GARDENING / At home with the green gardeners: Next weekend, 100 organic enthusiasts will be opening their gardens to visitors. Michael Leapman reports

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The Independent Culture
GARDENING organically, without chemicals, is like giving up smoking or drinking: it seems easy at first, but a lot of people, starting with the best intentions, fail to stay the course.

Next weekend the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the Alcoholics Anonymous of the organic movement, launches its second national crusade to rally the virtuous and to convert sinners. About 100 enthusiasts across the country, all devoted to doing it nature's way, will open their gardens to the public in the first of two organic gardening weekends.

'What I'm particularly keen on is getting the message across to ordinary people who you wouldn't think of as being interested in organics normally,' says Jackie Gear, the brisk executive director of the HDRA, at its headquarters at Ryton Gardens, near Coventry.

'I'm not interested in preaching to hippies and greens because they know about it anyway. I want to get ordinary people to think about whether they need to use pesticides, what they're feeding to their kids and that side of it.' Mrs Gear launched the scheme last year. Her original idea was to produce an organic rival to the Yellow Book that lists gardens open under the National Gardens Scheme.

'We soon realised we didn't have enough gardens for that, so we decided to turn it into a national campaign for organic gardening. I circulated our members to ask for people to open their gardens. We got just under 100 volunteers. We asked a few questions to make sure they really were organic, and accepted them. They have all volunteered again this year.'

More and more gardeners are going organic, she says. Membership of the Association has increased from 6,000 in 1986 to 17,000 today. An estimated 10,000 people visited the 100 gardens open during last year's organic weekend. This year 116 gardens will be open, either next weekend or that of 7-8 August, or both.

They come in all kinds and sizes, from vicarage gardens and smallholdings of several acres, to Catherine Kay's 25ft x 38ft patch at the back of her council house in the middle of Manchester. There she will be showing her hens, rabbits, vegetables and 48 dwarf apple trees.

'I don't really have room for flowers,' she explains, 'except a few sunflowers so that I can feed the seeds to the chickens in the autumn. I didn't get too many visitors last year: I was scared to advertise because of the vandalism.'

By contrast Penny Parfett, of East Malling in Kent, entertained 200 gardeners last year in her 70ft x 40ft cottage garden containing flowers, herbs and vegetables. She is convinced that several of her visitors were converted to the organic cause. 'People are under the impression that it's a lot of work,' she observed. 'It isn't really: you don't have to spend all that time spraying. But I suppose you do have to keep an eye on things, monitor what's going on and put in a lot of humus.'

The questions most people asked were about biological control of pests. 'I put in plants that attract insect predators,' says Parfett, 'such as buckwheat among the broad beans and runner beans, summer savory with the runner beans and calendula in the greenhouse to stop whitefly. When I'm desperate I use organic sprays. For carrot fly I use net curtaining as a barrier, and I also find grass cuttings round the base help a bit.'

Visitors to Penny Parfett's garden were also interested in the compost heap. 'I put everything on it,' she says, 'and what I've found especially good for roses is tea leaves.'

Julia Scott of Fladbury in Worcestershire did not show her cottage garden, with its potager and 160 herb varieties, in last year's openings. But she will this year. 'I'm always surprised at how frightened people are to give up the chemicals they've grown so used to using. It's only when people can see a garden flourishing that they become convinced they can do it themselves. So I thought I'd do my bit for Ryton and open my garden this year.'

Hannah Billcliffe's garden in Newbury, Berkshire, is surrounded by a beech hedge, encouraging birds to gobble her slugs and aphids. 'We do have greenfly,' she admits. 'We're waiting for the tits to come and finish them off. If they don't, we'll use a liquid soap spray.'

Highlights of the Billcliffes' garden include a unique polemonium that was identified by Hannah (it is now named after her) and a purple-skinned potato going back to the 17th century, cultivated by her husband Steve, a former director of Friends of the Earth. 'People still have this terrible image of organic gardeners as wearing home-knitted woolly jumpers,' says Hannah, 'but we're not like that at all.'

At the HDRA's Ryton gardens, special events will be held during both weekends. There will be demonstrations of compost making and garden shredders; organic control methods for pests, diseases and weeds; exhibitions on recycling and bee-keeping; a question- and-answer session with the Association's resident experts; and, this coming weekend, a chance to meet Thelma Barlow, who plays

Mavis in Coronation Street and has written a book about organic gardening.

The Ryton gardens themselves are a splendid example of success in adverse conditions: 'We're in a frost pocket and it's often windy,' says Bob Sherman, the head gardener. 'And we're plagued by rabbits. It's the wrong place to try to grow anything. We reckon that, if we can manage, anybody can.'

The Association moved to Ryton from Essex in 1986 and has created there numerous small gardens illustrating different aspects of organic gardening. Visitors generally start at the composting area, where several types of bin are on display and a worm demonstration engrosses children. Next to this is a plot of green manures, including buckwheat and phacelia, which are dug in before they flower to provide nutrients for the next crops.

Those two annuals are among the most useful plants in an organic garden. Flowering, they attract insects that feed on pests, especially aphids. Phacelia is favoured by hover flies, each of whose larvae can eat 50 greenfly a day.

Growing plants to attract predators is among the most effective non-chemical ways of keeping aphids at bay. It is not to be confused with companion planting, where plants such as garlic, onions and marigolds are placed near vulnerable flowers and vegetables because it is thought their scent is a deterrent.

Bob Sherman is sceptical about companion planting. 'I hate the term because it's been given a significance out of all proportion to its value. Ninety-nine per cent of it is total rubbish but people continue to make vast sums of money selling books extolling it.'

Another of the specialised gardens at Ryton shows how physical barriers can prevent infestation. The new lightweight fine-mesh or spun materials can be placed over susceptible plants without affecting their growth, and will keep away carrot fly, cabbage root fly and cabbage white butterflies, as well as birds. A collar of rubberised carpet underlay round the base of brassica seedlings will also deter the root fly, while plastic drinks bottles with the bottom cut off keep slugs away.

Weeds can be suppressed with a new mulching material made of natural wool, which additionally contains nutrients that benefit the soil. Another option is plastic sheeting, though Mr Sherman has some reservations about its use. 'Plastics are part of the petrochemical industry,' he points out, 'which we're not too keen on. In organics there are a lot of side issues of that sort. You're always compromising.'

Organic gardeners are obviously worried about being seen as obsessive or cranky. There are sound environmental arguments for sticking to natural methods, and their proponents are keen to make them convincing by demystifying the techniques. So go along next weekend to a green garden near you and have a look. But leave your hand-knitted pullovers at home.

For a list of gardens open in your area, watch out for local advertising or ring the HDRA on 0203 303517.

(Photographs omitted)