Arthur Parkinson Esq. is a Pottery Gardener and Hen Aficionado

Words by
Lucy Munro
| March 9, 2018

In another life, I’d run away to the north of England somewhere, find myself a plot of land (preferably attached to a Georgian style bookshop or art studio) and raise a menagerie of animals amongst my sprawling cottage garden. Well folks, Arthur Parkinson is living my dream.

Mr Parkinson is the wildly eccentric and entertaining fellow behind the pottery garden at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. I first stumbled upon him through Instagram a few months back. His feed is bursting with colour, personality and VA VA VOOM! Think of lusty perennial plantings in shades of hot pink, scarlet red and Bordeaux; rows of Dark Monarch dahlias and Plum Tart gladioli towering beneath twisting sweetpea tunnels; tributes to Gosford Park and the other Queen of England, Joanna Lumley, and peppered within, the true stars of the show – Arthur’s fabulous flock of chickens.

It ain’t all smoke and mirrors though. Arthur has a serious talent for creating elegant landscapes alive with colour, drama and movement. In his youth, Arthur’s love of poultry and plants was fostered by the effortlessly chic Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Cavendish (née Mitford of the intriguing Mitford family and fame). He went on to train at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and later worked alongside the celebrated gardener, cook and cut-flower expert, Sarah Raven. With his first book, The Pottery Gardener: Flowers and Hens at the Emma Bridgewater Factory, just published in the UK, it sure looks like the world is 24-year-old Arthur Parkinson’s oyster.

Wallflowers & Tulip 'Antraciet' from Arthur's garden at the Emma Bridgewater factory.
Arthur Parkinson and one of his hens in the factory roof greenhouse. These are used all year round to stock the garden with plants and are a home for the hens during the cold winter months when the garden is closed.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants. I’m a gardener, probably best known for keeping chickens. I garden and rear poultry at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke-on-Trent, England which I’ve done for nearly four years now. My first book, which focuses on this garden, came out in March. I love chickens in gardens, gardening for bees and butterflies, growing cut flowers and rich colours.

What animals do you have in your life right now? Six chickens – five hens and one cockerel.

I know you’re not supposed to have favourites… but do you? I like all my hens and they all have different personalities. My oldest Cochin hen is very talkative.

Tell us about the garden you’ve created at Emma Bridgewater Studios. The garden is small and walled behind the gift shop. It features raised beds made from wooden sleepers and containers which help to fill in areas around the space. Being small, it’s constant work to keep it looking lush and at its best. I’ve said that it’s like doing the Chelsea Flower Show for five months of the year! I’m quite anal about things – dead heading, staking, cleaning vase water, raking gravel paths – and all of these details add up.

I try to garden organically and grow nectar-rich flowers to encourage bees and butterflies. Despite its urban location, we get a huge array of pollinating insects visiting.”

The season begins properly in April. Hyacinths lead to tulips which are followed by alliums and then poppies before the dahlias, cosmos and gladioli. I also grow lots of foliage and roses so that the shop can be filled with cut flowers. I’m growing a lot of pansies and violas this year so we can have edible flowers served in the salads and on the cakes in the factory café.

I grow all of the bedding in a greenhouse on the factory back roof and I’m constantly thinking of where I can squeeze in another cattle trough from my friend Julian’s farm. It has taken a while but now I’m at a stage where the garden has a good number of large containers within it including one trough that has retained its original purpose of holding water and acts as a container pond. The hens are the gardens icons. They are allowed out and receive a lot of camera attention. Its lovely to see visitor photos on Instagram, which has been a huge part of getting people to know the garden exists. Before it was just something out the back that people stumbled upon often by chance. Now it receives a lot of attention and is an integral part of what the factory can offer to its visitors.

What do you love about having animals in your garden? We humans have become so sterile and scared of dirt. It’s awful seeing children not knowing how to react or being terrified of a hen and her brood of chicks when they meet them crossing a path in the garden here.

Animals add another dimension to a garden. They give it movement and make it alive and fun. For me they are the icing on the cake.”

When I first started gardening, it was all about keeping the hens off the flower beds, but now I’m wanting a garden that is planted just for the purpose of allowing them to be fully integrated within it. I don’t want to turn my back and be worried they are ruining the flower beds. I’ve made myself like perennial grasses, which are one of the best groups of plants for a garden with chickens, and now I’d be happy with a garden packed full of the golden oats grass, Stipa gigantea. When I grow my own garden (and that’s a big when!) it will be fully hen resistant. The paths will be lined with bearded iris, lavender, sage, euphorbia, box balls and rosemary bushes and the flower beds will be planted with thickets of buddleias, coppiced eucalyptus, willows and tall, woody stemmed but blowsy roses like ‘Summer Song’ and ‘Hot Chocolate’.

A late July show at the Emma Bridgewater Studios garden. Cottage garden perennials rudbeckia and echinops combine with golden oats grass and rockets of gladioli 'Plum Tart' and 'Magma'.
Sweet pea arches in full bloom.
Hen's Avenue.

The late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Cavendish, played a huge role in fostering your love of plants and animals. What do you miss about her? The Duchess gave style to the keeping of chickens. I miss her car park flock of free range laying hens. They would peck about without a care in the world, parading about in little groups like they owned the place and greeting everyone. I used to enjoy watching the hens join in on other visitor’s picnicking the most, which would result in either the sound of laughter or screams of absolute horror – fabulous!

The farmyard that DD created to ensure visiting children and adults alike left with an awareness of farm animals and their purposes still exists at Chatsworth House, where I still visit often. Chickens are still at large there, albeit mostly cooped in grassy pens to ensure the eggs that are incubated and hatched out weekly in the summer are of pure bred stock.

DD opened one of the very first gift shops at Chatsworth and she stocked it herself, going to trade fairs, finding designers to produce unique and fabulous things, from postcards and mugs to garden furniture, so I do miss a good gift shop! (Not that the one today at Chatsworth doesn’t fail to see me haul all sorts onto the shop counter on each visit!)

Most of all though, I miss writing to her and seeing a letter back in her handwriting reading Arthur Parkinson Esq. – I’d never had Esq. at the end of my name put before! It does pain me a bit that DD never saw the garden at the factory. I hope she would have loved it. I keep the Buff Cochin hens in memory of her as she had them in the garden at Chatsworth free ranging – my original pair of birds came from Chatsworth farmyard a few years ago now. She liked to see things that you could eat planted amongst the flowers, so I grow kale and sage dotted about.

Do you have a favourite garden? My favourite rose garden is one within a small zoo in St Ives, Cornwall because it has a flock of flamingos on the lawn. They roost in a greenhouse each evening and are let out each morning.

It is the most gorgeous thing seeing the flamingoes flap excitedly out into their garden, honking amongst a chorus of squawking parrots and singing finches in the neighbouring aviaries, like something straight out of Alice and Wonderland!”

What would be your spirit animal? I have an affinity with flamingos but I’m not sure I share the spirit of one as they are happiest in huge flocks. I’m more solitary, like a red panda.

Is there a secret to growing gorgeous, wonderful, blooming gardens in containers? Go for the biggest containers you can afford, and that your space can take. Don’t be afraid of something huge. Old dolly tubs and cattle troughs are my personal choice. As a rule, you need to feed plants in containers much more than those in the ground, so give everything a good top dressing of well rotted manure mixed with fresh compost in the spring and then feed your plants in pots monthly over the summer with a seaweed and comfrey feed. Watering is vital. A deluge twice a week in the summer with a good full watering can each time rather than a weak sprinkle of water will see plants reach their potential rather than sulking. You also need to be on your guard against vine weevil so use a biological nematode control each year too.

Dahlia 'Waltzing Matilda'.

There are so many fascinating species of hen – what are some of your favourites? Pekin Bantams because they are ideal to have about the garden, paddling about being small and cuddly. I also like silkies for the same reasons. Poland bantams, with their striking head feathers. They are easy to catch as they cannot see well due to their head attire. Buff Cochins are my current favourites as they are so docile despite being giants. They are incredibly matron like and at best lay sixty small eggs each a year! Marans and Welsummers are always neat in their attire and they lay dark brown eggs that are the most perfect pieces of work. Cream Legbars are even more poised in their decorum and lay blue eggs which people seem to either like or distrust! Dutch and Sebright Bantams are small and poised but can fly like pigeons and make a raucous. Bantam Wyandottes seem to be very in vogue lately due to their laced feathers and varieties of silver and gold lace. These are totally beautiful but it is the blue laced pullets of this breed that command the highest of prices in the chicken buying world.

What is something unusual or interesting about chickens that the average person may not know?

I think all farm animals in terms of intelligence are often over looked because we are conditioned as children to think of them as stupid and unclean beings when nothing could be further from the truth. Recent studies have proven that chickens are able to count, recognise individuals and appreciate listening to classical music!”

What’s your ideal colour palette? Always rich and never ever any white – it distracts from other colours. I don’t like pastel shades either. These I call care-home wall tones. I like stain glass colours – deep scarlets, burgundy, orange, indigo blues and zappy lime greens.

What is a bulb lasagne? Where you layer bulbs in a large pot to ensure a succession of flowers from spring into early summer. People find it an odd thing to do but it really works and is invaluable for a small space. It normally goes – crocks in the pots bottom for essential drainage, then soil to almost half of the pots depth, then tulips, soil layer, Narcissi, soil layer, crocus and hyacinths and soil to the top of the pot – or swap the Narcissi for alliums which is what I do.

If you could create an arrangement with three cut flowers, what would they be? Tulips ‘Black Hero’ ‘Brazil’ and ‘Antraciet’ mixed with artichoke leaves.

You share a strong affinity with the fabulous Joanna Lumley. What is it about her that you are so drawn to? Joanna stands for everything I believe in really in terms of how we should treat animals and indeed the planet. She’s hugely intelligent and beautiful. I love her as an actor, but I like her the most when she’s playing herself on a boat cruising up the Nile or when she’s speaking up for a cause needing a voice. She’s not just a talker, she’s a doer, and she does everything with a fabulous energy and a genuine enthusiasm. Joanna is not afraid of taking on the big guns against humanity and holding them to account. We need people like Joanna now more than ever before.

What word best describes you? Eccentric.

What are you looking forward to right now? A warm and sunny day. It feels like the winter has been here for so long now and everything is so saturated and green with damp. I’m sick of looking at bare earth. That put, I do love the seasons, but this winter has been dire. The chilling wind has done so much damage.

Who else inspires you? Sir David Attenborough. Sarah Raven whom is the finest gardener and florist upon earth. Ruby Wax for her work on mental health awareness. My grandmothers.

We are so excited to read your new book, The Pottery Gardener. What can we expect to find inside the pages? Visual inspiration! Expect lavish colour and lots of chickens.

Fifty years from now, what will Arthur Parkinson be doing? I haven’t planned that far ahead. I am terrified of ageing and the scary estimations of what the earth will be like fifty years from now. I try not to over think these things and just keep planting. I’ve planted crab apple trees at my mum’s cottage this winter so hopefully I’ll be enjoying looking out on them as a matured orchard. I’ll have written several books by then and maybe own my own garden. Here’s hoping.

If you were a plant, what would you be? I’d be a cardoon.

You can find out more about Arthur, his chickens and their book, The Pottery Gardener: Flowers and Hens at the Emma Bridgewater Factory, by visiting Arthur’s INSTAGRAM.

All images supplied by Arthur.

Day old chicks and ducklings are given a christening of flowers. Arthur prefers to raise chicks naturally under a broody foster hen when possible.
Arthur harvesting hydrangeas for dried shop arrangements.
Dahlia 'Blue Bayou'.
Spot one of Arthur's chicken amongst the flowers.

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