The Diggers Club is committed to preserving seeds and the art of growing them for the gardeners of tomorrow.
Most avid gardeners in Australia will know and love The Diggers Club. They have been around long enough for many of us to hold dear childhood memories of family discussions around one of their open catalogues, the excitement of deciding what to plant next! Their productive gardens at Heronswood in Dromana and St Erth in Blackwood have been inspiring home gardeners for decades with their sustainable practices and impressive bounty of edible and ornamental plantings.
However, there is a more secret one … The Preservation Garden. This garden holds the keys to everything The Diggers Club is about and it will soon be relocated to Heronswood for their members and the public to learn from.
The current site for the Diggers Preservation Garden (DPG) is on their 20-acre property in Dromana. The Blazey family bought the property in 2006 and relocated their operations there from the original production and dispatch operations at Heronswood. The comprehensive site features an arboretum, seed trial gardens, collection gardens containing rare varieties and Diggers mother stock, propagation tunnels, production nursery and composting rows. It’s not as grand as the public gardens at Heronswood and St Erth – but it’s a quiet achiever. It’s where the mother stock is nurtured, tested and monitored; where seeds are tested and trialled; where exotic plants from very special saved and donated seeds are planted; and where seeds from their catalogue are put through their paces to ensure they are growing true to type.
From its inception in 1978, the founders of Diggers, Penny and Clive Blazey, were interested in reintroducing to their customers traditional, open pollinated varieties that had been tested by time – natural choices for home gardeners which had enjoyed good yields and success in the Australian climate. Retail nurseries were dropping more and more of these precious heirlooms from their lists and they held deep concern that these seeds would be lost forever.
In the early 1990s the Blazeys worked with Dr Will Trueman to run a comprehensive trial to determine a clear picture of the best tomato seeds to offer their customers. His trials focused on comparing heirloom tomatoes with hybrids, always aware of the almost sacred genealogy they held in their keeping.
In one of the first known trials of this type, Dr Trueman comprehensively detailed his findings, after testing growth habits, pruning techniques, yields, whether they stayed true to type from harvested seeds and most importantly: taste. The findings resulted in a manifesto for The Diggers Club that the company could use for a type of scientific control for subsequent tests. Not just for tomatoes, but a template for testing all vegetables in their catalogues. They just held their 26th annual taste test.
Says Clive Blazey: “We were the first people to start doing research comparing the yields of hybrids vs heirlooms – basic varieties that people had been using for years – there was no proprietorship on them. Will Trueman was up at Seymour testing heritage tomatoes against supermarket varieties. He found that the criteria for supermarket tomatoes had nothing to do with taste, they were chosen to suit the producer, not the consumer.”
“We rotate our tests like a pack of cards. We have a type of motto: We don’t list anything because it’s new – only if it’s better.”
“Along with testing our vegetables, we’ll be doing wildflower and cottage garden trials and making room for testing drought tolerant perennials. It will be a big feature, to involve our garden staff in the production of our catalogues and the selection of our items.”
The current staff at the DPG are quite something. Curator Jamie Alcock holds a type of celebrity status amongst his colleagues with his intimate knowledge and quiet reverence for the plants under his care. A 10-minute tour with Jamie will leave you with enough information to muse on for a lifetime.
The same goes for Jac Semmler. Originally the seed manager for Diggers, she has recently been appointed operations manager and her enthusiasm for her work (a common attribute of all of the staff here) is palpable.
As she walks us through the garden, she says: “This summer we grew out most of our summer veggies – 92 varieties! This is where we can test that our seeds are running true to type and adhere to the qualities first determined by Will Trueman in the 1990s.”
“We are all passionate gardeners here so we are very interested in holding intimate knowledge of our plants so that when we are talking to gardeners we are coming from that evidence base and not marketing. Growing from seed is one of those skills that is becoming lost. We don’t want that. We want it to be something that generations who come after us will learn.”
Work is currently under way to establish The Preservation Garden at Heronswood and it will be open to the public within the next year.