Mary Bryniak when she was young, looking at a sunflower, Glen Park 1946

Interviewed by Kath Clements

VON member Mary Bryniak is a member of the Dalziel O’Brien family, who have been well known in the vegetarian and organic movements since the 1960s when they were the earliest promoters of what we now call ‘stockfree’ horticulture.

During the 1940s and 50s the family’s market garden in Leicester used ‘veganic’ methods developed on ethical principles from their wealth of practical knowledge gained as commercial growers. Kenneth Dalziel O’Brien also went on to found veganic gardens in Scotland, Gloucestershire and elsewhere.

Mary’s mother Rosa Dalziel O’Brien published her book ‘Intensive Gardening’ in 1956 (now a rarity, but currently available on Amazon at a price) whilst brother Kenneth was later to publish his landmark ‘Veganic Gardening’ in addition to many articles for periodicals and even a paper for the RSA in 1963, a time when organic growing was scarcely heard of. Mary now lives in the Isle of Wight and has kindly agreed to let us delve a bit more deeply into her interesting story.

Thank you for agreeing to this Mary! Could you tell us when and why you became a vegetarian / vegan?

I was born in Hull but we moved to Sheffield in the early 30s. It was there that my parents read about the compassionate and health reasons for vegetarianism and decided we should adopt a vegetarian way of life, much to my delight. I must have been about 8 years old and the time, and the sight of carcasses and rabbits and chickens hanging up in doorways of butchers’ shops, as they did in those days, used to upset me. When I was about 12 or 13 we moved back to Hull. War broke out when I was in my final year at Newland High School and my first job was in the Welfare Department of Needler’s chocolate factory. I knew I would be conscripted when I was 18 and not wishing to join the forces or work on an animal farm, I decided to leave my job and I obtained work at A&E West’s market garden and nursery at Cottingham near Hull, where I worked with several Land Army girls.

While there I discovered how much slaughterhouse produce including dried blood, bone and fish meal, etc, was used to grow the crops. All these products come under the heading of ‘organic’. My two brothers, who, due to the war, were working on nearby nurseries owned by Dutch growers, also discovered this fact. In home gardening and on the allotment we had never used animal products, only compost. This motivated us to want to establish a market garden and nursery growing crops commercially, without any animal inputs or chemical pesticides. We wanted to prove it was possible.

This led to Glen Park Nurseries being established, just on the outskirts of Leicester. We were very fortunate to meet there a group of vegetarians who did not consume any dairy products or eggs. Donald Watson was one of the group and they made us aware of the cruelty involved in dairy farming. We then decided to cut out dairy products from our diet, with help from our friends, because in the 40s with rationing it wasn’t so easy. We also felt it tied in with our crop growing principles. We used to meet at the house of Gaby Roberts, a life vegetarian. Donald suggested we called ourselves Vegans and form a Vegan Society. He issued a regular newsletter, which was the start of the Vegan Society. Donald’s enthusiasm and dedication led to the Society growing from strength to strength.

Was the Market Garden a very large operation? How many people did you employ, and how did the war affect the business?

Growing tomatoes at Glen Park Nursery in 1951

Glen Park was not large compared with today’s growing centres. I don’t remember the acreage. It started out as a very large field bordered by mixed hedges which we purchased from a farmer thanks to a kind person who wished to help our project. It had good access to a main road and markets and was five minutes’ walk from where we lived. My brothers erected several double span Dutch Light frames – 25 lights a side, and a single span Dutch Light greenhouse about the same length. Later they added a three span greenhouse.

We created several open beds, large compost bin areas and service road areas. We didn’t employ anyone. My father was working in Yorkshire. My mother looked after the marketing, record keeping and paperwork. The beauty of Dutch lights is they can be easily moved by two people to cover a bed or expose to the open. The war years created a demand for home grown produce, with imports restricted, so no doubt helped us in that respect.

Within the family, how did you divide up the work? What were your favourite jobs?

We worked as a team most of the time. My elder brother Ken had the most experience and had a lot of helpful advice on crops from the Dutch family he had worked for, so we followed his advice. My brothers did construction work and moving of lights and a lot of work on the compost heaps so I probably did more of the sowing and planting under lights and in the open beds. My favourite jobs were picking and packing tomatoes and cutting and packing lettuces. All harvesting of crops, bunching spring onions, early carrots, radishes etc, was a satisfying pleasure. This was often done in the early evening or early morning to be collected for the wholesale markets.

What were the drawbacks and the benefits of growing in that part of the country – soil, climate, etc.

I don’t think there were any particular drawbacks to growing in the Leicester area. It is pretty central and accessible for markets and does not normally get extremes of wind and temperature. The soil was not very fertile when we took the field over, but we realised it had potential to become so.

The operation became known for the Dutch lights and moveable greenhouses which I believe are described in your mother’s book. Can you remember any particular problems you had with growing under glass, and how you overcame them?

Glass houses and Dutch lights at Glen Park Nursery in 1952

Growing under glass requires careful ventilation and watering. In addition to removal and replacement of lights, ventilation can be adjusted by using softwood blocks 8″ by 4″ by 2″ inserted under the bottom of the lights either full 8″ or mid 4″ or short 2″. A pale green emulsion called ‘Summer Cloud’ was painted with a whitewash brush on the outside of the lights, two thirds up in a circle of 14″ diameter over the growing centre of cucumber plants which created a filtered light during hot summer weather. Apart from usual root watering with hose pipe, a quick, fine mist spray was used over flowering tomatoes in the late morning on hot sunny days to aid pollination. The melons needed drier more buoyant air.

We were not troubled much with pests. A single row of parsley was sown around the inside edge of the glasshouse structures because it was found to be invaluable as an aid to the control of aphids and white fly. If these appeared the parsley attracted them first and the infected plant was easily removed.

What did you do after Glen Park?

My husband Bryn was an instrument flying instructor and we started married life in a flat in Birmingham. Bryn was also very keen to grow our own produce and we rented an excellent allotment nearby. It was hedged around and with its own gate and shed, and we had good success with veganically grown crops, having made compost heaps a priority. We also joined the Birmingham Vegetarian Society and I had a part time job at a firm of stockbrokers, leaving me time for gardening.

We moved twice after that, within Hampshire and Kent, but always having a large garden, until we moved to Hamble and lived a more settled life for 18 Years. I had two part time jobs, one as a Library Assistant at Hamble Library, and a weekend job as receptionist at Hamble Point Marina. Our house had a large garden and greenhouse. We also had some Dutch lights and grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons and lettuces under the lights for an early crop. We collected seaweed from the coast for the compost heaps, but used to wash salt off first. We planted some Kentish Cob Nut trees which fruited well, but squirrels took the nuts if we let them ripen.

When Bryn retired we moved to the Isle of Wight to a bungalow with a garden. We joined the Island Vegetarian and Vegan Society who at the time were very active in furthering the cause. Bryn’s health deteriorated and he died in 2001. I later moved to a terraced house on a complex and just have a patio with some containers. I am no longer able to be a grower, but I have some good vegan friends.

Do you have any tips about growing that you could pass on to members?

When growing green manure crops, we mowed or pulled them up and put them straight on the compost heaps. We believed that hoeing or digging them into the ground encouraged slugs and leached nutrients. Nature does not bury green plants, it maintains a corps of soil workers to deal with any that fall on the soil after it has decayed. We found it better to cover any bare soil with decayed or dried plant material such as hay or straw.

We sowed spring onions between carrots. When thinning, we avoided holding the foliage and sometimes rubbed fresh cut garlic on our hands to mask the carrot foliage smell. It is good to plant various herbs and wild flowers amongst crops to attract beneficial insects.

The soil is a living entity with different types of worms, bacteria and fungi working at their own different levels to maintain fertility, and importantly aeration. Inverting by digging or ploughing upsets this structure and balance and is detrimental. Our experience has been that fruit trees, shrubs and plants seem healthier in undug soil and less troubled by aphids. We tried not to compact cultivated soil, hence the bed and path system, avoiding walking on the beds. We stood on a board on two short sticks to lever out any deep roots with a fork, shedding the load a little and avoiding inverting the soil.

Do you have any advice to those just starting out?

Make a supply of well-made compost a priority, and co-operate with Nature. The VON organisation can give lots of good advice and help from knowledgeable people that you can profit by.

Editors’ note: The paragraph on green manures is interesting; many people do however hoe or turn in green manures and find this both beneficial and practical.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 25 (Summer 2010), p16.