Yalding Organic Gardens opened to the public in April 1995. The following article, first published in the HRDA (now Garden Organic) magazine ‘The Organic Way’ in Spring 2005, found the then Head Gardener Nick Robinson, looking-back over the previous 10 eventful years.

Garden Organic Yalding

The project to develop an HDRA display garden in Kent – the ‘Garden of England’ – began in the early 1990s with the generous gift of 10 acres of land, and a sum of money in trust, from Donald and Pixie Cooper, who owned an organic farm at Yalding.

When HDRA took over the site in 1992, it was a recently harvested potato field. The land lay at the bottom of the Medway river valley, and was a windswept expanse of flood-prone heavy alluvial silt, in a frost pocket! Not the most promising site for a new venture, but the belief was, and remains, that if organic principles really work, they will work anywhere.

Foundations for success
Peter Bateman, the original project manager, had just two years to develop the site. Stella Caws drew up the design from Alan and Jackie Gear’s original idea of display gardens that showed not only modern organic practice in gardening, but also a series of themed historical gardens putting it all into context.

The foundations for our success were laid by paying early attention to basic principles. Fencing the entire site excluded many pests, especially rabbits. Planting 12,000 native trees and shrubs created a shelterbelt. This is now well established, providing cosier growing conditions for plants and insects in the gardens, and food and habitats for all sorts of wildlife that help us to maintain a natural balance for pest control.

Although rich in terms of nutrients, the soil structure was terrible, making it difficult for plants to grow. Peter was a great believer in the benefits of double digging – both to break up compacted soil and to build character in the gardeners! Thus every garden plot at Yalding was deeply dug. Hop waste, available locally in large quantities, and green manures started the process of soil improvement that continues to this day. Although still not exactly a crumbly, black ‘Christmas pudding’ soil, after 10 years it shows a huge improvement on the lifeless, sticky, orange putty we started with.

The gardens that were opened by the Mayor of Maidstone in 1995 were still quite young and raw, but by the time Prince Charles visited in June 1996, all the major planting was completed, and starting to mature.

Building on early successes
We have had successes and failures with plants over the years, which is not surprising when you consider that in that time we have had temperatures ranging from minus 12 to plus 35C, and rainfall varying from severe droughts that baked the ground to concrete, to six inches of rain in one night in 2000 that left the gardens two feet deep in floodwater!

Infrastructure on the gardens has also moved on from the early days, helping the different gardens to develop individual characters. Nearly all of the original rough roadstone paths have been replaced with materials more in keeping with the historical periods of the gardens. As the cheap and cheerful modern square trellis that provided height across the gardens has deteriorated, it has given us the opportunity to use a wider range of more sympathetic materials, such as chestnut and hazel, which are produced locally from sustainable coppice woodland.

Height on the gardens has also been provided by three major new features: the ‘thatched cottage’, which was built in our William Cobbett-inspired Cottager’s Garden in 1997; ‘The Henge’, a wooden folly built as a focal point at the end of our main vista in 2000, and the Victorian glasshouse reconstructed by Peter Thatcher in our Artisan’s Garden in 2003.

The excellent initial design of the gardens has meant that most of our work over the last 10 years has been in improving and refining the displays as they were originally envisaged. However, there have been two major exceptions. Firstly, a rather uninspiring vegetable display was redeveloped in 2000 as The Gardener’s Labyrinth, an ornamental potager that gives us the opportunity to bring new design ideas to vegetable growing. More recently, we have added a display garden for the Organic Food for All campaign (OFfA), which will be ready for use this year.

Oasis for wildlife
Probably the most gratifying change that has happened in this field in a corner of Kent in the last 10 years is that Yalding has not just been the site for the development of a beautiful and productive display garden for members and visitors to enjoy, but also a new oasis for wildlife in the overcrowded South-East.

Our soil, which used to contain so little life that the discovery of a worm was a major event that broke the monotony of a day’s digging, now teems with the flora and fauna that support healthy plant growth. In the early days, bird visitors were restricted to starlings and the gangs of rooks that gathered on the fence every day at five o’clock, waiting to come and inspect the day’s developments. Now the gardens provide food and habitats for dozens of species, including yellowhammers, linnets, skylarks, and woodpeckers.

Not all of the new arrivals to the gardens are as welcome. We have had many successes at Yalding, but also one or two mistakes, which have taught us valuable lessons. First, before planting it pays to check any bought-in plant carefully for vine weevil larvae in the root ball. The vine weevils are now well established on the gardens here, and we have paid good money for the privilege of introducing them. Also, we have learned to take off the top inch or so of potting compost from any bought-in plant and bury that soil at the bottom of the planting hole. We then put the plant in the hole, and replaced the removed compost with our own garden soil on top. If you do likewise, you will be burying the seeds of nursery weeds, such as bitter cress, and saving yourself an awful lot of time controlling them in the future.

Thanks to donors and volunteers
Without the generous support of Donald and Pixie Cooper, and the Congelow Organic Educational Trust, Yalding Organic Gardens would never have existed.

Without the support of a wonderful team of volunteers, the gardens would not be as successful as they are.

Yalding Organic Gardens could never have got underway without the volunteers who dug docks, planted trees, and laid the gardens out with Peter Bateman. Since then, as well as gardening, volunteers have been involved in everything from building greenhouses, giving informative tours, keeping bees, and developing computer databases, to designing and helping to build HDRA’s Gold Medal winning garden for last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Many of our volunteers have since gone on to careers in horticulture, at Yalding and elsewhere.

As organic gardeners know, it takes time to create a successful garden. Developing a varied and balanced community both above and below the ground doesn’t happen overnight. It has been a joy to see the theory of organic gardening borne out so fruitfully here at Yalding, as the gardens mature and reinvent themselves anew every season. No garden ever stands still, and we are continually surprised and delighted with each year that passes. If you haven’t visited recently, you may well be surprised too!

This article has been reprinted from ‘The Organic Way’ No. 179, Spring 2005; with the kind permission of Garden Organic (www.gardenorganic.org.uk) Garden Organic is the working name of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA)

(Editors Note (2008): Whilst the site of the gardens is still owned by the Congelow Trust; Garden Organic made the difficult decision to withdraw from their operation in early 2008. The site is now operated by Maro Foods Ltd, as ‘Yalding Organic Centre’)

(Editors Note (June 2010): Following the withdrawal of Maro Foods from the site; the Gardens have been leased by new operators and re-opened as ‘The Yalding Gardens’. )