Gardening: The people that on earth do dwell: Anna Pavord rebels against the organic orthodoxy but can't help being impressed by one passionate crusader in Hampshire
I have a problem with the messianic zeal of a certain kind of organic gardener. 'So what's new?' I find myself thinking rebelliously as the self-regarding cant piles up. Some OGs give the impression that they invented composting and that worms will spurn anybody who is not a member of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA). I also have a problem with the vast quantities of plastic and old carpet that seem to be an intrinsic part of the organic garden, and with the noise of mechanical shredders which, after grinding away deafeningly for hours, produce scarcely enough mulch to cover a mole.
And yet, if it came to putting ticks and crosses against a series of questions, my garden would be labelled organic. I resist the label, partly out of a natural inclination to bob and weave as soon as a label of any kind comes winging my way, partly because a large bottle of Roundup weedkiller will always stand between me and defenders of the True Faith.
And there is a troubling tendency among OGs to assume that if a garden is organic, it does not need to be anything else. I want a garden to lift my heart; to be fecund, full, intriguing. The fecundity will come from a well-managed soil, the fullness from the interdependent tribes of creatures that inhabit the garden. Both these will be enhanced by organic methods of management, but you also need to add the element of fascination that comes from the hand of a gardener who can group and manage plants without their ever looking managed, and who understands the importance of good, structural bones. That is what makes a garden different from what lies over its wall.
I have a compost heap from hell: huge, untidy, unscientifically made. Turning and tending compost do not come high on my list of priorities, but the heap, after its fashion, produces the goods - which I retrieve by tunnelling under the mound like a miner. When the roof, the most recent, unrotted stuff on top, looks as though it is about to collapse, I pitchfork this material on to a cleared strip at the side and start building again.
The compost heap symbolises my whole approach to organic gardening. The principles are vitally important; the way that you get there, not. Anyone interested in gardening soon learns that soil is a precious commodity. It needs loving. You have to take the trouble to understand how it should be treated to keep it in good heart. You can do that without plastic, comfrey, New Zealand boxes or any other totems of the organic movement.
Holding these slightly seditious views, you may wonder why I chose to visit John and Wendy Ellicock's garden at Longmead House in Hampshire. Mrs Ellicock is chairman of the county branch of the HDRA, which publishes a regular magazine, Compost Box. Next weekend, for the first time, her garden is open under the National Gardens Scheme and the NGS book promises 'a two-and-a-half-acre garden, mainly trees and shrubs. Large, hedged vegetable garden with deep beds, poly tunnel, fruit cage and composting display'. The mention of a vegetable garden, for which I have a passion, drew me.
It was a relief on meeting Mrs Ellicock to find not a sandal or piece of sackcloth in sight (though there was a lot of old carpet). She is a clear-sighted, energetic and, above all, humorous advocate of the Only True Way. Her compost heaps heat up in exactly as the textbooks say they should; her horses provide vast amounts of the right stuff; and, she assured me, her nettle and comfrey potions were the equal of anything in the land.
To make these potions, you need a plastic barrel, which you fill with nettle or comfrey leaves and top up with water. The mixture stews for about three weeks, then is drawn off and diluted with five parts water to one part potion. The comfrey liquid contains potash, good for flowers and fruit, while the nettle soup provides nitrogen, which promotes the growth of leafy plants, such as brassicas.
Longmead is the 12th house the Ellicocks have had in 15 years of marriage, but it provided their first proper garden. 'I've got my compost bins now. I'm not moving again,' Mrs Ellicock says firmly. She has supported HDRA since she was a student reading agricultural sciences. She followed her degree with a postgraduate thesis on human nutrition and still has a consuming interest in the relationship between diet and health.
It was her interest in food that brought her into the organic fold. She likes to know exactly what she is eating. Growing her own fruit and vegetables was a natural step. Did she think of herself as a crusader, I asked cautiously. 'Yes. Definitely,' she replies, fixing me with a bright, clear eye.
The soil is river gravel over chalk, hungry and fast-draining. It absorbs compost almost as quickly as she can make it, which is as well because she makes mountains. Her vegetable garden, contained inside a thick hedge of Leyland cypress, is a model of order and efficiency.
Two long plots are divided into a series of raised beds, 4ft wide. Because timber was available and cheap, Mrs Ellicock has boarded the edges of the beds, leaving narrow, 18in walkways between. These are covered with stone scalpings (although without the scalpings, she would find it easier to scoop up the compost mulch that birds constantly toss on to the paths from the beds).
Crop rotation is on the potato-legume- brassica pattern, which is good sense in all vegetable gardens, organic or not. The raised-bed system makes rotation simpler. You can also cram more vegetables into the space, which is necessary to compensate for the space lost on the paths. Mrs Ellicock does not dig. She lards all the beds with compost and then waits for the worms to pull it down into the earth for her.
She is a passionate advocate of propapacks (trays divided into small squares in which single or small pinches of seed are sown). She raises almost all her vegetables in this way: carrots, parsnips, cabbages, beetroots, leeks. When the small plants are growing well, she transplants them into the raised beds. Germination is infinitely better this way and she also cheats the seasons, getting crops earlier than she would if she sowed seed direct. There is a lot to learn at Longmead House.
The garden at Longmead House, Longparish, Hampshire, is open next Saturday and Sunday (2-5.30pm), admission pounds 1. The HDRA is at Ryton Organic Gardens, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry CV8 3LG (0203 303517). Membership costs pounds 15 a year.
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