Thursday, 8 March 2012

Grandpa Gordon the Scientist

My sister found this amazing photo of my Grandpa Gordon posing alongside some hybrid sweetcorn in Merton in the 60's.

Although he died when my dad was young, Grandpa was very much a part of our childhood through the stories dad would tell us.

As a horticultural scientist, he spent his career researching plant genetics and I maintain the romantic notion that he'd be horrified with the reputation the genetics industry has today. The industry is vital in securing the food security of future peoples; discovering ways of improving yield, adding vitamins to staple crops and creating food varieties able to adapt to unpredictable changes in climate. But scaremongering in the media coupled with the exploitation of genetic science by large corporations as they strive to increase margins, has led to a substantial fear of the genetic modification of crops.

James, Sarah and I all enjoy gardening, but none of us really inherited Grandpa's green fingers.

My approach to gardening mostly takes the form of ramshackle experiments and letting nature find it's own solutions rather than the controlled experiments that the scientists at John Innes must've done. I'm really interested in the principles of permaculture and in particular, companion planting. I love helping the garden to create its own optimal ways of thriving, planting wildflowers next to vegetables, which attracts insects to increase pollination, using marigolds and onions to mitigate against slug damage, increasing the parsnip yield by planting them next to carrots. I'm an advocate of creating a garden as biodiverse as possible.

Many tips and tricks come from folklore and other allotment holders, and this year I'm planning to follow the "Three sisters" approach followed by Native Americans. Sweetcorn is planted in a square formation to allow wind pollination, beans grow upwards, using the sweetcorn as a support and feeding nitrogen to the soil, then squash is grown in between to shade the ground, preventing weeds and creating a natural mulch for the whole area. I am looking forward to seeing how this works, though I'm also mentally prepared in the event that a wet and rainy summer scuppers my plans.

Last year a friend of mine suggested that I follow the lunar cycle when planting my allotment, tying in my planting times to the waxing and waning phases of the moon. There's no way I would ever be organised enough to do this, but I liked the idea of it, until I found this little story by my Grandpa, denouncing this theory as complete piffle.

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