Robert and Yvonne are 'master composters' for Oxfordshire
Having run a woodworking business for 35 years, Robert Longstaff has taken an 18 month hiatus to focus on The Oxford Garden Project.
The project aims to promote local food produce and educate people about organic gardening.
Concerns include food distribution, cooking, disposal, and sustainability.
The ultimate goal is to develop a commercially sustainable food growing and horticultural education facility for community and social purposes.
Describing the transition from workshop to garden, Robert asserts that "it's different but it's also the same. The same passion goes into the things we produce in the garden as what we produce in the workshop. It's all about quality and interest."
Robert was first exposed to the virtues of organic gardening in the 1960s while employed with the Ministry of Agriculture. He witnessed firsthand the devastating potential effects of farming and pesticides on the wildlife population of England.
"You don't have to see too many dead things to realise that you really don't want to be eating what's in some fields" Robert cautions.
While he concedes that things have vastly improved over the years, he remains determined to educate people about the virtues of organic farming and preserving regional specialities.
The idea for The Oxford Garden Project dates back some 25 years and began with a 'no-dig, deep-bed' organic kitchen garden. "We don't garden for the plants, we garden for the soil. As long as we look after the soil the plants know what to do" explains Robert.
The public attend workshops and seminars throughout the year
Robert is keenly involved in the entire cycle of growing produce from planting to preparing it for the table and disposing of the leftovers. Both he and his wife Yvonne are 'master composters' for Oxfordshire, running courses and giving talks and demonstrations and they have worked with organisations including WRAP (Waste Resources Action Plan) and the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign.
One important aspect of the project is to preserve regional specialities throughout Oxfordshire. "A hundred years ago you'd grow something you knew worked in your area. Things have changed. Plant breeding was brought in because we had to get more food into the country, particularly after World War II."
To this end, Robert works closely with the Heritage Seed Library in the capacity of a 'seed guardian' whose main concern is to prevent the extinction of certain local seeds not on the EEC Common Seed register. These have largely been handed down from generation to generation and suit local conditions much better than modern seeds.
Robert is keen to point out that prospective gardeners do not need a vast expanse of land in order to grow their own food.
"If you have a door or a windowsill, there is something that you can do. You're not going to be self-sufficient but you will be able to taste the difference between what you produce and what you'd buy in a store. Then there's the pride of actually doing it. Most people get hooked really quickly."
For the remainder of his hiatus from woodwork, Robert is keen to involve as many people as possible in The Oxford Garden Project. Despite involving the Oxford Bread Group and many local restaurants, Robert admits "we're trying to do more with local governments. We're looking for links, sponsors, and local businesses to get involved."
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