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)

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