Arthur Parkinson: ‘It’s a crime that we have forsaken our wildflower meadows for petrol lawnmowers and Flymos’

The gardener Arthur Parkinson speaks to Country Life about his garden inspirations, keeping chickens and why

Arthur Parkinson has emerged in the last couple of years as one of the brightest of the new crop of gardening writers new

When Caroline Donald went to meet him for Country Life last year, she came away hugely impressed with the ‘spectacular flamboyance’ (in the words of Sarah Raven) that has won him tens of thousands of followers on Instagram.

This year, Arthur is one of the ambassadors for Garden Day UK (www.gardenday.co.uk), an initiative now in its third year, and created to help inspire us all, and to celebrate the happiness that green spaces and flowers bring. We spoke to him about about his life in gardening, his dahlia tips and why not to mow grass.

How did you get into gardening?

I have loved vivid colour since I was little.  My mum grew Wallflower Persian Carpet Mixed Flower Plants.  She would buy them — every Autumn — from the Friday market as bare root bunches.  There she was waiting for me and my younger brother at the school gate with bags wrapped in newspaper.

My Nan, Min, had a long vegetable garden.  My brother and I would help her weed at weekends when we were little.  Every spring we would visit Ernie with my Dad, a man who had retired from racing horses. We would spade a huge pile of rotted horse manure into bags with my dad and then all of Min’s vegetable beds got a good mulch.

I didn’t learn to read or write until quite late so I used to try and read Beatrix Potter through looking at her watercolours of farmyards and cottage gardens. I was always drawn to living things and colour so gardening naturally became something I loved.

“Birdsong is heaven — the best medicine, shut your eyes and listen”

The great lawnmowing debate started by Monty Don a few weeks back — where do you stand: to mow or not to mow?

Not mow!  Let the grass have a life.  I love meadows they do need a little mowing but only in the autumn, it’s a crime that we have forsaken our wildflower meadows for petrol lawn mowers and Flymos.  When I was at Kew I remember not being able to perfect the way posh lawns are mown to have stripes in them, who cares, it’s odd and very controlling, not what gardening should be.  Lawns aren’t in the garden of the Eden, nature made meadows! I find mown lawns sad — some people are fanatic now about how they have them treating them like carpets that need to be hovered, the sun comes out and all you can hear are mowers and leaf blowers drowning out the birds — let’s make that a known annoyance.

I have to blame this trend of the gardens being seen as another room to the house; this is ok to an extent but please let a garden in part be rugged and free, not uptight and clipped, let it be alive. You can mow paths through large areas of grass to have bits kept short for picnics and sunbathing — and anyway, with climate change mown grass just goes brown in any case!

You’re famous for your love of chickens — can they be helpful in gardens?

Not exactly helpful!  At the end of the day hens scratch and peck but then I suppose dogs dig and walk-through flower beds too!  Hens certainly add a lot of personality to a plot though – they are the best and are charming company too.

Their droppings when composted offer great manure – in fact it’s particularly brilliant for sweet peas, dahlias and pumpkins. They do also assist very willingly in slug and snail patrol.  However – they need to be careful as too many of these result in chickens with poorly tummies.  The slugs pass worms onto the chickens so you then have to worm your hens with something called Flubenvet.  It’s just like worming a cat or dog once a year!

A garden of hens should be full of roses, rosemary and tough bitter tasting plants such as narcissi and euphorbia — leave dry bits of soil unplanted for their essential spa like practice of dust bathing!

Arthur Parkinson with one of his beloved chickens. ©Daniel Gould / Country Life

Who are your garden inspirations?

Sarah Raven, who I work for.  I love the fact that she is brave.  Brave of being bold and colourful and making it okay to cut flowers from the garden — so many people are afraid to cut flowers!  I think David Attenborough too, he’s not a gardener but his message of nurturing the planet is so vital and gardening has a huge role to play in this.

What would be your dream garden?

I’d have a greenhouse attached to the house like an orangery made of old stain glass doors.  I like to grow things from seed endlessly and with just windowsills, this does limit the seed packet list each year. I’d still have lots of dolly tubs these would be sat on stone or in flower beds.

What I want the most is an orchard full of crab apples surrounded by spindle hedges. Here I would keep lots of hens, trees make hens very happy, the branches overhead make them feel safe.

What are your current favourite dahlias?  

I love all the bishops because they flower so profusely and are full of nectar for the bees. Their foliage is attractive too.  I especially love the ‘Bishop of Auckland’ and the seed grow mix that is ‘Bishop’s Child’.

Top Tips for growing dahlias in containers?

Feed and water them once they get going with a seaweed based feed.  Little and often – about every fortnight from the end of June.  Make sure the holes in the container aren’t blocked before you plant them because drainage is essential!  Mix in organic chicken manure pellets into the compost when you are planting them too.

In the autumn stop watering them a few weeks before you lift them out of the pots to store them for winter, the frost will kill them otherwise. They want to be nice and dry.  Rub the soil off them and wrap them in hessian or newspaper then put them in a box somewhere airy but not damp – damp makes their tubers rot.  A spare unheated room is ideal or under the bed!

You are brilliant at arranging flowers and have a fantastic eye for colour — any tips to share?

Be loyal to the colours you like the most and repeat them through out your planting. I like glass vases, with bud vases and a few big tulips and dahlias acting like a runner down a table makes an easy but impressive arrangement.

You talk in your book about planting for songbirds i.e. to encourage them into the garden — what sort of thing would you recommend for people hoping to do that?

Hedges. We need hedges in all of our gardens, song birds need cover, gardens need to have hawthorn, holly or privet surrounding them.  They create corridors for birds to shelter and nest in honeysuckles whilst crab apples will provide berries in the autumn.

Don’t forget bird baths either, it’s been the driest April on record.  A large terracotta saucer will do the job well. Remember to clean bird feeders too – each month – in hot soapy water to stop diseases spreading such as tit pox!

Leave seed heads standing in the garden or if you do have to clear down borders for winter gather up seed heads and hang them all in a great bundle. I grow red millet for finches it’s an especially easy seed to germinate and provides fireworks of seeding heads for the birds. Birdsong is heaven — the best medicine, shut your eyes and listen.