This blog reviews the latest products, plants and innovations in gardening. It also provides a link for my many gardening friends who are members of the GardenMessenger and Seedmessenger Yahoo groups and their sub-groups that I moderate.

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Location: Australia

I am a semi-retired UK botanical garden curator and former international horticultural consultant, who has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. I spend part of the year in Australia and part in Europe, mainly due to family and work commitments. I earn my living from writing and editing Internet copy, articles and books. I have written over fifty books on gardening and have been translated into twenty-four different languages. I am a former UK Garden Writer of the Year and a previous Quill & Trowel Award Winner from the Garden Writer’s Association of America. I am interested in developing gardening communities on the Internet and I manage the popular GardenMessenger Yahoo group, along with its various sub-groups like PondMessenger and SeedMessenger. I also edit International Water Gardener and its associated regional web-sites.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Organic Gardening, Lawrence Hills, "Peasant" Vegetables


If it were not for my wife Hazel, this blog and many of the groups under the GardenMessenger umbrella would not function efficiently. It is she who looks after the day to day group membership details and does all my typing at lightning speed. So I have to pay attention when she makes a suggestion. Well she has been making one specific suggestion for some time now, and I have finally succumbed to pressure. She is very pro-organic, and while I have sympathy with the principles of organic gardening, I find the old bits of carpet and strung up empty fizzy pop bottles that litter many organic gardens a bit off-putting. Not that an organic garden has to look any different from a non-organic one, it is just a false concept that I guess many gardeners of my age have about a garden solely managed under organic principles.

Well once these misconceptions of organic gardening had been dismissed and my unjustified comments about maggoty apples and grub-ridden carrots had been ridiculed, I conceded that, yes indeed, organic gardening principles were becoming increasingly important and they did have a place in the GardenMessenger community. So I was directed to create OrganicGardenMessenger, a group for those who garden organically, and gardeners who wish to learn how to do so. You can join here

From the foregoing you may think that I am not a progressive thinker when it comes to organic gardening, but I have a long association with gardening organically. It is just that I do not like the scruffy appearance that organic gardeners often give to their plots with the use of recycled materials. These often seem to be arranged almost proudly in disarray so that this untidiness can be used as some sort of badge that is intended to convey an ill-defined kind of ecological superiority over those of us who prefer not to garden totally organically, yet still sympathetically with nature.

Lawrence Hills

My first serious introduction to organic gardening was through Lawrence Hills, a great pioneer in organic gardening and the genius behind the Henry Doubleday Research Association, now known the world over through its Ryton Organic Gardens in the Midlands of England. Lawrence was a man before his time and a great mentor. When I was curator at Harlow Carr Gardens in Yorkshire we worked together on a number of projects. Lawrence would come and stay with us, bringing with him his breakfast - selected bananas - which were lightly fried to his instruction each morning. Not a fare that I found particularly appealing, being a bacon and egg man myself, or a muesli eater at a push.

We did all kinds of work together running comparative trials, mirroring in the north of England what he was doing at Bocking, Essex in the east of England. We also worked with wonderful English heirloom vegetables like the Martock Bean and Carlin Pea. His other interest was what he called "peasant" vegetables. Those that were the preserve of ethnic communities in the UK, especially from Asia. He established an Asian vegetable project in the Midlands of England with support from Oxfam, and I worked with him on a programme that looked at the vegetables of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. It was this project that inadvertently almost had Lawrence and me locked up in jail.

He provided me with seeds of a range of vegetables, all with Spanish names. At that time I had no Spanish language at all beyond hola, si and mañana. Many of the seeds were recognisable as peas, beans, brassicas etc. Some I did not recognise, nor did I understand the names. Lawrence said "I will send you translations when I have time". Of course he was very busy and never got around to it, and I was also very busy, and so I told the trials officer to name the plantings using the Spanish names for now. All grew well and the public enjoyed them.


After a couple of months one row of plants stood above the others and was growing vigorously. The trials officer alerted me to the plant and said that it did not really look like a vegetable. Indeed, it did not. It was labelled cáñamo, which when I looked it up in a Spanish - English dictionary revealed that it was cannabis! I rang Lawrence and he was horrified. He too had been growing the plant inadvertently. It was a shame to destroy such beautiful plants, but they were immediately removed and disposed of discretely. How embarrassing.

Two days later a small squirrel-like man, with wiry spectacles and a black brief case emblazoned with the crown of Her Majesty’s Government was seen awkwardly searching the beds in the trials garden. I suspected that he was looking for cannabis. I approached him and conveyed my suspicions. Yes, I had been reported and was to be at the sharp end of the law for growing a row of cannabis in a public garden. I adopted a pleasant and subservient tone, as one might when confronted by a traffic cop, and explained what had happened. I was officially reprimanded, and with eyes downcast I apologised profusely. No more would be mentioned of it if I was careful to see that it never happened again.

Lawrence also escaped the wrath of the law. However, we were both mystified as to how cannabis came to be in a collection of vegetables. Lawrence went back to the source and discovered that it was grown for the young leaves that were used in flavouring butter. How and why I do not know, but if anyone reading this does know how the foliage was used in that way, I would love to hear.

Well, it taught me a lesson that if you deal with anything that is described in another language and you do not understand it, you should really find out what it means before you make a fool of yourself. I now speak tolerably good Spanish as my youngest son lives in Spain and we spend quite a bit of time with him. After the cannabis saga I also spent time on a project in Ecuador, so I know that everything is not always what it seems in the Spanish language. A lesson my wife has recently learned. When we visit Spain she always says I will do the cooking, you do the language, although sometimes she does venture into the language on her own. The other week she went out to buy jam - what we might like to call a preserve. As she said on her return, "Do you know preservativo * is not a preserve". "Yes," I said, like my cannabis, "everything is not necessarily what it seems."

10th Redland International Orchid Festival
19th-21st May
Fruit and Spice Park,
24801 SW 187th Avenue,
FL 33092-4243
Details click here.

Happy Gardening.



*preservativo is a condom!

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Photo: Lawrence Hills HDRA

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