Simon Webster talks with Clive Blazey, founder of The Diggers Club and an outspoken critic of genetically modified plants and industrial agriculture. Blazey is also a philanthropist and a champion of heirloom organic fruit and vegetables. *Article from Organic Gardener Magazine, September 2018 issue.
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Q: What drew you to the world of plants?
A: When I was 15 I spent an outdoor education year at Mount Timbertop in the Victorian Alps. It wasn’t until we climbed up into the Howitt high plains that I saw a landscape that totally engaged me. Every weekend hike before that we had walked through eucalyptus forests that were monotonous and surprisingly silent but once we got above this tree line and onto the high plains with its log huts, stunted alpine gums and wildflowers, I was captivated. During my university days a few years later, I visited the Melbourne Botanic Gardens and decided that I wanted to live in a garden as beautiful as those.
Q: How have Australian attitudes towards heirlooms and organics changed since you started Diggers 40 years ago?
A: Diggers was a pioneer of the rescue of heirloom vegetables and while the chefs and cooks were immediately excited, it took a long time for the superior tastes, colour and diversity of heirlooms to become mainstream. What was really happening was that the boring idea of the English meat and two veg diet was being swept away by new tasting experiences from the Italians, Japanese and so on. The organic movement has been very slow to gain traction because supermarket food, driven by mono-cropping production, which depends on high-impact chemicals, fertilisers and hybrid seeds, is currently profitable even though it destroys soil fertility. Fortunately, genetically modified (GM) food, particularly unlabelled GM corn, has not contaminated our food and soils as it has in the US.
Q: How do you think GM food will affect our world in years to come? Is it controllable or are the powerful agritech companies unstoppable?
A: It is difficult to gauge how dangerous Roundup Ready GM crops are to human health. Australia adopted the principle that GM seeds behave like existing seeds and don’t need trials. The only thing that will stop GM is when health impacts are proven or patents run out. Consumers will not willingly buy labelled GM food, so it succeeds because it is not labelled by regulators in the US. When Calgene [later acquired by Monsanto] offered the first GM vegetable, named Flavr Savr Tomato, in the US in 1994, it was surprised at how bad the consumer reaction was and the tomato was removed from the shelves very quickly. So GM-bred vegetables have no future, but a new gene-editing technique, CRISPR, which doesn’t transfer genes across species as GM does, will probably take over broadacre crops.
Q: What effect do you think the upcoming mergers of agritech giants will have on our food?
A: The acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer has just been given approval, which means that just three companies (rather than six companies two years ago) will now control about 66 per cent of world food grown from seeds.How regulators can see this as a good idea is beyond me. Bayer has bought Monsanto, China National Chemical Corp has bought Syngenta, and DuPont has acquired Dow. In effect, the world’s leading pesticide producers now own two-thirds of our seeds. This doesn’t mean that GM is inherently bad;it may lead to crops that use less water, chemicals or nutrients, but Monsanto has used GM technology exclusively to boost its Roundup sales, which can’t be good for our soils or our health. I don’t see the GM problem as a biological one of gene splicing in laboratories. I think the problem is that the patenting of genes gives legal rights over the public’s current ownership of 12,000 years of seed selection, thereby giving just three chemical companies control of our food supply. No species has ever survived that loss of control of its food.
Q: What are your favourite gardens in Australia and overseas and what do you like about them?
A: The Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) and Adelaide Botanic Gardens are so extraordinarily beautiful that I have been to both of them hundreds of times. Andrew Laidlaw’s plantings at the volcano and the children’s garden in the RBG are breathtaking, a perfect match to the wildness of Cradle Mountain [Tasmania] and the Crosscut Saw ridge in the Victorian Alps.
Q: If you could only grow one edible plant, and one ornamental plant, what would they be and why?
A: My favourite edible plants are heirloom tomatoes: Tommy Toe because it is Australia’s best-tasting tomato and has won taste tests for about 20 years, and Green Zebra because I know its breeder, Tom Wagner, and it is the perfect colour contrast on the plate to dull supermarket red tomatoes, with way better taste. My favourite flower has to be the lotus, exquisite in bloom, leaf and seed.
DIGGING IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
In its 40th Anniversary year, The Diggers Club’s commitment to heirloom and organic gardening continues as strong as ever, writes simon Webster.
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Four decades ago, when Clive Blazey, aged 33, established The Diggers Club with his wife Penny, he thought he had all the skills needed to sell rare seeds by mail order. After all, he’d worked in seed marketing for the family business, Hortico, for several years, and was a keen gardener. He was in for a shock. “What I didn’t realise was that my customers knew more about plants than I did,” Blazey says. “My first customer asked about plants I had never heard of. I was so panic stricken that I spent every spare hour reading gardening books and visiting botanic gardens.”
In 1983 the Blazeys bought Heronswood, an historic house and garden on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. Here was a chance to create something special: a garden that would inspire Australians all year round. Then, in 1991, Blazey visited the Iowa Seed Savers Exchange in the US, brought back some seeds to trial, and started growing and saving them. Initially selling varieties that big companies had dropped, Diggers’ focus shifted to heirlooms that it was testing for itself in Australian conditions.
Today, Blazey is a fierce defender of heirloom and organic seeds, remaining staunchly independent in an industry dominated by big business.
He is the author or co-author of seven books on gardening*, and Diggers is Australia’s biggest garden club, selling more than 600 varieties of seed, as well as plants, bulbs, books and garden supplies, and running restaurants and cafes that use organic and homegrown ingredients.
Diggers has won several awards for its work in heirlooms, from the likes of The Age Good Food Guide and Vogue Entertaining & Travel, and last year collected a prestigious Silver Gum Award from the Australian Institute of Horticulture. “I guess our success is bound to our insistence on trialling our seeds and plants for garden worthiness and survivability,” Blazey says. That testing takes place at the Diggers three gardens in Victoria: Heronswood, which was the Blazeys’ family home until 2000; the Garden of St Erth, an historic home near Daylesford; and Cloudehill, in the Dandenong Ranges. It’s quite a collection, but if the Blazeys’ three children were hoping to inherit it, they were to be sorely disappointed. In 2011 Clive and Penny gifted ownership of The Diggers Club and the gardens of Heronswood and St Erth to the Diggers Foundation, a charitable trust focused on gardening, education and heritage buildings. “When you live in as beautiful an historic building as Heronswood you can’t really think of it as real estate to be bought and sold,” Blazey says.
“From the first day we moved in we have always felt that we were caretakers. Our family has occupied the building longer than any other family and our children were happy with supporting its gift to the Diggers Foundation, so Heronswood and St Erth are preserved for all time. “You may not realise that the government does not support historic houses, precious gardens or heirloom seeds. It’s up to us.”
Both the gardens have also been certified organic, a first for gardens in Australia, supporting the Blazey family’s commitment to organic gardening and food. Author and Organic Gardener horticultural editor Penny Woodward says the support the Blazeys have given to heirlooms and an expanding organic gardening movement can’t be underestimated.
“The incredibly generous donation of the properties not only preserves their heritage, but helps educate Australians about gardening, heirlooms and ecological issues,” Woodward says. “Not only will these rare [in Australia] certified organic gardens remain intact, they can be used by the Trust to champion research, seed-saving, education and homegrown organic food well into the future. I can’t think of a better legacy.” With 40 successful years of Diggers behind him, Blazey is still looking forward. “We want to generate higher levels of garden education and to inspire more gardeners to grow more food, plant more trees, preserve more rare seeds and create more beautiful gardens that lead to long and healthier lives. We’re only just starting to reach our vision.” *In spring, Blazey is to publish a compendium of 40 years of gardening ideas, plants and seed saving.