Edward Enfield - 50 years in the garden

Posted by Michael Wale

After retiring do you really want a new media career? The Oldie, Watchdog and the BBC all wanted a bit of the Enfield magic, but the man himself is perfectly happy in his garden.

Edward EnfieldAs second careers go, Edward Enfield, owes his fame to his son ‘loadsa money’ comedian Harry Enfield. Usually it is the other way around, son succeeds because of famous father.

Edward, now 82 years old, had been a local government officer for most of his working life, which is why he moved to this cottage in Billinghurst, West Sussex, 50 years ago - after accepting a role in nearby Horsham.

When he retired, he says self deprecatingly "I did TV work. Everything was through my son. He introduced me to Richard Ingrams, who gave me a job writing at The Oldie. One day they booked a slot at the Salisbury Festival, with Miles Kington and Richard speaking. On the day, Richard was ill and was taken to hospital. All these people had come to see Richard Ingrams and we had to announce that he was not there, but Miles and myself made them laugh.

"A BBC producer, Tony Staveacre, approached me afterwards and said he had recorded the event, and asked if he could use it on the BBC for an arts programme.

"Then, someone at BBC2 was making a programme for old people. I was with Mavis Nicholson because we were quite old, we were mature. It was intelligent, but they put it out after Newsnight when all the old people were in bed, however they told us that in Manchester there was a switch on.

"Ann Robinson saw the show and I told her: ‘If ever you need an old codger on Watchdog, send for me. Stairlifts came up as one of their subjects and they asked me to do it. As a result, I was there for three years. I also did a holiday show with my wife Deirdre ... then it all that came to an end and I thought: "all right, I’ll grow vegetables now I’ve got the time to do it".

His garden stretches over three quarters of an acre. It was over this ground that he and his wife had brought up four children, the last of whom left 20 years ago. None of the children was interested in gardening and, as he was working at the time, it was as much as he could do to keep it under control. 

When Edward and Diedre decided to pursue their love of gardening, the first thing that had to be done was to secure the long fence that divided it from the neighbouring farmer’s field. The garden was regularly plundered by by a mix of deer, cattle and rabbits. But then the farmer decided to re-fence the whole field and the Enfields were the chief beneficiaries.

Also enjoying the new found security was the collection of chickens that they had had in one form or another since one of their daughters had brought a dozen chicks home from school after an A  Level project. Edward kept them in a cardboard box until it was time to put them outside. Now he has nine to eleven hens at any one time, admitting that they lay a surplus of eggs that he sells to neighbours, whose demand is such that he is thinking of increasing his stock.

He also confesses that he talks to them when they are alone together, and he got very ambitious on their behalf during Jubilee year when he tried to cajole them to produce red, white and blue eggs. He says: "Getting the white and blue eggs was easy enough. But red failed me despite getting hold of some Marans. I tried rearing them, but it didn’t work out".

As we walk around his garden the conversation turns to first roses and then vegetables. Of rose growing he explains: "I got interested in roses early on. I liked pitting my wits against them. They get black spot, mildew, rust and greenfly. Though they are pretty delicate most of the time, they take quite a bit of coaxing to get nice ones. I’ve had wallflowers in the spring and dahlias in the summer, but I still like roses first."

As the talk turns to vegetables he says that he is interested in green manure, and one of the seed companies is really pushing it for the winter ahead, but he reasons: "It’s meant to do the ground good setting nitrogen and then you dig it in comes the spring. But surely everything you plant must take something out of the soil. Still I’ll go on with it".

He believes in the simple rotation of crops. His potatoes are always Wilja these days, because he feels they come up early, and whenever he has planted ‘earlies’ they haven’t come up early enough, and any main crop seems to attract slugs and wireworm. So Wilja it is. When the potatoes come out he puts leeks in their place, then the peas. He has a wonderful looking asparagus bed and says that he eats it from April until June, getting bored with it by the time they stop supplying him.

He is also fond of soft fruit and shows me strawberries that are still giving him a meal at the end of September, having started fruiting in mid May.

One thing he does do is plant by the phases of the moon, yet has no strong views or scientific proof as to why, only that it work for him saying: "At the start of the first quarter of the moon, sow below-ground crops. At the start of the second quarter, sow above ground crops, and plant out seedlings".

As with any readable book about gardening, which Growing To A Ripe Old Age certainly is, it is the asides that make it enjoyable. In Edward Enfield's book, it is the whole chapter set aside to his literary hero William Cobbett. Cobbett is famous for writing Rural Rides. But he wrote many other books including The English Gardener. Cobbett was vehemently anti-potato, and never grew or ate them. He was also a great believer in double digging, which Enfield finds unnecessary, back breaking work.


Growing To A Ripe Old Age ( Summersdale. Hardback. £9 99p)

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