A brief history of the kitchen garden, and where to find them
Garden historian and author Christina Harrison charts the history of the country-house ‘kitchen garden’, and highlights venues around the UK at which to find edible inspiration.
The dream of an allotment
Late last summer [in 2019], on a scorching hot day, I got the phone call. After five long years on a waiting list, I was finally being offered a local allotment plot. Having made do with a small garden veggie patch, this felt like a heaven-sent opportunity, and the chance for a whole new horticultural adventure.
My very first action was to head to the National Trust’s Ham House (handily next door to the allotments) to study its beautiful kitchen garden in detail, taking notes on companion planting, herbs, pumpkins and ‘stepover’ apple varieties. Over the past year my husband and I have spent weekends joyfully digging and weeding, growing and planting, dreaming of delicious fresh ingredients to take home.
Of course, having an allotment took on a whole new dimension once the [first] Covid-19 lockdown was announced. Whilst we couldn’t magically produce instant food for ourselves, the allotments soon became a place of sanctuary, a safe place for exercise and social distancing while getting our dose of nature too. I can safely say that having my hands in the soil saved my sanity over those long months. And I’m not alone (as the growing waiting lists testify), for the simple joy of ‘growing your own’ has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, and lockdown saw many of us seeking solace in our gardens and scouring the internet for vegetable seeds to grow.
What is a kitchen garden?
Growing your own produce is nothing new; it is deep-rooted in our national psyche. Vegetable or kitchen gardens have been around in Britain since at least the time of the Romans and were also a well-documented part of monastic and manorial gardens of the medieval period. Beds of diverse herbs, medicinal plants and dye plants, edible flowers as well as salads, vegetables and fruit were grown alongside orchards, dovecotes, beehives and fishponds. This was true self-sufficiency, and people’s lives depended on their success. In fact, the majority of people tried to grow what they could, wherever they were, until the Agricultural Revolution changed the dynamics of society and the countryside.
When we now talk of a ‘kitchen garden’ the image most probably conjured up is of a beautiful walled Victorian acre or two, its box-edged beds neatly divided by gravel paths, and its warm brick walls covered in espaliered fruit trees, and this is a common sight on Sunday-afternoon visits to country houses up and down the country. These are the ultimate kitchen gardens of the wealthy and offer an insight into all the innovations and ingenuity of the past.
The model Georgian and Victorian country estates, the likes of which can be seen at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and Audley End in Essex, aimed for complete self-sufficiency – from vegetable and fruit production to having deer, cattle, rabbits, sheep, chickens, pigeons and fish all potentially available in their wider acres, alongside orchards and even mushroom houses and vineyards. It was in these landscapes that a balance between beauty and bounty was sought.
“The size of the garden was usually in proportion to the size of the household but also reflected the family’s status”
The kitchen gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries were truly extraordinary, growing a far wider diversity of crops than most of us would imagine today. Earlier examples were often near the house and the stables (the former for ease of access for the kitchen staff, and the latter for access to the beneficial manure for the garden), but as time went on they were often moved further from the house, giving way to Capability Brown’s new landscape parks, Humphry Repton’s flower gardens or Charles Barry’s Italianate terraces, depending on the chosen fashion. The one-acre walled kitchen garden at the magnificent Harewood House near Leeds, begun in 1759 and refurbished in the 1930s, is on the far side of the ornamental lake, which must have been somewhat of a trial for the staff ferrying produce to and fro.
One notable exception is Abbotsford on the banks of the River Tweed on the Scottish Borders, home to the 19th-century novelist Sir Walter Scott. His one-acre kitchen garden is one of three walled gardens next to the house, complete with a glasshouse he designed himself, used both for plants and as a family retreat. But wherever they were built, kitchen gardens were expensive undertakings and were meticulously planned, using the latest innovations, for maximum productivity. The size of the garden was usually in proportion to the size of the household but also reflected the family’s status. Abbotsford is said to be ‘appropriate for a minor baronet’.
Form and function in kitchen gardens
Walled kitchen gardens usually have a regular pattern – laid out on a square or rectangular plot, ideally southwest-facing, divided into quarters for rotation cropping with hard-wearing gravel paths and surrounded by brick walls (to keep in the sun’s warmth and protect from frosts and wind). The south-facing wall was built the highest, to make the most of captured heat and for shelter. It was usually against this wall that any glasshouses and cold frames were built. Here also were planted apricots, nectarines, peaches, grapes and other fruits that need a good amount of sun to ripen.
In her delightful book Kitchen Garden Estate, Helene Gammack describes each necessary element of such gardens and how each wall had its own prescribed fruits – north-facing walls for more acid fruits such as gooseberries, morello cherries and later fruiting varieties; eastern walls for sweet cherries, plums and apples; and west-facing walls for early pears.
Shallow-rooting perennial crops often sat in the borders below the fruit trees, including herbs, strawberries, rhubarb, artichokes and asparagus, as well as salad crops and cutting flowers. Some kitchen gardens still have original fruit trees or vines, despite years of neglect in the 20th century. At Audley End you can see peach trees dating to the early 1800s and 150-year-old ‘Black Hamburgh’ grapevines.
“Good husbandry was the aim and a well-kept garden reflected on the reputation of the household”
While the best gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries had orangeries and pineries (for pineapples) using hotbeds of manure and tanner’s bark and walls heated by stoves, the technical innovations in heating, irrigation, ventilation and architectural design of the Industrial Revolution (as well as the repeal of the glass tax in 1845) meant glasshouses truly came of age in the Victorian kitchen garden. This paved the way for greater experimentation both in design and with what could be grown, and glasshouses soon became status symbols in their own right. Not only were citrus, grapes, apricots and occasionally pineapples being grown, but also lychees, mangoes and bananas, among other ‘exotic’ fruits.
At Audley End the impressive 52m vinery and other glasshouses were built using the latest technology on the advice of Thomas Rivers – the leading fruit horticulturist of the day. Thankfully, many such original glasshouses have now been restored, including those at Florence Court, near Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland. The two-acre kitchen garden here dates back to around 1780 and glasshouses such as the vinery and apricot houses were built at the peak of innovation in the mid-19th century.
Crops from all over the world were now being grown by the ingenious gardeners of the period. Often dozens, or many dozens, of varieties of fruits, potatoes, salads and vegetables were cleverly grown to be harvested at different times throughout the season and year, as well as for their characterful flavours and for their resilience to the local climate too. Good husbandry was the aim and a well-kept garden reflected on the reputation of the household. At Beningbrough Hall – one of the first kitchen gardens to be renovated by the National Trust, in 1995 – there are more than 50 varieties of apple, including rare Yorkshire varieties, and a striking avenue of pears, which sit alongside other heritage crops and some unusual plants, including liquorice.
Restoring kitchen gardens
At Audley End, English Heritage restored the 18th-century two-and-a-half-acre kitchen garden in 1999, and here they have almost an embarrassment of pomological riches with around 150 heritage apple varieties including ‘Golden Noble’, ‘Knobbed (or Knobby) Russet’, ‘D’Arcy Spice’, ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’ and ‘Thomas Rivers’, as well as many pears, plums, peaches, cherries, citrus and soft fruits. In contrast to the Victorian era, it is now completely organic.
Many kitchen gardens (and the knowledge of their gardeners) were lost in the 20th century – due to a loss of workforce during the two World Wars and because of the rise of easily available food. Revolutions in agriculture, canning, refrigeration and the ease of transporting and storing goods meant that growing your own food was no longer necessary and, after the Second World War, the appetite for ‘digging for victory’ lost its urgency and appeal.
With a brief resurgence of ‘the good life’ and self-sufficiency in the 1970s, and despite the popularity of the TV series The Victorian Kitchen Garden in the 1980s, it was not until the turn of the millennium that people began to be interested again in the origins of their food, in organic principles, food miles, heritage varieties, sustainability, in-season cooking and working with the rhythm of the seasons in their own vegetable gardens. Over the decades, kitchen gardens have, it seems, charted our changing relationship with food.
The restoration of kitchen gardens has been gathering pace in the past 30 years or so: visitors now want to see the working garden, understand how food was produced for the house, and marvel at the innovations and productivity of the past. This has often been done in meticulous detail, using archives and heritage varieties of a particular period in the estate’s past, such as at Audley End, Abbotsford and Harewood.
“Where kitchen gardens once fed the aristocracy, today their main purpose is to feed the visitors in their own cafés”
The 17th-century hidden two-acre kitchen garden at Chiswick House in Surrey is also now restored, complete with new beehives and offering educational activities and tours. And among the stunning gardens of Mottisfont in Hampshire there is now a new kitchen garden filled with culinary and medicinal plants that reflect the estate’s past. Here there are some delightful new features too, such as long gourd pergolas or ‘gourd walks’, where you can wander under 20 varieties of colourful hanging gourds, plump and waiting to be picked in autumn.
At Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, the Marquess of Bute commissioned garden designer Rosemary Verey to remodel the kitchen garden in 1990, complete with new glasshouse, and this has now been updated by the garden staff. It is often the case that where kitchen gardens once fed the aristocracy their main purpose today is to feed the visitors in their own cafés, with sustainability a watchword for many such visitor attractions.
Exploring kitchen gardens
With many of these gardens now restored, rebuilt or reopened, orchards replanted, beehives reinstalled and lakes restocked, we are rediscovering what our forebears knew all along – that diversity in what we eat and growing our own produce can hold great rewards for both body and soul, and these treasure troves of inspirational horticulture hold tangible, sensory and edible links to our past, and our future.
The coronavirus lockdown saw record sales of vegetable seeds; the RHS reported a five-fold increase in inquiries; the viewing figures for programmes such as the BBC’s Gardeners’ World vastly increased, and we have sought advice from top chefs on cooking better meals with in-season ingredients.
Now that our freedom to visit country houses has been restored and harvest time approaches, we should grasp the opportunity to seek inspiration from these gems of the horticultural world and rediscover the simple pleasures of growing and harvesting our own food in whatever space we have.
Where to find kitchen gardens
- Abbotsford, Melrose, Roxburghshire, 50% off entry with National Art Pass
- Audley End House and Gardens, Saffron Walden, free entry with National Art Pass
- Beningbrough Hall, York, free entry with National Art Pass
- Chiswick House & Gardens, London, free entry with National Art Pass
- Florence Cort, Enniskillen, free entry with National Art Pass
- Ham House and Garden, London, free entry with National Art Pass
- Harewood House, Leeds, 50% off entry with National Art Pass
- Mottisfont, near Romsey, free entry with National Art Pass
- Mount Stuart House and Gardens, Rothesay, 25% off entry with National Art Pass
Outdoor spaces at some museums, galleries and historic houses are reopening in April. Check their websites to see what's open when, or get planning a future day out when indoor visiting resumes.
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.