Cultivated tastes

An increased desire to be in control of what we eat has given the kitchen garden fresh and fashionable appeal. Tim Richardson profiles new approaches to these productive – and seductive – spaces

The walled kitchen garden at West Dean, created by Sarah Wain and Jim Buckland
The walled kitchen garden at West Dean, created by Sarah Wain and Jim Buckland | Image: Jim Buckland

The dream of owning a country house with a large garden traditionally conjures up visions of sunlit lawns, tall trees and topiary, burgeoning roses and flower borders – but over the past decade or two it has also come to include a thriving kitchen garden, last seen booming in the Edwardian era. This reflects a sea-change in our attitudes to gardening.

Attitudes began to change in the 1990s, as we all became more aware of the value of home-grown and organic produce – nutritionally, environmentally and, it has to be said, emotionally. There is nothing so satisfying as presenting a dish of your own produce at the table, picked just hours or minutes before, and often a matter of metres away. This is surely one of the profoundest pleasures of gardening, at whatever scale one is operating. As a result, fruit and vegetables are now seen to be worthy of prioritisation by garden owners who wish to invest in their properties. It has become natural to envisage a demarcated vegetable garden as part of the revamp of any estate. And it is no longer quite so important for the kitchen garden to be spectacularly decorative, as in the French potager tradition; one now hears owners talking of their walled gardens as “glorified veg patches”, since they are often more interested in the results at the table than in the aesthetic display.

Dan Pearson, a designer who tends to have his finger on the pulse of garden trends, observes: “Most of the private projects we take on now include an area for growing; it’s become very fashionable. And it’s all underpinned by a desire to be in control of what you eat.” For Pearson, the key to success is making the kitchen garden both “productive and seductive”: he always ensures that some part of an area given over to fruit and veg is specifically designated as a place for sitting or dining. “We’re working now on a garden at a house in Berkshire, and the walled kitchen garden has become a real hub,” he says. “We’ve got a long dining table in there that seats 30 people – the owners love that.” It’s as if the kitchen garden has become the outdoor equivalent of the kitchen inside the house: the place where people can meet informally and work side by side, preparing food or clearing away; the place where the most interesting conversations happen.

A brassica bed at the West Dean garden
A brassica bed at the West Dean garden | Image: Trevor Sims

That’s the good news. The challenges come with the gardening itself, which is labour-intensive and therefore potentially expensive to keep up – something that all the experts point out to clients at the outset. “The first thing to work out is how much you want to grow,” Pearson says. “There’s nothing worse than being overwhelmed by your own produce.” The next thing to think about is the soil, which may be weed-infested or otherwise poor. Pearson recommends a “spit” (spade’s depth) of good top-soil augmented with organic matter as a starting point.

Pearson’s approach at the Berkshire garden has been based on the traditional principle of quartering the space, and the result is that only a quarter of the acre is actually devoted to growing vegetables for the table. Another quarter is for fruit trees and bushes, another is for cut flowers, and the last is given over to lavender bushes, which are also harvested. Pearson is an advocate of lavender as a practical and decorative option that needs very little maintenance and keeps its shape in winter. It is also a great attractor of insects, which will pollinate the fruit bushes and other plants – as will calendula, for lining paths, and fennel in the herb garden.

For a smaller space he recommends four raised beds, each 2m-3m wide to allow for easy access, set up on a three-year rotational system, with the fourth bed reserved for more permanent vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus. To this he suggests adding a bed for cut flowers, and another one or two for fruit. “The beds can be quite small,” he says. “It’s more useful having a number of smaller ones. The raised-bed system also stops the gardens looking shambolic in winter, which they have a tendency to do.”

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But there is no escaping the facts regarding maintenance: to keep up a half-acre working kitchen garden requires one person working full-time on it for three or four days per week. This ratio is confirmed by Jekka McVicar, owner of Jekka’s Herb Farm, who runs a consultancy from her nursery near Bristol. “All of the gardens I’ve put in have got full-time gardeners,” she says. “I’ve made one for some chefs in Kent where there are two gardeners, and at the quarter-acre veg garden I made at a private house with five acres in Hereford there is someone full-time. When I arrived they had three people working on it part-time, but I said that if they wanted espaliered [wall-trained] fruit trees, an orchard and vegetables, they needed a full-time worker. It can cost a lot of money to run a proper vegetable garden, but what you get is not just the enjoyment of fresh produce but also the health benefits.”

For McVicar a kitchen garden should be sited as close to the house as practicable – “for the simple reason that you must use it” – and ought to be demarcated in some way. If one is not fortunate enough to have a walled garden, then a single wall might be built to create some sense of enclosure on the south side so that espaliered fruit can be grown (as her Hereford clients have done). Alternatively, a feature such as a long arched walkway of espaliered apples can be attempted, as at the Northamptonshire garden of another of her clients.

“It’s all about the soil and the vegetables,” says Cleve West, the garden designer who has won the Best in Show award at the past two Chelsea Flower Shows. “I’d only consider incorporating a vegetable plot if there’s space and it will be properly maintained.” West is currently working on two kitchen gardens, the first at a five-acre family garden in Sussex, the second in a partly walled area at a historic house in Gloucestershire. At the latter, the owners are envisaging a French-style potager, with box and yew hedging, while water from natural springs will be diverted into the 36sq m site as decorative rills. “We’re going to quarter the space,” says West, “and then we’re going to quarter the quarters, which is handy for crop rotation.”

Chiswick House’s kitchen garden, restored by a group of volunteers led by Karen Liebreich
Chiswick House’s kitchen garden, restored by a group of volunteers led by Karen Liebreich

At the Sussex property the approach is more informal, with the kitchen garden at one edge of the estate backed by a new orchard that will provide a screen from neighbours. West’s secret weapon here in the battle against slugs and snails will be the chickens, which will be free to roam across the plot, “cleaning it up” and fertilising as they go.

For practical advice, Karen Liebreich is a good source of information, as it was she who instigated the campaign to stop the walled kitchen garden at Chiswick House being turned into a retail park. Over several years, Liebreich and her colleagues established what is now a thriving community garden at the site. “If we could do it all again, I would get the electrical and water supplies sorted out first of all,” she says. “I’d also get the path system properly laid at the outset, have the walls mended, and do any lighting that is necessary.”

Liebreich now co-runs Abundance, a charity devoted to collecting unwanted fruit from London’s trees, and she points out that every area has its own varieties that could be included in a kitchen garden. She also recommends staggering the harvest by ensuring a good mix of early-, middle- and late-cropping varieties, and enjoins: “Don’t grow any varieties you can also find in a supermarket.”

A garden designed by Jekka McVicar for clients in Kent
A garden designed by Jekka McVicar for clients in Kent | Image: Jekka McVicar

One of the vegetable and fruit gardens that is most admired by professionals in Britain is at West Dean, in Sussex. Husband-and-wife team Sarah Wain and Jim Buckland – along with seven gardeners and volunteers – have created a paragon of vegetable virtue. Wain stresses how time-consuming vegetables can be not just to grow, but also to harvest and prepare. She recommends finding space for a “scrubbing room”, where the cook can work on the produce being brought in. (Without paid staff, Wain would simply not consider trying to maintain a kitchen garden bigger than the size of an allotment.)

In common with all the experts, Wain sings the praises of “cut and come again” salad leaves (the kind grown by McVicar, in fact), because they are easy to grow and manage. She is also heartily in favour of new disease-resistant varieties of vegetable, despite the fact that West Dean used to specialise in “heritage” varieties. “There is some excellent heritage veg,” she says, “but now we don’t have the same armoury of chemicals to fight mildew and so on [many are now illegal or no longer in use]. So I can’t see the point of rejecting a good, modern disease-resistant courgette. It’s the same with potatoes – I now only grow earlies and first earlies. I don’t have to spray them because they’re out of the ground before the blight sets in. Also everyone loves new potatoes, and you can grow lovely leeks in potato soil.”

Wain suggests that owners should think about what it is they actually want from their kitchen garden. “I’ve seen people be very disappointed by the veg when it’s brought in,” she says. “If I was in a position to make a kitchen garden, I would think what it is I really want to eat or use for entertaining, and then I’d ask the cook, if there is one, the same thing. I’d get a really good garden designer in and then we’d sit down and talk about what it is we all want.” After all, while the growing itself may be a technical matter, we all know what it is we like to eat, and that is what is most important.

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