Whether you’re growing herbs in a pot or planting an elaborate potager, the feeling of achievement can be just as enjoyable as the tasty crops themselves. On the following pages, leading garden designers from across Cotswold provide their tips for successful kitchen gardening…
For more than 6,000 years, the British have been cultivating vegetables, including cabbage, asparagus, kale and leeks. The Romans then introduced many tender fruits and vegetables, such as peaches, mulberries, almonds, pears, quince and grapes, which require more protection from the vagaries of our weather.
Even in medieval times, walled gardens, with their warmer microclimate, were a feature of some monasteries and manors. By the mid-15th century, they were routinely dedicated to the production of fruit and vegetables. Walled kitchen gardens then reached their peak in the 19th century as new industrial and horticultural techniques came in. For example, cheaper glass and elaborate heating systems allowed out-of-season fruit, vegetables and flowers to be produced.
Landscape manager and horticulturalist Sarah Cotter Craig is enthusiastic about kitchen gardens. In 2012, she co-ordinated an Oxfordshire Gardens Trust lottery-funded research project charting the history of over 200 walled kitchen gardens in the county. Her research included the famous kitchen garden at Rousham, which is one of Oxfordshire’s earliest examples, dating from
the 17th century.
It used to be that a one acre garden could supply vegetables for up to 12 people and be managed by one gardener. However, by the end of World War II, there was a decline in the number of productive walled gardens in the UK as a result of more readily available fruit and vegetables, higher labour costs and social reform.
Today, those original walled kitchen gardens have a variety of uses: some have been turned into ornamental gardens, such as at Buscot Park near Faringdon. Others are still in partial production, including at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, where the west end of the garden is used to produce fruit and vegetables for the house, whilst the east end is now a children’s playground. At Cogges Manor Farm, near Witney, volunteers have recently restored the kitchen garden to full productive use, and the walled gardens at Adderbury and Ruskin Hall have been converted into allotments for local residents to use.
Nowadays, few of us have these large-scale areas set aside to grow vegetables. But if you do want to grow your own, a vast garden isn’t actually necessary. With a little motivation and imagination, there is enormous scope for success even in the smallest spaces. A windowbox or even pots on the windowsill can produce enough culinary herbs for a household.
Paul Hervey-Brookes, plantsman and garden designer from Allomorphic in Stroud, advises, “Remember that containers in small spaces can be highly productive. Endive, combined with chives and perennial fennel, makes a wonderful textural green combination and provides produce for a number of dishes. If space is at a premium, then we always suggest growing what is expensive to buy: don’t grow lettuce, which can be purchased for pence, but instead thai coriander, flat leaved parsley or micro-leaves, which add sophistication and beauty to dishes.”
Vegetable gardens do lend themselves to a formal style, and traditionally a potager would have seen flowers and herbs planted together for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Alex Brotherton from Cotswold Estates & Gardens in Cirencester suggests, “Herbs add to the structure of the garden and can be used to provide fragrance and flavour whilst facilitating divisions between crops. Consider the use of edible flowers as a means of adding another dimension to your food, bringing colour to your beds and deterring unwanted pests. Try English Marigold (Calendula officinalis), which is free flowering and useful in preventing aphids whilst attracting predatory hoverflies. Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are also known for their pest preventative properties as well as the leaves being used to add a peppery kick to salads.”
Paul Hervey-Brookes suggests growing runner beans as archways (rather than the more usual wigwams) to enable companion planting and yield more produce per bed.
The key to any planting is careful planning. A site should be sheltered and south facing if possible, with the tallest structures and crops farthest from the sun so as not to shadow consecutive crops. Cheltenham based garden designer Daniel Mogridge says, “Hedges are great for filtering damaging winds, but again don’t have them too tall. If you are growing directly in the ground, you will need enough beds to ‘rotate’ crops (crops have four basic characteristics; leafy, fruiting, rooting and legumes [nitrogen producing, which enriches the soil]). Avoid growing vegetables with the same character in the same bed on consecutive years. This will help manage soil nutrients, pathogens and pests. If you have great soil, lucky you! If not, a great way to improve this is with raised beds as you can import better soil to targeted areas.
“Root vegetables, for instance, will grow funny arm and legs if the soil is too stoney, which is all very well with often amusing results, but it does make them much harder to prep for eating. Raised beds or not, avoid making them wider than 1.2m, or 60cm if only accessible from one side, as we can comfortably reach about 60cm in before we must take a step. Remember to allow yourself room to move, or pass a wheelbarrow between the beds too.”
This point is echoed by Alex Brotherton who suggests that, ideally, paths should be landscaped, as those of a soil composition will become sticky in wetter periods. He also believes that you don’t have to plant in the straight rows typical of vegetable patches: blocks of vegetables surrounded by herbs and flowering beds are worth consideration.
Colour introduces interest to a garden and Alex adds, “If you have suitable structures, use climbing crops with interesting colours to provide height and depth to the garden. Borlotto Supremo Nano and Hildora are interesting dwarf French bean varieties that produce red and yellow beans respectively.
F1 Modus and Gardener’s Delight offer great tasting, attractive cherry tomatoes that will happily grow up bamboo supports. Consider heritage or interesting varieties to give you colour and texture that differ from ‘the norm’, and experiment with colourful varieties of beetroot, carrot, chard, cauliflower and cabbage. Trailing plants such as strawberries will happily grow and spread along the fronts of the raised beds, helping to soften the sleepers or walls.”
This careful planning before you start planting will reap dividends. As Paul Hervey-Brookes says, “New gardeners and those who fall in love with the idea of freshly grown home produce often end up with bumper crops of a few vegetables and very little of the variety they imagined. It’s a simple mistake, in part made up of the excitement of growing edibles and the inexperience of planning for successive crops.”
For inspiration, it is well worth visiting local National Trust properties as many have wonderful kitchen gardens. Hidcote Manor, Chastleton, Upton Park and Snowshill all have different sized areas, and can provide ideas for what grows well in different areas of the Cotswolds.
You can start your growing at any time from mid-spring through the summer and at any scale. As Daniel Mogridge advises, “If you are setting
out a large kitchen garden, you may find it easier to do the ground work during the colder months. Once established, even the colder months are not barren as there are plenty of evergreen and winter herbs and vegetables to keep the appeal and the produce coming.”
Sarah Cotter Craig adds, “It is never too late to start growing your own vegetables, and you certainly don’t need a walled kitchen garden! I always grow vegetables that taste better straight from the garden, such as peas, French beans, potatoes, carrots and salad leaves. As I have very little space in my garden, I grow climbing peas and beans up a tee-pee of hazel poles in among the flower beds. All you need for salad leaves is a small gap in plants at the front of the border, and some of the straightest carrots I have grown were in an old recycling bin.”
It’s also a great idea to get children involved in growing their own vegetables. The Royal Horticultural Society cites academic research that suggests children perform better at school if they are involved with gardening and many will develop a greater interest in healthy eating if they get to grow their own vegetables. They suggest starting off by growing quick and tasty edible plants, including swiss chard Bright Lights, radish, lettuce, courgettes and runner beans.
A final suggestion is from Sarah Cotter Craig: “Last year, I created a small salad garden, for children, out of old soup tins. All you need to do is make a few holes in the bottom of the tin, cover the base with gravel, fill the tin up with compost and sow with a salad leaf mix, basil or micro-herbs. The children can paint the tins to their own designs and then keep them on the kitchen windowsill.”
Allomorphic: 01453 767498 / GL5 1BB / allomorphic.co.uk
Cotswold Estates & Gardens: 01285 654766 / GL7 7BG / estatesandgardens.co.uk
Sarah Cotter Craig: 01608 674434 / GL56 0ST / cotswoldgardendesigns.co.uk
Daniel Mogridge: 01242 518508 / GL53 8AN / danielmogridge.com
National Trust: nationaltrust.org.uk