The Yeo Valley Organic Garden
by Abigail Willis
The Gravel Garden
As the UK’s only Soil Association accredited ornamental garden, the Yeo Valley Garden is a standard bearer for organic gardening. But if the adjective ‘organic’ attached to the word ‘garden’ conjures worthy images of over-abundant weeds, undernourished plants and lacklustre design think again. Set in the Mendip Hills, overlooking the valley that gave its name to the eponymous organic dairy brand, this 6.5 acre garden is proof that organic cultivation need not preclude ambitious design, a diverse and thriving plantscape, or a sense of humour.
The garden is the creation of Sarah Mead, wife of Tim Mead, whose parents started the Yeo Valley business on the family farm, in the 60s. It’s still very much a family affair today, and the Meads’ farmhouse lies at the centre of the garden, itself surrounded by verdant fields contentedly grazed by the Yeo Valley cows.
A former dancer, Sarah discovered her green fingers when she and Tim moved into the farmhouse, and Sarah began to develop the garden, following an organic regime similar to that used on the farm. Soil Association accreditation was achieved in 2010, and the garden reopened to the public the same year. It contains over a dozen distinct gardens, designed in-house and maintained by Sarah and her team of four gardeners, led by Head Gardener James Cox and Landscape Architect Eileen O’Donnell.
The fun starts in the visitors’ car park where a vintage blue and white Mini has been repurposed as a four wheeled planter, featuring a different theme each year. This year’s meadow, replete with oxeye daisies and swaying grasses, will undergo a complete about turn to become a desert garden next summer.
Sarah’s willingness to instigate change is evident throughout – the Long Border was redesigned in 2009, the Gravel Garden the following year, while the Birch Grove, with its ethereal army of pale-stemmed Betula jacquemontii and understorey of white cyclamen and ferns, was also installed in 2010. The adjacent Streamside Garden was developed at the same time with a rustic-style Tarka’s Hut playfully furnished with a set of solar-powered disco balls. Inspiration comes in all guises – gardens might be colour-themed (as in the elegant Bronze Garden or the flamboyant Red and Lime Borders) or, as with the Big Grass Bed, based around a plant type. Twice yearly garden visiting expeditions undertaken by Sarah and her team help keep the ideas coming, the latest foray being to Normandy (where the Jardin Plume made a big impression).
Developing an organic garden is not for the faint hearted; there can be no chemical short cuts. The beds of the revamped Gravel Garden had to be dug out to four feet and sieved by hand to combat a bindweed infestation. It is, admits Assistant Head Gardener Marc Wasely, a ‘never-ending battle’ but it seems to be one they are winning – there’s not a stray tendril in sight amid the Gravel Garden’s dreamy drifts of Echinacea purpurea , Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, Phlomis cashmeriana, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, and clouds of self-seeded Verbena bonariensis.
The Glasshouse Garden presents different challenges. The formal lawns that sweep up to the purple-painted glasshouse are lush but as rich in clover as in grass: an organic lawn is necessarily an exercise in compromise. The regime here involves draconian scarification every 2-3 years, followed by top dressing and a re-sow. As Head Gardener James Cox wryly observes, “the only way to have a fine organic lawn is to omit the word ‘fine'”. By contrast the Perennial Meadow is easier to maintain: its snowdrops, Fritillaries, daffodils and Camassias come up every spring, while the autumn-sown yellow rattle does its job of suppressing the otherwise dominant grasses before biennials like oxeye daisies and Devil’s Bit Scabious get under way. The whole lot is cut down in August and then mown until the end of the growing season.
The tripartite greenhouse has areas devoted to propagation while the central atrium houses tender and tropical plants such as Phoenix canariensis, Strelitzia reginae, and Brugmansia ‘Pink Perfection’. These enjoy their situation so much they need constant cutting back. Solar-powered underfloor heating acts as a giant propagator for tender crops like tomato ‘Clementine’, which fruit from April. Biological controls such as aphidus and Encarsia formosa, sourced from Defenders (www.defenders.co.uk), ensure that pests like whitefly and red spider mite don’t get the upper hand. “They work really well,” says Marc, “but you have to be on top of it. For us it’s about cure not prevention.”
Over in the Veggie Garden, Marc (whose domain it is) also has to be vigilant. The produce is used in the garden’s tea room and in the Yeo Valley HQ restaurant, so crops have to be protected. Copper rings are the main line of defence against slugs, and are made in-house using good quality roofing copper from a builders’ merchant – an economic approach, given the quantity needed, and Marc calculates that a £90 roll will make about 50 rings. The copper works best when shiny, so the rings get an annual bath in Coca Cola to restore their effectiveness.
Swift moth was an unwelcome arrival this spring but as Marc follows the no-dig system in the Veggie Garden, the usual recourse of turning the soil to disrupt this voracious pest was not an option. Nematodes were used instead- successfully. Box blight, another problem, is tricky to treat organically and the rows of afflicted hedging will be replaced with rosemary or Welsh onions (“a good structural plant, and the butterflies like it,” says Marc).
Good soil health is important in an organic garden and the compost yard is at the heart of this one. A weekly turn ensures a lively aerobic action and, with heaps reaching core temperatures of around 60-65 degrees, this is a popular job on a cold winter’s day. Demand always outstrips production and this year manure from the ever-obliging Yeo Valley Friesians will be used to mulch the garden, freeing up precious compost to make potting mixes. This being a closed system garden, liquid feeds are also made in-house, with nitrogen-rich nettle feed applied neat to crops like leeks, and potassium-rich comfrey tea, used in 1-10 dilution to promote flower and fruit production.
One grateful beneficiary of the comfrey tea is the Cutting Garden, whose abundant dahlias, sweet peas, Cleomes and Tithonias are used in table decorations for the Tea Room and at the HQ restaurant in nearby Blagdon. It’s a typical example of the holistic approach that permeates a garden that is an inspirational showcase not just for the virtues – but also the pleasures – of gardening in harmony with nature.
The Yeo Valley Organic Garden
Bristol BS40 7SQ
Open: 2015 season: Thurs & Fri June 4th to September 25th.11am-5pm