Country & Garden: Good enough to eat

Edible hawthorn grows beside organic yams in a new cook's garden.

There are days - not many, but the odd one - when my own garden will not do. It calls too insistently for decisions to be made and jobs to be done and so, like Mole with his spring cleaning, I feel like escaping for a while. One gloriously sunny day recently, I said, "hang summer weeding", threw down my trowel and went off to Warwickshire, to Ryton Gardens, otherwise known as the National Centre for Organic Gardening, the home of the Henry Doubleday Research Association. If anybody could reconcile me to the tasks that waited for me back home, it was these organic gardeners, with their enthusiasm, their energy and their refusal ever to be beaten, however hard the row they must hoe - often quite literally.

A day spent at Ryton Gardens is always instructive, but it is particularly illuminating now that they are beginning to mature, 13 years after their beginning in a bare, windy grass field outside Coventry. I was, at once, forcibly struck by the number of butterflies that the garden now sustains; the air was alive with their restless, silent wingbeats. I was also impressed that the vegetables had stood up reasonably well to what has, in the Midlands at least, been a difficult growing season, although a plague of rabbits means that cabbages and beans have to be corralled behind netting.

Eschewing the easy options of chemical herbicides, inorganic fertilisers and most pesticides (except a few naturally occurring ones of short persistence), organic gardeners are forced to think deeply about their craft. The result is that the gardens are full of ingenious devices for thwarting pests and improving soil fertility. There are sawn-off lemonade bottles to guard lettuces from slugs, pheromone traps on the apple trees to lure male codling moths to a sticky end, and cut-up squares of carpet underlay to stymie the egg-laying cabbage root fly.

On this occasion, however, I sensed that the HDRA is keen to shake off the old, and rather off-putting, "car tyre" image of organic gardening, in which beauty and style seem to come a poor second and third behind unglamorous utility.

This is most clearly seen in the flower gardens. As you may know, Ryton Gardens have developed piecemeal, as the charity has gradually found the money to expand. That is why there are a number of discrete educational gardens, separated from each other by lawn, hedge or fence. Recently, however, there has been an attempt to give the gardens a little more coherence.

For example, a charming herb garden now greets the visitor on arrival and, nearby, a new garden was laid out last year, called "Diversity in Landscape". This is designed to emphasise the surprisingly wide range of plants that are suitable for large-scale plantings in the landscape, by the sides of roads, in parks and on industrial and municipal sites. It is the work of Tom La Dell, Tim Rees and Brita von Schoenaich, landscape designers who are experienced in this field.

Many of the plants are shrubs and trees, of course, but the central space is given over to generous, asymmetric drifts of long-lasting hardy perennials and grasses. This type of planting, sometimes called a "perennial meadow", has come to this country from Germany, where it is used very successfully in public parks. But it also has potential for private gardens, too.

The emphasis is on taking account of the native habitats of perennials, so that those chosen will thrive in the existing soil and conditions, cover the soil effectively and cut down substantially on weeding. (That goal is helped here by a thick mulch of gravel.) This planting will not be mature for a couple of years, so judgement must be deferred as to how successful it will be in the long term. But it already looks most decorative, with the rather disregarded but long-flowering and sturdy purple cone flower, Echinacea purpurea, memorably contrasted with more ethereal, waving grass-heads.

This is not the latest garden, however, for there is another, just finished, which neatly brings together two crucial preoccupations of organic gardeners, namely, attractive plants which you can also eat. The Cook's Garden is the work of Kathleen Askew, a landscape designer who works in the gardens. The plot is much the size of the average new garden, but the limited space is cleverly used. The design owes something to Celtic forms, especially the curving nature of the paths, and the mosaic in the central brick roundel.

The path is of red brick and small, red clay setts (Marshall's Nori Cobblepave) and is partly surrounded by gravel, into which herbs are planted, and partly by smaIl beds containing a pleasant melange of flowers, herbs and vegetables.

There is a "Flowform" bubble fountain, powered by solar energy, in a small, circular pond, and an arbour made of vertical timbers of locally grown oak, up which twist grape vines, runner beans, summer jasmine and, to provide petals for ice-cream and much else, the rose `Madame Alfred Carriere'.

Among the intriguing edible decorative plants are a honeysuckle with edible fruits - Lonicera caerulea `Edulis'; a golden-fruited hawthorn called Crataegus pinnatifida var major; the purple-leaved plantain, Plantago rubra, whose young leaves give colour to salads; the opium poppy, providing innocuous seeds to sprinkle on bread; the day lily, Hemerocallis fulva; meadow cranesbill, Geranium pratense; and marigolds and nasturtiums with their edible flowers. In the small cedar greenhouse grow passion flowers, Thai basil and Chinese yams. Although still far from mature, this garden already demonstrates that, if enough thought is given to it, utility and charm can be happily combined.

The Cook's Garden is to be opened officially tomorrow afternoon by the cookery writer Sophie Grigson. Ryton Gardens are open seven days a week, 10am-5pm. They are on the road to Wolston, off the A45, 5 miles south east of Coventry. Admission is pounds 2.50, pounds 2 for retired people and students, pounds 1.25 for children, and is free to members of the HDRA and RHS. (To belong to the 24,500-strong HDRA costs pounds 17 a year, pounds 20 for family membership, and there are concessionary rates)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz