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Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010
Digging vegetables for victory
Emma Midgley
BBC Berkshire

The gardens at Museum of Rural Life
The gardens at Museum of Rural Life used to belong to the Palmer family

Visitors to the Museum of Rural Life this summer can enjoy two gardens with a difference.

While one vegetable plot is bursting with trendy 2009 plants such as custard marrows and cherry tomatoes, another takes you on a trip back to the 1940s.

The vegetable patches at MERL have been a labour of love for horticultural expert Tony Hales.

Tony grew up as a Second World War evacuee, and describes war time food as 'boring' and limited compared to today.

He says that many fruit and vegetable which are popular today were not available to war-time amateur farmers.

"Food was very boring during the war." he said. "The Americans brought sweetcorn over here. Tomatoes didn't taste so good before we developed new varieties, such as the cherry tomatoes in our modern garden."

Food was very boring during the war.
Tony Hales

The rose bush planted in the Second World War garden is a Rosa rugosa, which bears large edible rose hips, which Tony remembers enjoying as a war-time treat.

He helped source the heritage seeds for the Second World War vegetable patch, which features plants such as Painted Lady runner beans (first introduced in 1855) and Little Marvel peas (created in 1900.)

Tony has worked in horticultural economics for more than 60 years, advising supermarkets on crops to buy and lecturing on horticulture at both the University of Reading and at Leeds.

Bekky Moran, MERL's Learning Manager, said that the seeds, also known as Heritage seeds, were hard to come by.

She said: "They are actually quite hard to track down, because these seeds are not used in gardening much anymore."

Bekky said pesticide and fertiliser development actually began after the Second World War after the government realised that Britain was unable to be self-sufficient in producing food.

Tony Hales
Tony Hales has tended the gardens at MERL with loving care

However, staying true to the conditions of the 1940s, both vegetable patches have been grown using organic and natural pest control methods, such as nematode worms and fertilisers such as pelted chicken fertiliser. The gardeners have also tried 'companion planting' - planting flowers which disguise plants from or kill garden pests.

Many of the seeds have been sourced form Sutton Seeds, which was founded in Reading in 1806 by John Sutton. The business went on to become a major Reading employer and was given a Royal Charter, supplying the Royal Family with plants and flowers to this day.

Scarecrows guarding both gardens have been created by local children, with help from artist, educator and maker Ellen Brown.

She said: "We created the scare-crows in workshops.

"I left it to the kids and they turned out amazing. First they made a Caribbean lady scarecrow. Then they made her husband and her child - next year we'll make them a dog!"

Flowers at MERL
Flowers grown at MERL have medicinal and other uses as well as decoration

The grounds of MERL are also beautifully laid out. Historically the building where MERL is housed has always had lovely gardens, as it formerly belonged to the Palmer family, who were proprietors of the famous Reading Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory.

However, the garden has been recently restored in a Victorian style by Giles Reynolds, head of the University Grounds Department, in consultation with museum staff.

The overriding theme of the garden is plants with a purpose. Rural life in England has traditionally harnessed the qualities of natural products to fill natural needs. In MERL's gardens most of the plants have been chosen because they have other uses apart from their ornamental value or are a close relatives of plants that do: for example, culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, herbs for aromatic use, fruit and nut trees.

The front of the museum is also planted by local schools, pre-schools and people from Thrive, a charity which uses horticulture to help people with disabilities.

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