she studied Environmental Science at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, specialising in development work in Africa. Gradually her interest in gardens worked its way to the fore and Stevie became a garden creator.
Years of experience come in to play when coping with some of Dartmouth’s tricky garden locations. Steep slopes, lack of space, shady spots, she has the expertise to tackle them all.
“It all comes down to understanding plants. If you choose the right plant for the right environment it will thrive but you can’t force a plant to live where it’s not happy. We tend to do things around the wrong way. We all impulse-buy plants and then puzzle over where to put them, but we should start with looking at the environment of the garden and work out which plants will grow there.”
As a garden designer and advisor, Stevie often offers fresh eyes to solving garden problems. Her scientific background has given her a knowledge of plants and nature’s clues as to their origins. Drip tips on leaves, for example, point to a plant that has come from a rainy forest – no good for the dryness of an exposed rock garden. If a plant won’t grow in a dry or shady corner, she will suggest a pot or statue instead. “You can’t fight nature – there’s no point!”
She added: “I’m not a botanist but years of experience have taught me what does and doesn’t work. Local knowledge is important – we can grow things here that we can’t grow elsewhere because of our temperate climate. Southern Hemisphere plants grow well here.”
Stevie has worked on hundreds of gardens across the South West but mainly in Dartmouth and the surrounding areas – hot seaside themes, huge grounds and tiny town gardens. All of them were able to support wildlife, she said.
“We run a lot of courses here, working with Devon County Council and the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, teaching people how to garden in a wildlife-friendly way. We work with adults and children, and support courses run by the school in Dartmouth.
“There are so many ways to attract and keep wildlife in your garden, which will then become balanced and care for itself. Five easy rules would be:-
✿1. Create and maintain habitats such as hedges which offer shelter to birds and animals. Conifers which have fallen so out of favour with gardeners, are very warm and sheltered safe places for birds.
✿2. Think about food, not just putting food out but preserving a good habitat for insects.
✿3. Prune at the right time. From March to August do not cut back your hedges because birds will be nesting – leave well alone!
✿4. Put a mulch down of gravel, bark or manure to retain moisture so there is no need to water. It also has the advantage of being a good habitat for insects and grubs, therefore attracting birds.
✿5. Have a garden that is low input as far as chemicals are concerned. For example it is very easy to go out and buy a pesticide but very often it does not solve your problem – for example an insecticide will kill all insects including the ones that are natural pest controllers, so you make life more difficult.”
Stevie added: “A good wildlife garden should not need to use chemicals and pesticides – the balance will be there keeping everything in order.”
Looking after Ash Farm and Nursery is a seven day a week job for Stevie. As she tends the wildlife pond, the rainbow garden with different beds representing different colours, the polytunnels of tiny new plants, Stevie is “helped” by four dogs and three cats, all rescue animals, the most vociferous of whom is a black cat with white whiskers named Simon. There are also peacocks, guinea fowl, some rescued sheep and some horses. The wild creatures are too many and varied to count, but she is delighted with the farm’s population of rare cirl buntings.
On rare occasions when she is not consumed by gardening, Stevie reads avidly and walks far. But she is usually thinking about her next project, currently the Royal Avenue Gardens in Dartmouth.
“I’m helping with the renovation of the gardens, supplying plants, designing and giving my time for free. It’s a project with South Hams District Council, who, faced with the current economic climate, are changing the gardens to make them more easy to manage. They won’t need as many bedding plants, instead we’re going for roses and hardier plants that will do well year after year. Low maintenance is important but we want to give the gardens more of a theme. They have been piecemeal for years with bits and bobs donated here and there but no over all plan. It’s a gradual change but the gardens will look lovely. It’s very exciting.”
First Published April 2011 By The Dart