Worth Every Penny

For real gardening know-how, ideas and inspiration, forget magazines, books, TV programmes or pricey celebrity advice, and go visit an organic garden. And how about opening up your own?

By John Walker. Published in Organic Garden & Home, May 2009.

Have you ever stopped to consider, when you’ve been seeking gardening information and advice, what value you’ve put on it, and whether you felt you got your money’s worth? Where do you go looking for ideas and inspiration, or just good old down-to-earth practical tips? Do you read a book or a magazine (I’m duty-bound to mention that Organic Garden & Home* (OG&H) is stupendously good value), watch a TV programme or a DVD, stream a video clip on the internet, perhaps, or listen to the radio?

Peter Woollam’s organic garden in Cheshire exudes the love and attention it gets, and is packed with ideas and inspiration. It opens regularly each year in late summer.

Peter Woollam’s organic garden in Cheshire exudes the love and attention it gets, and is packed with ideas and inspiration. It opens regularly each year in late summer.

If you had a specific question to ask – perhaps an unidentified bug is munching its way through your brassicas – would you turn to a good book on garden pests, ask a gardening friend or neighbouring allotmenteer, root around in an internet gardening forum, or pay £9.99 to a celebrity gardener to answer a single question, under their online ‘rapid’ response option, within two working days?

Yes, you read it here first: a tenner to answer a gardening question! Financially challenged gardeners can avail themselves of this service too, choosing the ‘snail’ option – a reply within 10 days for only £4.99 (and probably long after your brassicas are skeletons). Apart from wondering how seemingly superhuman gardening celebrities have time to offer paid-for individual gardening advice, there’s something deeply distasteful about them grubbing around for even more money just now; I’m not aware of gardeners, particularly new ones, being especially recession-proof.

But let’s see if we can turn this ten-quid-a-question into something a more palatable – and perhaps more enduring. Ten quid will buy you three info-packed issues of OG&H, while just over thirty quid will get you a 12-month subscription – and answers, hopefully, to myriad questions, with a heap of inspiration to boot. And if you want something really interactive and personal for your money, how about joining a gardening organisation?

“Why not put the ‘organic garden open’ sign out this summer? And if you’re not yet brave enough, do visit those who are”

The natural choice for us earth-friendly organic gardeners is Garden Organic (GO), who’ve been at the cutting edge of organic growing for the last 50 years. The cost of just under three quick-fire ‘celebrity answers’ – £30 – will buy you a year’s membership, and a multitude of benefits – including a free postal/telephone/email advisory service that lets you tap into the best organic brains in the land. For £48 – just under five ‘celebrity answers’ – you could join the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), Britain’s ‘leading gardening charity’. Although not catering specifically for organic gardeners (in fact they’re downright chilly when it comes to even uttering the ‘o’ word), the RHS also offers a free and unlimited advisory service by post, telephone, email, and even face to face if you visit their garden at Wisley in Surrey (they have three others, in North Yorkshire, Essex and Devon).

Pumpkins are just one of the crops that excel at Hough Garden. Tips for growing these and many other food crops are 'on tap' during an open day.

Pumpkins are just one of the crops that excel at Hough Garden. Tips for growing these and many other food crops are ‘on tap’ during an open day.

Let’s be clear: both these organisations dispense free and unlimited gardening advice – free bar the cost of a stamp, a local-rate phone call (for RHS advice), or the spark of energy needed to whizz off an email. GO members also receive The Organic Way, a quarterly magazine which is essential reading for organicophiles, while RHS members receive The Garden each month.

Although some RHS gardens are now leaning towards showcasing ‘greener’ gardening, if you want to see organic gardening in action, then GO’s two gardens – Garden Organic Ryton, near Coventry in Warwickshire, and Audley End Organic Kitchen Garden, near Saffron Walden in Essex, are for you. GO Ryton demonstrates just about every permutation and scale of organic growing you can imagine, and you get into both gardens free when you join up. Great stuff – but not much cop if you’re a GO member battening down the hatches in the north-west Highlands of Scotland, or wondering how to make the best of the balmy growing conditions at Land’s End; what you really need is an organic garden to visit that’s just down the road.

You can pick up plenty of practical tips by visiting gardens. Here, at Hough Garden, Peter Woollam is using twiggy sticks to keep pigeons off his kales.

You can pick up plenty of practical tips by visiting gardens. Here, at Hough Garden, Peter Woollam is using twiggy sticks to keep pigeons off his kales.

Seeing first-hand how other earth-friendly folk in your area cope with its growing conditions, finding out what crops and varieties do well, discovering how they’re getting the best from the soil, and learning how they’ve overcome battering winds, avoided frost pockets or seen off slugs, is priceless. The scope of what you can glean from visiting other gardens is endless; being immersed in, exploring, admiring, and asking questions about someone else’s lovingly tended patch is, as gardening experiences go, unparalleled.

Some gardens are so brimful of love and attention that you can feel it rub off on you when you walk around them. Hough Garden, at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, is one. I’ve visited this organic nirvana several times and it never fails to inspire me; just thinking about it gives me a buzz. But it’s inspired many others, too, for its owner, Peter Woollam, opens his garden regularly to visitors as part of GO’s ‘Organic Gardens Open’ scheme – and he’s not alone.

The best thing about visiting someone’s private garden, whether you are looking for information, friendly advice, or some solid practical tips, want to ask a burning question, or simply want to pick up ideas and inspiration, is the sheer ‘value for visit’ that you get. I’d wager I’ve learnt more from visiting gardens than I have from all I’ve ever read, watched, or listened to about them. You don’t need a stamp, a telephone, or an internet connection to bag plenty of hot-off-the-heap local gardening knowledge, and it certainly won’t cost you £9.99. Entrance to some gardens is free (donations are welcome), while others make a small admission charge, with proceeds going to GO.

At Hough Garden’s open day, you can admire striking home-made plant supports. This one is giving Malabar gourd or chilacayote (Cucurbita ficifolia), a helping hand.

At Hough Garden’s open day, you can admire striking home-made plant supports. This one is giving Malabar gourd or chilacayote (Cucurbita ficifolia), a helping hand.

There are 30,000 paid-up members of GO. If just a tenth of these fine organic gardeners threw open their plots, that would be the equivalent of a thousand miniature Garden Organic Rytons spread across the land – a thousand shining examples of low-carbon, chemical-free, planet-friendly gardening par excellence, packed with information attuned to local and regional growing conditions that no advisory service – celebrity or otherwise – could ever hope to match. There would be one, almost certainly, within easy reach of where you garden now. Now, if that’s not worth the GO membership fee of £28 a year, I don’t know what is.

But here’s the rub. At the time of writing, only 23 gardens had signed up to open this year – 977 short of my ‘thousand Rytons’. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect so many organic gardeners to fling open their garden gates, but surely there’s never been a more pressing time for us all, however humble, to become show-offs, if only for a day.

Tempted? Your garden doesn’t need to be an immaculate showpiece for it to educate, inform and inspire others. What to you might seem mundane could well transform someone else’s thinking. It doesn’t need to be a finished masterpiece either; gardens-in-progress can give fascinating insights into how and why a garden is shaping up the way it is. And who knows, visitors to your garden might have answers to some of the conundrums you’re currently grappling with.

Why not put the ‘organic garden open’ sign out this summer? And if you’re not yet brave enough, do visit those who are. You’ll certainly be getting your money’s worth.

*Organic Garden & Home ceased publication in June 2009.
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