As head gardener at the National Trust’s Rowallane Garden in Saintfield, Averil Milligan is a horticulture expert. And now she’s using her knowledge of natural ingredients to make soaps and body butter, as she tells Una Brankin.
Rowallane’s head gardener Averil Milligan is not afraid to experiment with all varieties of plants, herbs and oils. She is even using her own face as a testing base for the divine body butter from her Wild About Soap range.
“It’s not really meant for the face, but people were telling me they love it as a facial moisturiser, so I decided to use it down one half of my face, and my usual expensive cream down the other,” she explains.
“After about six weeks, my sister noticed the improvement in my skin on the left side where I’ve been using the body butter. I won’t be buying any more expensive pots of skin cream — they’re full of preservatives and artificial fragrance anyway. You’re paying for the branding and packaging.”
The difference in Averil’s skin, in the bright sunlight of a rare good spring day, is immediately visible. At 56, she naturally has a sprinkling of lines around the eyes, but they are much softer on her left side. And, after an hour-long fresco afternoon tea with her in the idyllic Rowallane Garden at Saintfield, I’m ready to consign all my regular soaps, shampoos, conditioners and moisturisers, with all their nasty chemicals, to the bathroom waste-bin.
Averil’s body butters — rich, all-natural concoctions of gorgeous plant-based oils — are a natural progression from her original range of hand-made cold-processed soaps, which she began to produce four years ago in her kitchen and hotpress, in rural Ballynoe, Downpatrick.
Blending powerfully hydrating herbal ingredients such as marigold and rosehip, with shea butter, olive and coconut oil, Averil harvests flowers for these beautifully fragrant luxury soaps at Rowallane — although she stops short at using the National Trust garden’s honey for her creamy Cleopatra Goat’s Milk & Honey bar (which cleanses beautifully and leaves your skin feeling like silk).
“Rowallane honey is too special, it’s meant to be eaten,” she says. “I get my honey and oils from the internet — the postage is my biggest expense, as Northern Ireland is designated with the Scottish Isles in the post system.
“I would love to produce my own shea butter and olive oil, if we had the climate. But I can get plenty of seaweed locally. I put seaweed powder into some of the soaps as a gentle exfoliator.”
The Greenmount College graduate has been gardening at Rowallane for more than 12 years, having worked previously at Hillsborough Castle and Mountstewart. Her husband, James, a quantity surveyor, makes the oak moulds for her soaps.
“He has given me moulds for my last two Christmas presents. Beyond that, he has no real interest,” Averil smiles. “Nor do my two sons (Andrew, a 26-year-old law graduate turned copywriter, and James, a 19-year-old biological science student at Queen’s University Belfast). Neither of them is interested in gardening, either.
“And where I grew up, on a farm near Tyrella, we only had a very basic garden with roses and peonies and a few daffodils — only things the sheep wouldn’t eat!”
While her mother was a trained nurse and seamstress, Averil was always an outdoors type. As her gardening experience grew, she became increasingly interested in herbs and, after attending a herbal medicine workshop, she started to experiment with herbs from Rowallane and shea butter.
“I didn’t have to do a course in soap making but I had to submit my recipes to a qualified chemist in London,” she recalls. “There are some very stringent guidelines to adhere to. They examine the mix of oils and the alkaline ingredients and different herbs that go into the soaps.
“The weighing process has to be very precise to get the balance right, and the soap has to be left for a full month after it solidifies — it would be too alkaline to use before then. It takes patience, like gardening, but it’s very therapeutic, also like gardening. Everything about the process links back to the garden.”
As word spread about Averil’s soaps beyond the circle of friends she supplied, she began to sell then in Rowallane’s gift shop/café. She now stocks several outlets throughout Northern Ireland and has potential for the Irish market, but, just as her business was taking off, controversy arose over the use of palm oil, one of her original soap ingredients.
The most widely produced edible oil in the world, palm oil’s use has come under fire from environmental activists and consumers concerned over its plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, where deforestation and inadequate environmental regulation has led to indiscriminate forest clearing for monoculture oil palm crops and illegal logging, which has had a dramatic impact on threatened and endangered local species.
It’s estimated that around 300 football fields’ worth of forest are cleared every hour to make way for palm oil production — an affront to the natural world that Averil, a long-time environmentalist, couldn’t live with.
“I had to completely re-vamp the range. I can make eight moulds a day — that’s 120 soaps, but I had to shrink the range from 16 products down to nine after the palm oil controversy,” she says.
“I could extend the range but I want to keep the products as pure and natural as possible, and that means not using water in the ingredients.
“I had to do a lot of research into shelf life and discovered water is the most detrimental — it makes the products go off, so preservatives have to be added.
“The business is profitable, especially from autumn to Christmas, and there’s actually been no lull this year yet. But I don’t want to sacrifice the quality to expand. Plus, I’m very busy in the Garden.”
Retailing at £6 per bar, the soaps aren’t cheap but their life can be extended by keeping them dry and upright — soaps hate to get soggy, sitting on wet sinks. The Wild About Soap range is currently stocked at Rowallane Garden, Craftdesign in Newry, Shona D in Belfast, The Kingfisher in Killyleagh, Painted Earth in Newcastle, Doodle & Boom in Bangor and the Doghouse Gallery in Comber.
Given Averil’s occupation, it may seem odd that she hasn’t created a handcream yet. But her own hands are remarkably smooth for a professional gardener, thanks to her body butter. And the secret behind those thick healthy tresses?
A brand new, all-natural ‘shampoo bar’ in the making.
Says Averil: “I noticed my hair was getting dryer as I got older, so I use my own shampoo bar with seaweed; it’s gorgeous.
“It’s hard to lather at the start, as your hair isn’t used to it, but it feels very soft afterwards and the bar is great to take with you when you’re travelling.
“Ordinary shampoo strips the hair of oil, it uses a lot of harsh detergents and foaming agents which are not good for the hair or skin, and shower gels are the worst, by the way. Very drying.
“People forget that the skin is an organ and it can absorb ingredients. They all go through the liver and so many cosmetics can be harsh and drying, especially when glycerine is extracted. And there are so many people now with sensitive skin, especially children prone to rashes. I use marigold a lot for that — it’s a great anti-inflammatory.”
True to her green credentials, Averil uses no plastics in her packaging. Her soaps are packaged in the minimum paper wraps, letting their fragrance emanate, and the body butters come in tins.
It’s all disposable and low cost; in fact, the most Averil has ever spent in one go in four years for her enterprise is £230 for a good soap cutter.
“Everything you need, like a good set of scales and a stick blender, is usually already in the kitchen,” she concludes. “And you end up with all the lovely aromas wafting from your hotpress. My house smells gorgeous!”
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