Garden News article from October – sorry its late!

This article’s a bit out of date now as it was a direct response to Toby Buckland’s first interview on becoming the new Gardeners World presenter. It was published in Garden News back in October but I think its worth having up here for the record and to remind people of the organic gardening research Geoff Hamilton did over twenty years ago. Its annoying that we keep on having the same debate but there it is. There’s a lot of vested interest in the gardening industry to keep people buying chemicals. Garden centres need the regular income, magazines need advertising revenue – and so on and so forth. So here it is:


It’s not my want to give anything other than practical advice about organics in this column but the headlines and comments surrounding Toby Buckland’s recent interviews about chemicals has led me this time to break from the norm and write a response.


Over twenty years ago Geoff Hamilton carried out a series of experiments on four plots in his garden. The first he gardened organically, the second with pesticides, the third with a mixture of the two and the fourth he didn’t use any special treatment at all. This was what he called his control bed – a benchmark to test the other beds against. He wanted to find out whether gardening organically was a practical scientific and to borrow Toby Buckland’s recent words ‘common sense’ approach.


His experiments led to a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion that developed into a life long interest in organic principles. As his wife Lynda Hamilton wrote in her introduction to Geoff’s posthumous collection of Daily Express articles Year in Your Garden “He was trained as a commercial grower where rule number one was: ‘If it moves spray it’”. Seeing the same sort of arguments about chemicals raging in the press then (as now) his trial set out to prove that organic gardening didn’t work. In the end he proved the opposite: that chemicals hindered rather than helped gardeners.


He carried out his experiment over five years and recorded the yield in each bed. Sure enough in the first year the chemical plot produced far and away the best results. By the end of the second year there were signs that the organic plot was catching up. In the fifth year the organic plot was vastly out yielding the other three.


This experiment in common science – as opposed to common sense – changed his life, led him to a different style of gardening and paved the way for Gardeners World to go chemical free. It also led to the creation of his landmark TV series The Ornamental Kitchen Garden and Paradise Gardens (still available on DVD by the way). I think the gardening nation was better off as a result. Let us not forget that before Geoff came along Percy Thrower was thrown off Gardeners World for taking payments to advertise pesticides!


Geoff found in his own experiments what those who gardened organically already knew: chemicals create dependence. Once you start using them you have to carry on using them. This is because they kill beneficial predators and disturb the balance of life in the garden. In a balanced eco system it is very rare to find swathes of pests taking over and laying waste to plant life because nature creates conditions favourable to predators. Mostly organic gardening is about doing the same. It’s really quite simple.


We need to remember that chemicals are primarily prepared for agriculture, to be used in situations where single crops are grown in endless uniformity in conditions that prove very attractive to pests and where there are not enough predators to prevent crop damage. They are not prepared for gardens filled with a wide variety of plants, pests and predators.


Of course if you look beyond those headlines that screamed “It’s common sense to use pesticides”, and a little closer at his actual interviews, Toby Buckland didn’t give the ringing endorsement of chemicals some might have hoped for. He actually does little more than suggest glyphosate isn’t so bad to get your patch cleared, which may or may not be true depending on which environmental and health reports you read. Whatever the case, using chemicals is not and never will be ‘common sense’! It might be convenient in the short term but it is also taking credit from a bank of natural resources that can never be paid back. This approach is not for me – better to be an organic success than a chemical failure. 

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