Plant enthusiast and green business owner Clive Blazey has been overseeing the development of the renowned Diggers Seeds and its historic Heronswood homestead garden in Dromana, Victoria, for more than 25 years. The display gardens and mail-order business have evolved over time following the customer demands and climate change. Initially specialising in unusual perennials, bulbs and cottage plants, Diggers is now one of Australia’s leading sources of heirloom fruit and vegetable seeds and open pollinated plant varieties. Clive is passionate about organic growing and heirloom varieties.“Diggers is taking a stand against hybrid production and multinationals that breed hybrid plant varieties that do not set seed and so they control what we consumers can grow,” he says. “At Diggers we focus on a range of heirloom and open pollinated varieties of plants for our customers.” The old heirloom varieties are those that have proved themselves time after time as top performers and flavoursome varieties. The seeds have been nurtured and passed down from generation to generation between families and farmers, in preference to the hybrid varieties.
To ensure a top range of diverse lines, Clive sources seeds from seedsaver networks around the globe. Diggers then imports the seeds and trials them to find the best-forming varieties for our conditions here in Australia. Clive believes the old varieties have far superior flavour to that of modern varieties and he runs regular taste test competitions at Heronswood to see what consumers rate as the strong favourites in their seed range. The focus at Diggers is also on organic and sustainable. “If you want a garden to be sustainable, the first thing to start with is the soil,” Clive says. “In the 25 years we have been based at Heronswood, the carbon levels in our sandy loam soil have gone from 6 per cent to 22 per cent. The next step in a sustainable garden is chemicals. I don’t use any on the garden; we keep it natural.” Diggers also tries to reduce its environmental footstep by using green energy, recycling and working to reduce consumption of resources. The staff are strongly encouraged to be green in their practices and to drive green energy cars.
Out in the garden around the homestead, the beds that are not designated for flourishing fruit and vegetable plants are showcases of diverse, drought-tolerant, hardy specimens. These plants are all chosen to match the micro-climates of each garden bed. The exposed sunny slopes near the entrance to the main garden are planted with an exotic array of weird and wonderful, hardy succulents, which thrive in the coastal sunshine without any extra watering. Shade-tolerant, droughthardy varieties are planted under the canopy of large evergreen and deciduous trees. Using more sustainable practices in the garden and fine tuning the plants grown to the more droughtresistant and tougher forms, Clive has managed to reduce the water bills for the property by 50 per cent. “When you are trying to grow fruits and vegetables, you do need some regular watering to keep these plants growing well,” he says. “So we can never reduce our water needs to be completely sustainable, as we cannot harvest enough water from this site for all the fruits, vegetables and plants we grow here.” He’s pretty confident, however, that Diggers would only use about a quarter of the water market gardeners would use. “We don’t water the lawns here. We grow the hardy kikuyu variety,” he explains. “When the lawns are mown, the clippings go straight back onto the lawn so it self-fertilises and builds up the soil organic matter.” The more the organic matter builds up in the soil, the better it becomes at holding and conserving water, so less water needs to be added to sustain growth and the carbon content is built up.
The restaurant at Heronswood also tries to be as sustainable as possible, even from the initial building concept. The unique thatched, two-storey, English cottage-style restaurant building has a roof line similar to that of the slate roof of Heronswood homestead. Ninety per cent of the structural materials for the building have been sourced from within 30km of the site. The thatch for the roof is made from reeds gathered from the nearby Tootgarook swamp. Recycled timbers are used in the building and the mellow golden-coloured, rammed-earth walls are made from local Dromana gravel. The walls provide energy-saving thermal mass and wonderful acoustic properties indoors. The restaurant serves a wide range of delectable and exciting dishes using organic fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a try-beforeyou- buy chance for customers to experience the visual and taste sensations of produce such as multi-coloured tomatoes, rainbow mixes of beetroot, purple potatoes, babacos, guavas and amazing fruits, depending on the day’s menu and the season. Where possible, these are obtained direct from the gardens, or nearby, to reduce the food miles of the kitchen. “Our footstep here has to be regional,” Clive says.
The organic scraps from the kitchen go straight back into the compost for the gardens. A series of six compost bins services the site. All the trimmings from the garden plants and vegetable scraps from the restaurant and house are recycled into the compost. They also use pea straw along with hay and some coal dust on the garden beds. The fruit and vegetable beds are watered with water-efficient drip irrigation, which is also used in some of the ornamental garden beds. “In summer we do need to water some of the ornamental garden beds once or twice a week,” Clive explains. “There can be fruits, vegetables, flowers and many other deciduous trees including subtropicals such as mountain pawpaw, babaco and natal plums all growing in together.” The display gardens, garden shop and restaurant at this site and the St Erth garden site at Blackwood are open to the public all year round, seven days a week. You can purchase a family membership or children’s club membership, which give discounts on seeds, garden goods, books and events, or buy individual items at full price. Monthly workshops are usually held on weekends when there are many visitors roaming the gardens.