In the mid-1980’s John Aspinall bought Walmestone Growers near Wingham which was a run down nursery with 4 old glasshouses (2,300 sqm) with no heating or irrigation. Over the next 30 years manager Stephen Parsley has added an additional 3,500 sq m of polytunnels, computerised irrigation, new packing shed and cold store. Today they supply a wide variety of quality produce to the Aspinall wild animal parks in Kent as well as supplying local Farm shops and Box schemes.
The team at Walmestone Growers (5 full time staff and 3 extra in the summer) grow over 30 different crops and 20 different herbs each year which includes some of the basics like Lettuce, Spinach and Carrots, as well as some of the more exotic such as mizuna, rocket, stripy aubergines and Romano peppers. It is not only vegetables that we are growing but some fruit as well; one of the most popular is Strawberries, a particular favourite with our gorillas. There are some fruit that it is not possible to grow but form an important part of the varied diet that the Zoo requires; so twice a week, we go up to London’s Covent Garden Market to buy exotic fruits such as Mangoes, Pomegranates and Papaya. In all the time Walmestone has been supplying the Parks fruit and vegetables they have not missed one delivery despite all the bad weather this part of Kent gets some years. Nothing goes to waste at Walmestone; carrot and beetroot tops are a firm favourite, as are some weeds such as the milk thistle and even when the coriander goes to seed the gorillas still enjoy the different flavours and textures that this brings to them.
Pest control is kept as biological as possible by bringing in natural predators such as lacewing and ladybird which are then released into the poly tunnels, because of this all our tunnel crops are 100% insecticide free. Another way in which weeds, bacteria and disease are controlled is with an annual Soil Sterilisation by steam which is blown under sheets to raise the soil temperatures to 80° C this kills off the weeds without chemicals to maintain the healthy growing environment. If the steaming fails then we use only organic approved controls such as nematodes.
To ensure good soil structure and fertility of the soil we use over 40 tons of locally made green waste manure that is put on once a year by Hand! Outside we use traditional crop rotation and tractor mounted weeders to minimize disease and pesticide use. Like any low input farm there is always lots of hand weeding as well. Hives of bumblebees are used in the glasshouses to pollinate the Tomatoes and Strawberries and they particularly enjoy the wide array of herbs grown such as thyme, marjoram and lemon balm as they pollinate throughout the farm. Ensuring the growing plants have enough water is a daily task, which is helped by an 8,000 gallon water tank, which collects water from glasshouse roofs and topped up from the mains when required, which is then pumped around the nursery to the overhead spray lines and drip irrigation throughout the glasshouses and poly tunnels.
Stephen Parsley handed over to a new farm manager in 2016, Paul Vesey-Wells, who has over 10 years’ experience working on an organic farm. Having worked closely together for 12 months, this ensured that our unique nursery can carry on thriving for another 30 years.