Bettina Davies, The Rowan Tree

I first met Bettina planting trees on the ELC’s Furzehill site on a cold windy day in February 2020.

Planting a tree is an exercise in hope — for the future and for the land.

From the perspective of these woody beings, time and scale is somehow more expansive and steady. The rhythms of nature recurring and revolving all the while growing.

Two years later entering Bettina and Trevor’s land, through the hedgerow from where we had first met, was to see how the loving guidance of human hands can transform a field of grass into a riot of flowers, herbs, fruit and veg. This was The Rowan Tree, one of the ELC’s most recent farms.

In the summer of 2020 the new stewards took on the land. Bettina recalled how the “grass was up to here” holding her hand to her hip. From tall grasses to a working site of flowers, food and trees, the transformation of this 1.5 acres of land was a dream realised. Cutting and suppressing the grass with tarps and black plastic and applying compost to create no-dig beds they swiftly made changes. Inspired by Charles Dowding’s ‘no dig’ methodologies, Bettina and Trevor’s commitment to human powered, hand-scale ecological agriculture was clearly evident.

With backgrounds in the performing arts, the thrust of their land based business is cut flowers as well as veg, fruits and perennials. Bringing beauty as well as abundance, I sat with down with Bettina for tea and homemade muffins in front of their polytunnel where Bettina had been attentively watering a bed of flowers.

“When you’re out here working, you always feel like a treat but they’re always so sweet.”

Growing and working the land is physically demanding labour. A former dancer and theatre producer, Bettina knows all too well the life of the body in action. As we chomped into the sugar-free muffins — which she had baked that morning — Bettina shares how performing arts where her first love.

Having grown up in Switzerland she moved to London to pursue her passion for dance. What she thought would be a year long sojourn turned out to be a longer stay that developed into a successful career touring the UK, and abroad, with various productions.

“It was a very special time”, Bettina said of her life in London. Her work in dance leapt off the stage into other spaces — schools, young offender institutes and public spaces — focusing on the therapeutic and social benefits dance and moving the body can herald. A busy city and UK-wide schedule was physically demanding however.

Coming to her mid 30s with injuries in pursuit, and changes in social and community funding occurring, Bettina reflected that it was time for a change. During one of her last big jobs, doing movement directing for a theatre company, she met Trevor, one of the actors.

They soon moved out of London to escape the city. An allotment followed, they joined their local Transition Town initiative and the bug for growing grew.

“I fell in love with gardening quite quickly,” Bettina recounts. In their new flat there was a courtyard garden with some raised beds which they tended. A local garden centre and plant nursery close by fed her nascent curiosity to grow more. Bettina lights up when she describes her relationship with the first gardens she created.

“Gardens are a kind of paradise. Not just of flowers, not just of veg — it’s the trees and the perennials. Wildlife. Everything.”

Entering the next big chapter of her life Bettina enrolled on a year long course at Capel Manor College to get formal training in horticulture. A self-directed course, Bettina’s drive was fuelled by her brilliant, eccentric tutor. Billed for career changers, the focus of the course was on veg and fruit cultivation.

Once she had completed the course Bettina and Trevor tried to start a community growing project. Access to a polytunnel was given by Sunnyside Rural Trust, a charity and social enterprise giving training and work experience to vulnerable people. Bettina and Trevor spent some days volunteering and the support staff and regular volunteers gave them a sense of what could be achieved working on the land, providing them both a picture of something they could do in the future. Seeing what could be achieved on the scale of hand-production enthused their spirits to embark on such a journey themselves.

At this time, they were introduced to permaculture and sustainable agriculture by a friend who had given them a pile of books on the subjects. “We devoured all these books and thought this is great. This is it!” Amongst the titles was Patrick Whitefield’s ‘The Earth Care Manual’ a comprehensive guide to permaculture design for temperate climates.

A seminal moment in permaculture in the UK and a key turning point in Bettina’s journey, Whitefield’s book and the principles of permaculture provoked her recollection of growing up in Switzerland where she drew the line from the prevailing atmosphere of her childhood culture — “the Swiss protestant ethic” that championed frugality as “character building” — to the concerns of ecological impact and reigning in our consumption of ‘stuff’.

Treading lighting and really, truly observing — core tenets of permaculture. This really spoke to Bettina, her time in dance and theatre training a keen awareness of her surroundings.

Our shared enthusiasm for permaculture suddenly broke as Bettina pointed to the arrival of a small flock of birds overhead. “Oh, look at the Linnets!”. The small sociable finches pierced the soundscape with their song, tracing the air with their undulating flight. The Furzehill site welcoming humans as well as wildlife.

Bettina picked up the thread of her journey and how witnessing the beauty and abundance of a productive landscape at the Sunnyside Rural Trust inspired them to pursue something for themselves. Doing their own research they landed on the idea of cut flowers despite their initial desire to create a market garden where they were living at the time.

They found a site via Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Landshare project. Begun as a website in 2009, Landshare connected folk without any growing space to people that had plots and land to spare. The website closed in 2016. However the site didn’t work out due to poor soil and flooding issues. Their journey for land continued and with it their growing awareness of the frustrations of accessing land for reasons financial and political. Bettina recounts stories about the extortion costs of renting one site, being mistaken for Traveller scouts and literally being hounded by dogs while visiting another. The surrounding land so often dominated by horse fields and bare ground, the country around them seemed like it wasn’t available to creative and productive use.

In 2015 Bettina and Trevor began their cut flower business on just under an acre in South Hertfordshire. Taking on a boggy, abandoned paddock, the couple transformed it into a beautiful garden for their business, then named Gillyflower.

During this time the landowner contacted ELC as he was thinking about the legacy of the land. Oli Rodker, the ELC’s Site Monitoring Manager, paid a visit at which point he met Bettina and Trevor. And so they were introduced to the ELC.

Bettina remembered the clear feeling of how, “we’ve got to find a piece of land where we can live. We want to live this life. Not do the commute back and forth to the flowers and where we were living.”

Initially they didn’t have any capital. Keeping a close tab on the ELC website the couple kept checking in on any news of land.

Some years passed and Bettina and Trevor received an unexpected inheritance. They thought to themselves if they can do this very cleverly they could can make this dream of living on the land a reality. Bettina relays hows the inheritance afforded them the choice between buying a piece of land or a very small house. They remembered the ELC and as Bettina said, “things slotted together from there.” They decided to apply for the site at Furzehill, and as they say the rest is history.

But the story doesn’t end there. Bettina and Trevor find themselves in an interesting period of time. The cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine is a salutary reminder of the shifting sands of markets, consumer habits and the cost of petrol. Bettina tells of how one of their chief outlets for their cut flowers has had to change from being a provider of organic veg, fruit and flowers to a cafe due to the fall in customers.

Yet Bettina remains sanguine. She explains how they have to be agile and react to circumstances. Coming from a gardening background, a hand-scale approach has informed their outlook. You’ll often see Trevor with scythe in hand.

Bettina remembers however that after her horticultural course for a short period she was absolutely fascinated with planting machines. She got some work experience with a grower who wanted to experiment with a tractor pulled planter. Bettina hated it and thought if this what scaling up means, it wasn’t for her.

She continued: “Its the fight against the machine. It’s what we’ve become. The machine plays you, you don’t play the machine even though you think you are. It’s a very strange perception that goes on that we think this way.”

Working and living the land in a small scale ecological mode is an active choice they have made.

“Once you start doing it, you learn the hard way. Experience first hand. But beauty and abundance is here. To feel whole you need everything — you need flowers and sustenance.”

Her advice to new entrants is to get as much practical experience as you can and to offer your services if you can. Growing can be a tough game with the vagaries of life and the unpredictability of the weather. “You have to really love it,” she muses.

As we part she shares that what really excites her about their land is putting in more trees and perennials — plants that put “down roots and grow more majestic as time goes on” as she puts it.

A fitting end to our time together as we talk trees once again.