Kales Press provided this photo of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Birkhall in Scotland. - AP

'Green' thumb in the royal family

HIGHGROVE HOUSE, England — The head gardener to Prince Charles here has gotten used to unusual requests from the heir to the British throne.

Like the time David Howard was asked if he could cut yew bushes into various shapes to represent the "Platonic Solids" from ancient Greece.

"I said, 'Yes sir, of course I could,' then worried about it later," Howard said.

Charles has other unusual but important requests, too: No chemicals, no pesticides and no ugly plant labels. He wants a beautiful garden, but also a natural one, something Howard said is quite possible, contrary to what many would believe.

No pesticides are used on the 15 acres of gardens at Highgrove, Charles' country estate in western England where birds, slow worms, grass snakes and hedgehogs ambush passing slugs and snails.

"I challenge you to find any pesticides on the estate," Howard said. "I don't have a pesticides cupboard."

The 49-year-old gardener recently led a media tour of Highgrove, a two-hour drive from London, ahead of publication in the U.S. of Charles' new book, "The Elements of Organic Gardening" (Kales Press).

After armed policemen politely stop coaches at a disguised single-lane countryside entrance — even fast drivers will slow down here — visitors are greeted by a large sign: "Beware! You are now entering an old fashioned establishment."

The winding estate — full of separate gardens, beautiful stone walls and endless tree trunks — can seem less visually slick than most traditional gardens. For good or bad, nature is in charge and there is no unifying theme to link the disparate parts.

"(Organic gardening) is an holistic system, which attends to the health of the entire ecosystem and not just the plant's needs," co-author Stephanie Donaldson writes in the book. She offers tips on conversion, such as collecting rainwater, making your own compost and starting with easy vegetables like courgettes and runner beans.

At Highgrove, they aim for containment, not extermination.

"Like all of our pests in the garden, we never try to get rid of them completely," Howard said, adding that squirrels are pushing their luck at the moment.

But one can't have everything: The 70-feet cedar of Lebanon tree — as old as the late 1790s Georgian-style house it stands beside — has bracket and honey fungus and will be "partially dismantled" this October.

Could a non-organic approach have saved it?

"Nothing lives forever," Howard said. "What you have to do is have something waiting around the corner to fill that space."

Another cedar was planted in the early 1990s and is now 30 feet high.

Charles, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II, became heir to the throne in 1952, when Harry Truman was still president. He bought Highgrove near Tetbury in Gloucestershire in 1980, a year before he married the then-Lady Diana Spencer. His second wife is Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

A tree house, now relocated, is a sign of past times when young Princess Diana helped bring up sons William and Harry, before her death in a 1997 car crash in Paris.

Charles turns 60 next year and, with his mother in reported good health at 81, it's possible that Highgrove could be his biggest legacy.

"I get the sense this garden excites the prince and I think that's great," said veteran gardening author Donaldson, during the tour. "I'd say it's his major garden for a lifetime."

Make that lots of gardens, including the Cottage Garden, Terrace Garden, Sundial Garden, the Islamic-inspired Carpet Garden, Walled Garden, Model Fruit Garden, Cutting Garden and Southern Hemisphere Garden.

There's also the nearby Home Farm, which provides organic products for Charles' Duchy Originals, a food company founded in 1992 with profits going to charities supported by the prince.

When he's around, Charles helps out on the estate.

"He might clip half the hedge and say, 'I've started the hedge for you. Perhaps you can go finish it off?' Howard said.

It's also the place where Charles can relax. Black honey bees in 10 hives produce 250 pounds of honey each year, perhaps helped by outside paintings depicting Slovenian folk tales. Sweet peas trained over hazel and willow arches offer a blaze of colors. Walk through the arches and you're lost within a walled garden inside a small part of a large estate on the outskirts of a sleepy part of England. Trafalgar Square this isn't.

Previously ridiculed by British tabloids for his once unfashionable approach to medicine, architecture and the environment — the last one may or may not include talking to plants — Charles also has an oak and sweet chestnut timber house. The Sanctuary, a small odd-shaped forest retreat where Snow White would happily live, was specially built for the new millennium. Its handleless door has four knobs which must be turned "in a special way."

"It's the one place he can escape from the rest of us," Howard said. And, no, he won't reveal the secret combination.

But what about those curious Platonic Solids?

Howard, who leads a team of nine full-time gardeners, does his best. The yew bushes are topiarized with equal individual sides and angles, representing fire, earth, air, water and the universe.

Charles so liked the result he asked Howard if he could do the " Archimedean Solids" as well.

His answer? "I said, 'No sir'."

The Highgrove estate is open from April to October, if Prince Charles is not in residence. To visit, apply in writing to The Clarence House Press Office, London SW1A 1BA, England. There is at least a two-year waiting list.

Share This Story