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Garden Organic’s journey

As we approach the launch of TTL’s partnership with Garden Organic, Sue, a TTL trustee recalls her involvement with organic gardening and Garden Organic over the years.

In the 1960s and 70s, do you remember, there was a great mood about; “leave the cities,move to the country and get a small holding and become self reliant, grow your own veg, become vegetarian and keep animals”. If realistically you couldn’t go the whole hog, then growing what you could became the more realistic option.

Fired up with “The Good Life” the weekly antics of the over enthusiastic Barbara and Tom Good, my husband and I left our London flat in 1976 and bought a cheap end of terrace in Barnet and commuted to our jobs in London. No self sufficiency on the horizon for us.

Fired up, Michael built the most solid compost bin ever, we installed a green house and I set about cultivating every inch of our narrow 100 foot back garden. We read all we could and seeking support and advice we helped set up a small organic group and began to run speaker meetings and to make trips on Summer weekends to inspiring gardens, nurseries and organic farms.

Somehow we heard about an open day somewhere in Essex and found ourselves walking round the back of a very ordinary bungalow to a back garden set out with concrete paths dividing trial beds of different vegetables and lots of this poorly known plant, Comfrey. We were welcomed into the huge garden shed for tea and realised it was a meeting place for what I thought was a local horticultural society…


Getting into conversation with the bungalow owner, I discovered the man behind all this was called Lawrence Hills, a fount of knowledge that was poured out in answer to any questions, in a natural and friendly way. He was growing and testing among other plants, different strains of Comfrey in his trial plots and eventually ‘Bocking 14’ strain got known among organic gardeners for its great store of nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. But unlike other Comfreys, Bocking 14 was infertile! Mind you, once planted, you have it for ever as you’ll never dig its deep tap roots out!

On that first visit in 1976 we had come upon what had been established since 1954 as The Henry Doubleday Research Association(1), run from Lawrence’s shed with help from volunteers. By joining, we would get newsletters telling us more about organic gardening methods including how to use Bocking 14 as a fertiliser and as a mulch, besides being made into skin preparations. (The old name for Comfrey was Knit Bone and was regarded in country lore as the best remedy for breaks.)

Lawrence had been a sickly child, off school a great deal but was a prodigious reader.  When he left school, he worked in a nursery as he felt somewhat better when out of doors. (2)

He later became a journalist but was for ever researching and had come across the work of Henry Doubleday, an Essex Quaker farmer who had been convinced of the many beneficial properties of comfrey so Lawrence named the organisation after this little known farmer.

From then on Michael and I looked forward to the inky newsletters and our annual trips to Bocking. Of course we grew Comfrey and learned how to fill a dustbin with the leaves, press them down with a brick, fit a tight lid and wait for the leaves to become a black liquid which we stored neat, with no smell, then diluted when ready to spray on plants.

I don’t know exactly when Alan and Jackie Gear came on the scene. I know that an advert caught their attention. A young couple was required, for no wages. (This seems implausible but I’m pretty sure I’m right) to help develop the work of the HDRA and they were offered a caravans to live in!

I think that the arrival of the Gears was seminal in terms of the development of HDRA in becoming Garden Organic. From the newsletter we knew that there were plans to move to a larger site where more ideas could be researched and anyone interested, able to visit and see things for themselves. They wanted the new site to be easily reached; central for visitors from wherever.

In 1985 the new site at Ryton on Dunsmore was purchased but I don’t remember anything about how the money was raised. The new site was open and bleak, surrounded by trees that had been barked and with my lack of insight I thought it looked dreadful. However, professional organic gardeners had the confidence to address the issues of the site and it was of course, an inspired choice for the strategic position virtually in the heart of England.

I remember the first buildings were temporary and one queued up at a window for the cafe.  Over time kindred organisations got on board, a first class restaurant and a conference centre opened; suitable companies sponsored items and the site began its transformation, helped by the massive publicity afforded by “All Muck and Magic” broadcast on BBC TV.

Lawrence and Cherry had a bungalow built in the heart of the site with a small garden and I believe their ashes are scattered there. Ryton is now established as the only centre that teaches organic gardening skills, researches, publicises the need for seed saving, for work in drought stricken countries; in effect, for organic horticulture as the only real way to grow healthy sustainable food!

The name change to Garden Organic had to come. “The Henry Doubleday Research Association” carried history with it but for the greater exposure that was sought with a public who did not share that past, the new name proudly announces what the organisation does.

(1)HDRA became a charity in 1958. (2) from his autobiography I learned later that it was only when Lawrence married Cherry that by her culinary trials it was discovered that Lawrence was a coeliac.

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