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History of GGA

A brief history of the Good Gardeners Association from
1966 to 2007 by Matt Adams, GGA Chief Executive/Coordinator.




The following article is a work in progress. The intention is to create an historical record of major events in our history and at the same time reveal the sequence of events that has led to growing food for nutrition.

The information used here has been extracted from GGA minutes, various files that remained when I took over in 2000, personal conversations with past Directors and from various published material. References are given to substantiate claims where possible however, errors and omissions are accepted and will be updated if stronger evidence comes to light.


1966 - 1982 - Founding of the GGA by Dr Shewell-Cooper (MBE)


Dr. Wilfred Edward Shewell-Cooper MBEDr. Wilfred Edward Shewell-Cooper MBE (1900 – 1982) established the Good Gardeners Association which officially became a charity in 1966 with the aims:

            • To improve and encourage horticulture using compost and organic principles.
            • The daily study of organic methods of gardening
            • Research and experimental work into minimum work methods in the garden
            • To disseminate the results of such research among horticulture colleges, gardeners and schools
            • To publicise by what ever means, the great benefits to be derived from the use of compost.
Dr. W. E. Shewell-Cooper
Founded the GGA in 1966

The no dig approach was adopted (not invented) refined and made popular by Shewell-Coopers great enthusiasm and work for the charity. Note I have heard reference to no-dig gardening as far back as the mid 1800’s but the earliest text I have seen to date was published in the late 1940s. [1],[2]

Shewell-Cooper was a Christian and the original meaning of the word ‘Good’ was taken to mean that ‘members of the association were good because they carried out Gods plan for the Soil.’ The title for one of his many published books was ‘God Planted a Garden’ in which every reference in the bible that relates to the principles of organic gardening and good soil management has been extracted and made relevant. Whilst many Christian gardeners were attracted to the GGA, this emphasis has become lost in modern times, however it is still a part of our history that is of great interest.


Before the GGA, Dr. Shewell-Cooper gained his diploma in Horticulture at Wye College and was involved as either Director, Principle or Fellow of many organisations connected to horticulture. He was a prolific author with over 70 books on gardening published; wrote articles for many newspaper columns; and was garden editor for the BBC North Region. [3] As Command Horticultural Officer (1940-1949) during the Second World War his charge was to investigate the art of composting and to encourage people to grow their own food. [4]


Original logo.
The motto is from Virgil – Georgics, 1,4.
“What manner of cultivation
should be used.”

  In 1946 the Soil Association began to form and Shewell-Cooper was invited to sit on the council along side Lady Eve Balfour during these early stages of development. According to his son Ramsay, his father argued that they should also include and appeal to the interests of gardeners and horticulturists by incorporating the GGA. The Soil Association council disagreed. They wanted to focus on farming only and so after approximately 20 years he left to develop his own ideas that would eventually lead to setting up the GGA.[5]

Shewell-Cooper teaches the men how to compost

In 1950, as Principle of Thaxted Horticultural College, Essex he and his Australian wife Irene, and son Ramsay, went to work on the farm and market garden to experiment with minimum-work compost gardening where he could test his theories to see if they worked. After ten years he moved to Arkley Manor in Barnett, Hertfordshire to begin a demonstration garden so people could see and experience it working.[6] Set in ten acres this became the official Head Office as well as research and display gardens for the GGA in 1966.
  He travelled the world promoting his theories on gardening and the word spread. At its peak over 10,000 visitors a year including many international visitors were attracted to the garden. GGA offices were established in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Bahamas [7] and there was a great interest to set up more in Canada, America and in many European countries. In the early 1970’s the UK membership reached an all time high at around 4,000.

Arkley Manor in Barnet became the home for the GGA

  It’s very difficult to say just how many people were influenced by Dr. Shewell-Cooper but obviously a great many were. For example, a meeting with Bill Mollison (founder of the Permaculture movement in the late 1970s and advocate of the no-dig method) was arranged during one of his visits to Australia in the late 70’s [8]. It’s not clear from the archive if this meeting ever took place but clearly the GGA must have made a positive contribution to the world of organic compost no-dig gardening and horticulture.
Set in ten acres the no-dig compost garden
attracted up to 10,000 visitors a year.
In the mid to late 70’s membership began to decline. According to the record of minutes this was blamed on external factors. The main form of communication at that time was by letter but this was disrupted due to an ongoing postal strike. Also there was a general feeling of rising prices as VAT was introduced and people began cutting back on their personal spending.
To see your membership fall can create a very negative effect in an organisation and in particular for Dr Shewell Cooper, this must have felt very personal. To revive spirits perhaps, and inject new vigour a two year study was commissioned in 1981 that was to be undertaken by Wye College. The question for the research was ‘What is the difference in cropping between conventional and organic methods". As yield was, and still is, considered paramount a study of this nature had the potential for high impact.
1982 - 1987 - The founder passes but ideas continue


In 1982, a year before the research was concluded, Dr. W.E. Shewell-Cooper died and his son Ramsay stood in as Honorary Director. We can only imagine what a terrible blow this must have been for family, friends and supporters. The house and gardens had to be sold to pay Death Duties and the family and Office moved to a smaller location next door. A year later the results of the study concluded ‘THERE IS NOT MUCH DIFFERENCE’ which certainly would not have helped morale. These events correlate to the rapid decline in membership to around 400 in 1986 where it has remained, more or less, ever since.


However, whilst membership declined ideas did not! The GGA continued to evolve quietly in the background as other organic organisations (and very good ones) for example HDRA (Garden Organic) and Permaculture increased their membership by focusing on the promotion of organic gardening and living.

1987 - 2000 A new Director, mycorrizha, schools project begins


In 1987 David Wilkin became the new Director and moved the Head Office from Hertfordshire to Gloucestershire. With his medical background and interest in natural healing he worked hard to establish the idea that better nutrition comes from food that has been grown in a healthy soil that is alive with worms and microscopic life (the result of not digging).

David also introduced a commercial element to the charity with ‘Cumulus Organics’ suppliers of organic gardening products. Cumulus no longer exist but David independently continues to supply organic gardening products through a small mail order company called Pinetum Products and continues to offer GGA members discounts. Today there is no connection or influence over the GGA by any commercial organisation what so ever.

  David attracted the attention of independent researcher, John Reeves who brought with him his passion and knowledge of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and plants. John’s unique research, which is yet to be fully realised, introduced the idea that this special relationship can greatly increase the mineral composition, including trace elements, of many crops. However, whilst this mutual relationship has existed ever since plants first colonised the land millions of years ago, it is very delicate. Not only is it killed by chemicals but also it’s susceptible to being reduced or killed, if turned on its head and exposed to light. [9]

A picture showing mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship


GGA attract independent researcher
John Reeves and learn more about
mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship
between soil fungi and plants

  During the 1990s David updated and changed the logo and in 1997 staged a nutritional conference at Warwick University called the Food-Health Connection: a diet for our children’s future. With eminent speakers such as Patrick Holden (Director of Soil Association) Dr. Neil Ward and Dr. Peter Mansfield the GGA established a new niche for itself as the charity concerned for ‘growing nutritious food’. Inspired by success David began to develop the idea of a schools project that would teach children about nutrition from food.

Nutrition Conference at Warwick University,

The Food-Health Connection -
A diet for our Children’s Future


The GGA logoGGA gets a new logo



2000 - Present

Matt Adams, GGA Director

In 2000 myself, Matt Adams, became the new director and brought with me my skills, knowledge and experience of twenty years in Mechanical Production Engineering and more recently a four year education as an ‘environmental manager’ which I completed in 1996. My remit was to take the GGA forward into the 21st Century and revive its good fortunes. Accepting the challenge the office was moved from North to South Gloucestershire in Wotton Under Edge.

The style of my environmental education was diverse, enjoyable, sometimes depressing but overall it helped me develop a better sense of the whole picture and how connected we all are to nature. I consider myself to be a ‘novice gardener’ with no formal training in horticulture. What I have to offer however, is inspired by nature and a philosophy called Deep Ecology [10] which aims to stimulate debate around our current world view. I hope to build links and information on Deep Ecology in the future but for now you may begin to recognise what it is from the practical examples we are beginning to develop.


In the early days I spent a lot of time thinking about and consulting with all concerned to see if the GGA could develop a unique focus that no one else was doing. This included GGA governing members, the membership and even Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association. The message was clear. No one else was concerned about nutrition in the same way that the GGA were. While this process was ongoing it was in 2000 that Sir John Crebs, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency stated publicly that:

“organic food is no more nutritious than conventionally grown food.”

The response from the Soil Association in 2002 was based on a paper review of all the studies carried out to date that have considered this question. Their conclusion was that whilst there tended to be a leaning towards organic food being more nutritious, there was insufficient evidence to be really sure. This led to call for more research to be carried out with particular emphasis on not just quantitative but qualitative data as well. [11] Qualitative refers to more subjective tests that can not be measured so easily such as taste and vitality along side data such as mineral content, which can.


Another event which happened around this time was a publication by Geologist and Nutritionist David Thomas (Honorary Advisor to GGA) who had discovered and published a report which found that on average 40% of minerals from the UK food chain have been lost over a fifty year period between 1940 and 1991. [12] This work was based on the Government's own research where every ten years they took a selection of vegetables, fruit, meat, milk and cheese and analysed it.

Could there be a possible link between modern farming, including some large scale organic processes, which attack soil ecology every year in particular mycorrhiza and the subsequent loss of nutrients? And if so is there a link between this and the quality of health in the UK? An internet research by the GGA established that in 2004 83% of all deaths were as a result of degenerative disease and that this is not just a result of people living longer but that children are now developing these very same diseases – a worrying trend. [13]

These events helped confirm our direction that we should focus on nutrition. In line with our aims and in tune with current issues we modified the schools project David had begun to include experiential learning and research. The research was based on modifying an original question posed by the GGA which instead of considering yield we asked - is there any nutritional difference between organic food that has been grown in the same soil but managed differently i.e. no-dig, versus digging. We added a few more methods as well to arrive at a total of six where one was conventionally grown another was control but the other four were all accepted methods of growing organic food.

Sowing the Seed Pilot Project
In 2003 we received a little funding to help run our first pilot project and test the idea with key stage three pupils at Newent Community School, Gloucester and Bristol Steiner School. Using the same soil to grow carrots and peas we tested them for visual appearance, taste, yield and mineral content. Results suggested no-dig to be best.

This was impressive but before continuing in schools it was felt that more needed to be done to develop the methodology and test this idea in a real garden setting. Working on a shoestring we found support from the Bio-dynamic Agricultural Association and Hiram Trust. A partnership project called GREEN (Gardens for Research Experiential Education and nutrition) was established in Stroud which began in 2004.


GREEN (Gardens for Research experiential Education and Nutrition)

Designed to last four years in a Bio-dynamically managed garden we carried out comparative research between no-dig, single dig and double dig. We introduced more testing such as measuring the micro-life in the soil (an emerging science), and methods to test vitality of soil and crops as well as measuring the minerals present in both soil and crop. This original test ended in 2007. Results are currently being written up however, key findings suggest:


A knowledge of soil biology is far more useful than soil chemistry if what we want to grow is nutritious food.


The food we have produced has more minerals than anything grown or eaten since the 1940’s

We believe this work is significant but not conclusive. We need to expand the GREEN model so we can begin to test the same idea in different soils and climates to see if a consistent pattern emerges. This we would like to do in collaboration with recognised research bodies and where appropriate, with schools taking part in our Sowing the Seed project.
The title of our project, Moving Beyond Organic naturally emerged at the end of 2004. Inspired in part by the projects we had begun and aware of current and topical issues that connect nutrition, health, sustainability and issues surrounding the erosion of organic standards. In short we believe the time has come to move beyond organic which is popularly perceived as chemical free to actually grow food for nutrition which includes so much more. To develop this we need to consider the following areas:
  • a better understanding of nature, in particular soil ecology in relation to growing nutritious food.
  • a more complete understanding of what human nutrition is so this can be related to food quality.
  • the creation of minimum nutrition food standards i.e. based on 1940s mineral levels and the continual improvement thereafter.
  • an efficient method that can test the food we eat for its potential to supply good nutrition.

I am proud of what the GGA has managed to achieve to date and feel that after twenty years in the background we are ready, once more, to stand up confidently and talk about new ideas that promote a new relationship and approach to growing food for nutrition. The idea of Moving Beyond Organic, I hope, will literally question our basic assumptions as we develop its potential and learn new things.

It has evolved after years of consultation and thinking about issues that surround and connect soil, biology, health and the environment. It challenges the current way we think about and understand nutrition and act towards nature. As our research and education projects unfold we have already begun the process - But there is so much more to learn and we need support to do it.

In 2007 we developed a business plan to collect our thoughts and begin applying for funds to help increase our profile, membership support and development of our projects GREEN and Sowing the Seed. We believe now is the right time for such a project and hope you too will support us. Thank you.




[1] F. C. King; Is Digging Necessary?, 1946, Reprinted in 1948 by Levens Gardens, KENDAL, Westmoland.

[2] A. Guest, Gardening Without Digging, 1949, Reprinted in 1999 by Marshalls in association with The Good Gardeners Association.

[3] Shewell-Cooper, Dr. W.E., The A.B.C. of Gardening, 1936, The English Universities Press Ltd.

[4] Shewell-Cooper, Dr. W. E., Picture and text taken from, Composting Correctly, non dated, Published by The Good Gardeners Association.

[5] Personal conversation with Ramsay Shewell-Cooper 19/02/08

[6] Shewell-Cooper, Dr. W.E., GGA Year Book 1970-71, Published by the Good Gardeners Association.

[7] Shewell-Cooper, Dr. W.E., GGA Year Book 1970-71, Published by the Good Gardeners Association.

[8] GGA Archieve file, letter dated 1979.

[9] Reeves, J., Natural Agriculture and Health, 2004, Self published, Copies available from the GGA

[10] Deep Ecology is the opposite to what is often called ‘shallow ecology’ which is used to describe the current approach to tackling the environmental issues we face today such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, none of which appear to be working very well. Deep Ecology literally encourages us to ask ever deeper questions about ourselves and our position with in the natural world and how we impact on it. It questions our current world view (human-centred) and aims to stimulate open debate around this topic so we may at some point develop a view that is more respectful and in tune with all living and non-living things (non-human-centred). By encouraging individuals to ask ever deeper questions about themselves, nature and how inextricably linked we all are to it. The logical conclusion it argues is self-realisation that to harm nature is to harm ourselves. If we find this to be true the greater the chance we will have of creating policies for a sustainable future.

[11] Organic Farming, food quality and human health. A review of the evidence, 2002, written and researched by Shane Heaton, published by Soil Association.

[12] Thomas D. E., A study on the mineral depletion of the foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 1991, Nutrition and Health Vol. 17: No. 2, 2003, Published in The Journal of the McCarrison Society for Nutrition and Health. Note: The data used as the basis for this study was published in 5 Editions, initially under the auspices of the Medical Research Council and later the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods and the Royal Society of Chemistry: Authors R.A. McCance and E.M. Widdowson.

[13] Adams, M, 2007, GGA News journal Autumn 2007, Issue 165)