Life

Casual Gardener: Peter Emerson is living 'the good life' in north Belfast

For more than four decades, Peter Emerson has been striving for self-sufficiency...

Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson in his garden at Rhubarb Cottage. Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson in his garden at Rhubarb Cottage. Picture by Hugh Russell Peter Emerson in his garden at Rhubarb Cottage. Picture by Hugh Russell

SOON after the popular 1970s BBC sitcom The Good Life took a light-hearted look at a suburban couple's efforts to live self-sufficiently, a similar endeavour began in conflict-ravaged north Belfast.

Former Royal Navy submariner Peter Emerson had arrived in the north from Kenya a couple of years previously, working initially as a youth worker on the Crumlin Road. In 1977, he began squatting in the "completely derelict" gatehouse of a long-lost estate on the Ballysillan Road, and there began his enduring relationship with the earth.

His new home was soon christened 'Rhubarb Cottage', after the nickname he'd been given while working with teenagers, when instead of swearing he'd instead exclaim 'rhubarb'.

"Occasionally, people would still call it out to me as I ride my bicycle down the Shankill," the 80-year-old says.

Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell Peter Emerson checks on his figs. Picture by Hugh Russell

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There was a small garden surrounding the run-down property, so Peter tentatively began to hone his horticultural skills.

"Like most submariners, I knew nothing about gardening, but needed food - so, out of necessity, I started from scratch, buying a little packet of lettuce seeds and simply following the instructions," he says.

Peter Emerson from north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson from north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell Peter Emerson from north Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

His formative garden forays were helped immeasurably by a copy of John Seymour's acclaimed book Self-Sufficient Gardening, donated, like many things at the time, by friends.

"My mum was a very keen gardener and I remember her digging things over in winter, so I thought I'd better try that," says Peter.

"I found these red things but I didn't know what they were, so I just left them, and then the following year I got a crop of rhubarb – which was really quite appropriate given the name of the house."

Rhubarb grown from seed
Rhubarb grown from seed Rhubarb grown from seed

Peter is grateful to his neighbours of the time, who were supportive and generous.

"My next door neighbour replaced his sash windows with PVC and gave me the old ones, so I built a greenhouse," he says.

"I also expanded the garden into nearby wasteland to give me more room for growing food."

Some 46 years after first breaking ground, Peter now regards himself as "around 50 per cent self-sufficient in summer".

His potatoes were planted in January in the compost heap – "the warmest part of the garden" – while his annual harvest includes strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, loganberries, red currants, black currants, apples, plums and pears.

Other favourites for the strict vegetarian include kohlrabi, globe artichokes, asparagus, spinach, tomatoes and purple-sprouting broccoli.

Purple sprouting brocolli. Picture by Alamy/PA
Purple sprouting brocolli. Picture by Alamy/PA Purple sprouting brocolli. Picture by Alamy/PA

He's also managed to grow more exotic produce, including grapes, passion fruit and figs, with any surplus of the latter sold at St George's Market.

This year he had hoped that, for the first time, his olive tree would bear fruit.,

"I brought the olive tree back from the Balkans soon after the war. It was quite small then but is a good three metres high and getting bigger," he says.

"In June when the weather was fine, I was optimistic that it would bear fruit this year, but a rather wet July has pretty much ended its chances."

Peter Emerson enjoying some time in his home garden.Picture by Hugh Russell
Peter Emerson enjoying some time in his home garden.Picture by Hugh Russell Peter Emerson enjoying some time in his home garden.Picture by Hugh Russell

A veteran environmental campaigner who was a founding member of the Green Party on both sides of the border, Peter believes his gardening philosophy chimes perfectly with his politics.

"With climate change and all that, I believe we should be doing as much as we possibly can, individually and collectively, to increase biodiversity," he says.

"Not only is my garden a great source of food, it's also a thriving ecology that's home to a huge number of birds and other wildlife."