The history of Garden Organic
Garden Organic began life as the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA) in 1954 as a result of the inspiration and initiative of one man, Lawrence Hills. As an horticulturalist he had a keen interest in organic growing, but he earned his living as a freelance journalist writing for The Observer, Punch and The Countryman. Whilst researching a book called Russian Comfrey, he discovered that the plant grown widely in Britain today was introduced in the nineteenth century by a Quaker smallholder named Henry Doubleday
When Doubleday came across comfrey he was so intrigued by its possibilities as a useful crop that he devoted the rest of his life to popularising it. Hills took up his crusade and before long requests were coming from far and wide for plants and additional information.
Eventually Hills was able to raise £300 to rent an acre of land at Bocking, near Braintree in Essex, and he began to experiment with comfrey. By 1958 the enterprise had reached a point where it had to become official or be dropped altogether So he decided to set up a charitable research association to study the uses of comfrey and - more significantly - to improve ways of growing plants organically. He named the association after his pioneering Victorian mentor.
The Association at Bocking
HDRA was conceived as a membership organisation - a club for experimenting gardeners. Because space at Bocking was limited, members were encouraged to do experiments in their own gardens and report their findings back to headquarters. Cherry Hills, Lawrence's wife, proferred advice on nutrition and health long before it became fashionable to do so. Many of the current concerns, such as the link between aluminium and Alzheimer's disease, were first suggested in early HDRA newsletters.
For ten years, Lawrence Hills received no pay whatsoever, funding the work from his Observer articles. The Association grew slowly through the '60s, and by the end of the decade had a loyal band of around 1,700 members. Mainstream scientists, however, looked on it as being cranky and luddite. The '70s changed all that as the first stirrings of the environmental movement started to gain momentum.
The Association Grows
By 1973, HDRA had become too big to be managed by one individual. Lured by an advertisement in The Times - 'Young couple wanted to work on an organic research station. Full board. No pay.' - Alan and Jackie Gear, both qualified scientists, applied for the job. Settling on the princely sum of £5 a week each, they quit their conventional jobs and joined HDRA in January 1974. Although they had gone to Bocking to learn about organic cultivation, there were a myriad of other tasks to be done, including running the laboratory, producing the newsletter, helping with the administration and overseeing members' experiments. As Jackie says, 'You had to turn your hand to just about anything in those days.'
The resurgence of allotment gardening and the craze for self-sufficiency in the mid-seventies brought a lot of new members to HDRA. Staff was increased to cope with the demand for information and advice, and some research plots were turned over to demonstration gardens.
By the end of the seventies it was clear that if HDRA was to grow, it would need more space. Practical demonstrations of organic methods were persuasive, but there was no space at Bocking for car parking and the other facilities needed to cope with visitors. Many of the research plots were also becoming overworked. The Gears' suggestion that the whole operation should be moved to a new site was greeted with trepidation, but eventually everyone agreed that it was the right course of action.
The Road to Ryton
The next twelve months were spent searching for a new location in the Midlands. Around twenty acres of flattish land were required, with good access for cars and possibilities for building. Eventually, an inauspicious site was discovered - 22 acres at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry.
Alan Gear descibes it as follows:
'The land at Ryton was a run-down smallholding that had been used to graze horses. Although no agrichemicals had been used on the soil, the previous owners had bagged up and sold off all the horse manure. Consequently the grass was very poor - in fact there was hardly an earthworm to be seen. Many of the old drains had become choked and water lay on the surface; there were no real hedgerows and all but a handful of mature trees around the site had died of Dutch Elm disease. In all, it was exposed and derelict. We needed to put some fertility back into the soil, bring the whole place back to life.'
But first the site had to purchased and the Bocking trial grounds sold off. It took six months of feverish activity to finalise affairs in Essex and to convert the farmhouse at Ryton into office accomodation. Finally, in July 1985, just four HDRA employees - Alan and Jackie Gear, Pauline Pears, the research/advisory officer and gardener Steve Gifford, plus Lawrence and Cherry Hills left Bocking forever. A new head gardener, Sue Stickland, was appointed and was prepared to join us in the challenge. The Ryton era had begun.
The plan was to open to the public in July 1986, consequently the next twelve months were hectic: the ground had to be cleared of weeds; almost a mile of rabbit-proof fencing was put up around the perimeter; a big pond was dug out to attract wildlife and act as an irrigation reservoir. An underground irrigation system was installed throughout the entire grounds, some 5,000 hedging and tree saplings were planted. Gardens were dug out and planted up, paths were laid. A bungalow was built for the Hills, along with a newly designed reception centre, cafe and shop. It was a truly mammoth task. Luckily help was at hand from a MSC community programme team which provided a labour force. Despite an appalling winter and spring, which led to unforseen delays, Ryton Gardens openend - as planned - on the 5th July 1986.
In December 1986, Lawrence Hills, who had charted the course of HDRA for more than thirty years, stepped down as Director and became its President. Alan Gear was appointed Chief Executive and Jackie Gear became General Manager.