The Dirt: Clive Blazey

I was a bit scared of interviewing Clive Blazey. The founder of The Diggers Club has a reputation. He writes books with titles like There is No Excuse for Ugliness, and often riles people with his stance on Eucalpytus trees in gardens (“They’re really lousy shade trees”). He’s a big personality in the plant world – an heirloom seed hero, a passionate plantsman and, thankfully, not very scary at all.

We arrive at his Northcote home on a late autumn afternoon. The front door is wide open, and the front yard is an abundant tangle of early autumn beauty. Clive ambles up, barefoot, and offers us a drink. We sit on the front verandah of the home he shares with his wife Penny and verbally meander around the garden.

Clive Blazey has been gardening ideas and plants for most of his life. He founded mail order seed business The Diggers Club in 1978 whilst studying business at university. “I went into the Melbourne Botanic Gardens when I was 22 and thought ‘That’s where I want to live,’” he tells me. “I suppose everyone has this vision of creating their own little piece of paradise.” Clive’s idea of paradise was plant based and political – He’s a strong opponent of genetically modified seeds and is one of the pioneers of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties in Australia.

Clive and Penny Blazey’s purpose in setting up The Diggers Club was to rescue the old and interesting varieties of vegetables mainstream companies were removing from their lists. “The only way to reach the keenest gardeners was to set up mail order distribution, bypassing retail shops,” he says.

Diversity is a mainstay of the Diggers business. They sell thousands of different fruit, vegetable and flower seeds and seedlings (including 50 different varieties of tomatoes!), clearly placing themselves and their offering far away from the large, big name hardware and garden stores, referred to by Clive as box warehouses.

Nowadays, the box warehouse people are the only ones who can afford to put up nursery outlets,” Clive says. “They’re like a complete pesticide, they wipe out every damn nursery around.”

Regardless of this, business seems to be good for The Diggers Club. They’ve got 76 000 subversive members who are committed to organic gardening, heirloom plant varieties, and interesting seeds; two historic properties – Heronswood on the Mornington Peninsula and St Erth near Daylesford; they publish a quarterly magazine, of which Clive is the editor; and host various events throughout the year such as heritage apple festivals, tomato festivals and more.

To ensure the longterm protection and preservation of The Diggers Club’s properties and business, Clive and Penny established the Diggers Garden and Environment Trust in 2011,  handing over ownership of The Diggers Club to the trust. “Whatever profit the business makes goes back into preserving the gardens (Heronswood and St Erth)” Clive says. “This allows us to preserve the historic properties and spend the right amount of money on preserving the gardens.”

But back to the verandah. “I wanted to get back into gardening,” Clive explains when we speak of the reasons he and Penny bought the property. He hadn’t worked in The Diggers Club gardens for a while – “My staff had all told me to get out of the garden, I’m not tidy enough for them!” He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to have his hands in the dirt again, making as much mess as he wants, and tells me of his plans for the next few months – “I’ll cut it back in May, do some more weeding, mulch it and that’s about it, apart from fix the mistakes I’ve made, I’ll have to correct a few of those.”

I reckon he’s done a great job, but his kids are tougher on him. “My kids are appalled at my sense of colour,” Clive tells me.

“It’s all boring and old-fashioned because they’re into pinks and oranges together and stuff like that. I can’t see that in a pleasing way at all, whereas this is all a bit ho-hum for them, I think.”

Whilst his adult children may not approve of Clive’s use of colour, it sounds like they certainly appreciate the food produced from his garden. He tells me of his children and grandchildren being fed regularly on tomatoes, silverbeet and self-sown potatoes from his backyard. I assume then, also given his thirty-year association with edible plants, organic gardening and heritage seeds, that Clive is a foodie. He’s not. Absolutely not. “If I ever offer to cook for my kids, they’ll say ‘Don’t, Dad’. I’m a so-called food legend because of the work we did with growing heritage plants, not because I know how to cook them,” he says with a chuckle.

Clive is a man of strong ideas and opinions. “I think suburban gardens are universally horrible, almost,” he tells me. On further discussion, I get the feeling his distaste has a lot to do with beauty, or lack of. Coherence is a word we agree on which, in a way, gets to the bottom of this issue (and perhaps a few others) for Clive.

I’m fascinated with the idea of coherence,” he says. “It seems to me it explains whether art, a garden or plant combination is any good, whether it gets somewhere visually.”

Someone once told me the role of an artist is to learn to see. I reckon Clive Blazey is, at heart, an artist. He’s a fascinating man – a man of great vision, a strong sense of beauty, and the holder of a unique way of seeing the world. His ideas may be divisive, but I have the feeling they’re founded in a desire to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Like many thinking plant people, his garden is where it all begins and ends. “I’m fascinated by plants, and optimistic enough to think that I’ll get it right eventually,” he tells me.

I reckon he already has.