What do Abraham Lincoln, Dark Purple Beefsteak, a Giant Belgian and the Earl of Edgecombe have in common?
First off, they’re all rare breeds of tomato. Second, it’s illegal to sell them or their seeds because . . . well, no good reason, really, just the EU bureaucracy trying to “rationalize” agriculture. Third, they, and thousands of other intriguing plants, are alive and bursting with good health in Britain’s organic showcase, Ryton Organic Gardens.
More of the criminal vegetable fraternity later. Let’s start with the gardens.
Just a short drive from Coventry in the English Midlands, Ryton’s gardens are an extravagant blaze of color and imagination on what was previously a compacted horse paddock. The 8-hectare site, acquired in 1985, now consists of a series of theme gardens, all grown using environmentally friendly techniques and without the use of any artificial chemicals.
All of the Ryton gardens are gardener’s gardens, full of hints, experience and tradition, fertilized by vigorous lateral thinking. One, for example, is devoted to explaining composting techniques. Another is dedicated to natural methods of weed control. A third highlights organic pest and disease control. A few tips we picked up:
* Human hair, if scattered around vegetables retains sufficient human odor to discourage rabbits.
* A thin scattering of grit or pulverized egg shells makes the going hard for soft bodied slugs.
* Nettles steeped in a vat of cold water yield a potent liquid plant feed.
To ensure you get the most out of your visit, volunteer guides offer their expertise. Adrian Wittey, in our case, rummaged gallantly through the contents of a worm compost bin to try to find us a brandling worm egg case — all the while offering enthusiastic recommendations for brandling worms. “Kitchen waste, garden waste, they’ll break it down. You could almost put the final powder into an egg timer.”
When he finally located the egg case it resembled a small golden pea, elegant, spotless and holding from four to 14 young wormlings no doubt eager to begin recycling nutrients. Wittey, it has to be said, resembled a man who has been immersed in a compost heap. “Third time today!” Wittey said, no hint of regret in his voice.
Rather useful for many Japan residents is the Small Garden, the idea here being to maximize interest, beauty and organic fruitfulness in limited confines. The Low-Water garden is filled with nonthirsty plant varieties and moisture retention techniques that will appeal to those who dislike large water bills. The No-Dig garden will find favor with those who shun hard work. Clever composting ensures vegetables in profusion and a completely gardenlike appearance but, as the guide states, “the soil in this garden has never been turned over.”
The wildlife garden is a good one, full of species which attract birds and butterflies. The Craftsman’s Tree garden illustrates tree use in times past, and in some cases, present. Holly dyed black makes an excellent substitute for threatened tropical ebony. Tropical forests and furniture makers both could benefit from this substitution.
The herb garden has herbs, the bee garden has bees, the sun clock works — Ryton’s that sort of place. It’s out to make a point. There is no need to poison the planet, is the Ryton theme. Work with natural forces and they will work with you.
The best part of the Ryton experience though, is that all the gardens, whatever their ulterior motive, are beautiful — British gardens at their best, with masses of lavender beds, roses, elderly gentlemen snoozing on benches and no “keep off the grass” signs.
Beside the award-winning organic restaurant lies the Henry Doubleday Research Association, Europe’s largest organic-gardening organization. HDRA is the brains behind Ryton and a number of smaller model organic gardens elsewhere in Britain. HDRA also operates the Heritage Seed Bank, which is where the tomatoes mentioned earlier come in.
Since the 1970s, 2,000 or more vegetable varieties have disappeared in Britain due to EU regulations that insist that all vegetable varieties be registered in Brussels or on National Lists. Registration involves hefty paperwork and silly, expensive fees (about $7,000 per variety). These fees exclude small-scale gardeners and ensure that only commercially attractive varieties are registered — vegetables with thick skins for easy transportation and long shelf life, synchronized fruiting time and perfect appearances even if they do taste of cardboard. Idiosyncrasy, flavor, thin skins, unusual shapes, and continuity of picking (meaning fruit keeps coming which is what a small-scale gardener wants) are being laid to waste. More than 900 varieties of vegetables, however, are kept alive through HDRA’s seed library. No one actually sells the seeds, or the vegetables. That would be criminal! What you do is join HDRA, and in return for membership they give you the seeds.
The Unknown Broadbean, the Aristocrat Multiplier Onion, Kaskinari’s Swidden Turnip . . . these are just some of the queerly named varieties HDRA is maintaining in perpetuity. Some of the varieties escaped extinction by the barest whisker. Cyril’s Choice Tomato, once thought lost, was rescued when one of Cyril’s relatives found just two seeds stuck in the ridge of an old tin and sent them in to HDRA for propagation. And you know what? Cyril was onto a good thing. It’s a very productive tomato.
While maintaining diversity in the fruit and vegetable world has important cultural, aesthetic, gastronomic and historical advantages, there are also important implications in the fields of disease and pest resistance. “The conservation of threatened vegetables may be less glamorous, but it is every bit as important as that of tropical rain forests,” says Ryton’s Julie Murphy.
To this end HDRA also operates an “adopt a vegetable” scheme. Paying 12.50 British pounds gets you one variety plus a certificate and your name in a special display. Prince Charles, a very keen organic farmer and patron of the HDRA is just one of many celebrities to adopt a vegetable — in his case, the Rat’s Tail Radish.
For details of workshops, organic gardening courses, seed bank and volunteer opportunities, contact HDRA, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry, CV8 3LG, England; +44 (120) 330-3517, fax +44 (120) 363-9229; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Two other eco-centers in Britain are also well worth a visit. The Centre for Alternative Technology sits on what was formerly a mine-waste dump in Wales and bulges with innovative ideas such as wind-powered telephone boxes, reed-bed sewage systems and water-powered cable cars.
The Earth Center, a millennial white elephant groaning with debts lies near Doncaster. It also offers a huge variety of state-of-the-art environmental and organic displays.