The Walled Kitchen Garden
Walled kitchen gardens were once to be found all over the UK. They produced fruit and vegetables not only for the family and their guests, but also for the staff in the house and on the estate. Depending on the size of the establishment and the depth of the owner's pocket, the gardens varied in size from one acre to anything up to 12.
A number of gardens were even larger - in some cases covering more than 20 acres, such as the Duke of Portland's garden at Welbeck Abbey, and the Royal Kitchen Gardens at Windsor. These very grand gardens were usually subdivided by additional walls in order to increase the walled areas for fruit and to provide greater protection from the elements.
There has never been a survey of the whole country, but there would have been thousands. For example, a survey of Herefordshire made by the Hereford and Worcester Gardens Trust, found 157 walled gardens still extant, although it can be estimated that around half that figure has been lost.
In the earliest kitchen gardens, productive and ornamental plants were grown together, often contained within a formal framework. Walled gardens that were dedicated solely to the production of food crops emerged in the 18th century.
The formal style of garden was out of fashion by the mid-18th century, and the trend for landscaped grounds sweeping up to the house meant that the walled garden was either relocated to a site some distance from the house, or screened with trees and shrubs to avoid compromising the illusion of a ‘natural' landscape.
This move provided an opportunity to create a dedicated space for the optimum growth of fruit and vegetables. The gardens could now be given the best growing conditions, ideally on fertile, well-drained ground on a south-facing slope. Proximity to a water supply and shelter from adverse winds were also important considerations, although shelter could be created by planting a belt of trees, and water diverted to the site.
The typical shape of a walled kitchen garden is rectangular, with the longest walls running along an east-west axis to increase the length of the south-facing walls. But other shapes were experimented with: the kitchen garden at Gravetye Manor is oval, while the one at Luton Hoo is octagonal.
The best walls were constructed with bricks and lime mortar, as the bricks retained heat and the mortar provided a place for the nails supporting the wall fruit trees. A large garden would need a huge quantity of bricks.
In a letter to ‘Capability' Brown of 1767, the Earl of Suffolk anxiously enquires whether his present stock of 650,000 bricks will be sufficient for his new kitchen garden (BL correspondence ADD69795).
However brick was expensive, and alternatives were often used. These alternatives usually reflected the geographical location of the garden: for instance, stone was often used in Wales and Scotland, and in northern and south-west England. But stone was considered cold and damp, so the most important inward, south-facing walls were often lined with brick. Cob walls are very common in chalk districts, but they need to be protected by efficient copings.
Another way to avoid the expense of brick, particularly after the Brick Tax was instituted in 1784, was to build a serpentine or zig-zag wall. Often known as ‘crinkle-crankle' walls, the wavy line provided a stronger structure. This meant that the walls could be just one brick thick, allowing a saving of about one third in bricks and thus incurring less expense (O'Neill). Examples can be found at West Dean in Sussex, Parham Hall in Suffolk and Hopton Hall in Derbyshire.
The walls created a protected environment for the crops, both from the elements and from thieves. The height of the walls varied, but in order to provide enough growing space for the trees trained against them they needed to be at least 10-12 feet high.
Usually the northernmost wall was the highest, to allow for the vineries and lean-to glasshouses placed on the southern side. The southernmost wall was usually the lowest, as this was the least important wall, and in some cases it was omitted altogether, either to avoid creating a frost pocket or to cut down on costs.
From the 18th to the mid-19th century heated walls (also known as ‘hot walls') were quite common, especially in the North. The first recorded hot wall was at Belvoir Castle in 1718 (Green). Usually (but not always) the northernmost wall, it was wider than a normal wall in order to accommodate the serpentine flues within. These ran from a small fireplace at the bottom of the wall up to a chimney at the top.
There are many contemporary descriptions for the building of hot walls, but the general consensus was that the heat from one fire grate could heat 40 feet of wall. Fires would have been lit in the early spring in order to protect the fruit blossom from frost. Examples of these heated or flued walls can be found at Belsay Hall in Northumberland, Tatton Park in Cheshire and Croxteth Hall, Liverpool.
Improvements in the technology for heating, from around the 1840s, combined with more efficient glasshouses, made these walls largely redundant.
Walled kitchen gardens typically have a four-square layout, determined by two cross paths and surrounded by a perimeter path. This created four separate plots, ideal for a four-yearly crop rotation system. Larger gardens may well have had further subdivisions. It was advised that crops should run from north to south within these plots, to avoid rows of crops shading their neighbours and allow an even exposure to sunshine (Delamer,1855:10).
The perimeter path would have been laid at some distance from the walls (a rule of thumb would be to place the path at a distance the same width as the height of the wall), both for aesthetic reasons and in order to create generous beds for the roots of the wall trained fruit trees.
The most common material for the paths would have been hoggin, a mixture of sand, gravel and binding clay topped with gravel (Keen). This created a hard-wearing yet permeable surface. Paths were also made of cinders, brick or cobbles. Grass was sometimes used, although this meant higher maintenance and would soon become muddy when wet. William Cobbett had strong opinions about grass paths, as he did about most things, stating that ‘grass is very bad' (Cobbett, p.27).
However, although it needed regular maintenance, Cobbett did approve of using box plants as edging (Cobbett, p.28-9). Clipped dwarf box certainly makes an attractive edging, in spite of its tendency to harbour slugs and other pests. Other plants were also used, for example thrift, chives and parsley.
Hard edgings were easier to maintain: tiles, wood, bricks, or local materials such as stone, slate, pebbles and rocks were all common. From around the 1870s manufactured stoneware tiles in a variety of styles were produced and became very popular (Campbell in Wilson, p.27).
There would have been at least two or three entrances to the garden, generally wooden doors or ironwork gates. Almost always there was one in the northernmost wall between the glasshouses, providing access for the gardeners. A larger entrance in the wall nearest to the stables or farmyard provided access for cartloads of manure and other materials. A further - often grander and more elaborate - entrance was specifically for the family when they came to visit the garden. This practice became increasingly common throughout the 19th century.
A ‘slip garden' was often created outside the walls. Sometimes enclosed itself, it provided space for propagation and for the growing of the hardier, less fussy crops such as potatoes and cabbages. The slip garden was also the location for the less attractive aspects of the garden, such as manure heaps, hot-beds, cold-frames and the like.
A centrally placed ‘dipping pond', often placed at the intersection of the crossing paths, was a typical feature of walled kitchen gardens. They were useful, as well as being attractive, and were so-called because the gardeners, before the introduction of hosepipes, could dip and fill their watering cans within easy reach of the crops.
Water could also be siphoned into hand-drawn water barrows and trundled around the garden to wherever it was needed. If there was no natural water supply, the run-off from the glasshouses and other structures was drained into the pond.
Bee-boles were sometimes built into the walls for the bee skeps. Bees were essential for the fertilisation of the fruit blossom. Other features that might be found, but were not necessarily the norm, include sundials, pergolas, seats and fountains.
Fruit and vegetable production
The reason that kitchen gardens existed was to produce fruit and vegetables all year round, and in order to achieve this a sophisticated combination of forcing, retarding and storage was employed to extend the growing season.
Forcing, which means encouraging a plant to develop far earlier in the season than it would do normally, was widely practiced. Hot walls were a method of forcing, and the protection of the walls themselves brought fruit trees into production earlier.
Wall fruit trees were draped with a variety of materials to keep off the frost: canvas mats, straw screens or even branches were all used. Sometimes projecting brackets were fixed onto the walls to provide a structure from which to hang curtains of various fabrics that could be drawn across the trees. This method was improved in the late 19th century when removable glass panels were introduced.
Vegetables such as seakale and rhubarb could be forced by the simple practice of placing forcing pots over the plants. This method also had the effect of blanching them, which made them sweeter, and to this end was used on other crops such as chicory and endives. Cloches (translucent covers) of various kinds were also commonly used.
Hot-beds were another method of obtaining early crops, and were first mentioned by Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth in 1577 (Campbell, 2005, p.127). A pile of fresh horse manure was formed into a bed about three foot high and four foot wide, and as long as was desired. Once the heap had fermented sufficiently to produce the required heat, cloches or wooden frames with glass lights were placed over it in order to preserve the heat, and soil, to a depth of about six inches, was placed on top.
A range of crops could be sown into this. In the 18th century it was a popular method for growing melons, but almost anything could be grown out of season in this manner: for instance, salad crops, carrots and early cabbages.
By far the greatest amount of forcing was done in the glasshouses and this will be dealt with later.
Retarding or delaying, while not so extensively practiced as forcing, was still a useful method by which to extend the growing season. Fruit such as cherries and plums, grown against a north wall, would ripen later than elsewhere in the garden. This lateness could be further delayed by placing mats over the fruit to keep off the sun. Soft fruit such as gooseberries and redcurrants were also given this treatment.
Storage was another method of keeping fruit and vegetables beyond their normal season. Potatoes and root vegetables could be stored outside in a clamp, which was made by covering a heap of vegetables with straw and finishing it off with a good layer of earth. However most of the larger gardens would have had some kind of root store - a cellar or brick-lined tunnel that was cool, dry and dark. Here root vegetables could be stacked in layers, each layer covered with dry sand.
Most establishments would have a fruit room for keeping their best apples and pears. These rooms varied in size and grandeur, from a lean-to shed to a free-standing custom-built fruit room, sometimes with a thatched roof. The walls were lined with slatted shelves on which the fruits were carefully placed so as not to touch each other. In some cases individual fruits were wrapped in greaseproof paper. Shutters or blinds at the windows kept the room both cool and dark. There are some good examples of fruit rooms at Knowsley Hall, Liverpool and West Dean in Sussex.
Grapes had their own particular method of storage. Bunches of grapes were cut from the vine with a long stem. Each bunch was then put into a narrow-necked bottle (such as a wine bottle) filled with water, which was placed at an angle on a custom-made rack. If kept in a cool, dark room the grapes could be stored in this way for months. Later in the 19th century specially designed ‘grape bottles' were used, with flat sides for easier storage and a hole in the top side for topping up with water.
Glasshouses, frames and pits
Glass structures played a crucial role in the intensive production of vegetables and fruit. By the 19th century a huge range of glasshouses was available for the production of every conceivable type of fruit, vegetable and flower.
Vineries, pine-pits, peach houses, forcing houses, cold frames and pits were all used in the quest to produce out-of-season food. Every walled kitchen garden would have a range of glass, from one or two in the most modest establishments to dozens in the grander gardens.
The glasshouse was a development of the 16th-century orangery, a rather inefficient structure for the over-wintering of what were known as ‘greens' - tender evergreen plants, including orange trees. Indeed one could say that the technology of glasshouses was driven by the introduction of three fruits: the orange, the pineapple and the grape (Campbell 2005, p.151). Orangeries, however, are outside the scope of this article.
The pineapple first made its way from South America to Europe in the 16th century, having lost much of its flavour along the way. Being a tropical plant originally from Brazil, its successful cultivation in Europe had to wait for the appropriate technology to be developed.
Attempts to grow this exotic fruit were first carried out in Holland in the late 17th century, and a suitable hothouse was developed around 1685 (Dixon-Hunt & de Jong, p.279). It is generally agreed that the first person to grow and ripen a pineapple successfully was a Dutch woman known as Agnes Block (Dixon-Hunt & de Jong, p. 277).
By the 18th century the technology had transferred to Britain, and the ability to grow pineapples became a signifier of status - one needed a deep purse and a skilful gardener, since a pineapple took at least two years to mature, requiring heat ranging from 70-80°F. The first person to grow one successfully in this country was Sir Matthew Decker, a Dutchman, as was his gardener. He was so proud of his achievement that he had a ‘portrait' painted of his pineapple in 1720.
The pineapple pit was essentially a development of the hot-bed, but set into the ground for greater insulation and roofed in glass. The brick-lined pits were filled with waste tanners' bark, which ferments to create a higher and more even temperature than manure.
The pineapples were grown in pots plunged into the bark. Heat could be augmented by heated flues or by fermenting horse manure laid outside the pit. Later in the 19th century the pits were heated by hot water boilers.
The use of pits was extended to grow other crops, in particular melons and cucumbers, and also used for forcing asparagus, potatoes and strawberries (Campbell 1999, p.23).
The pineapple made a magnificent table display, and great care was taken to show it off to its best advantage, as Richard Bradley describes in A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening (1724): ‘It is commonly cut from the Plant with a long Stalk, so that it may be set upright in a Tube of Glass, to crown the Top of a Pyramid of Fruit; and whosoever once tastes of it, will undoubtedly allow, that it deserves a Place above all other Fruits...' (Sherman, p.56).
The desire to produce the best-quality grapes, all year round if possible, was the next trend in status fruit once the cultivation of the pineapple had been well established. Attempts to grow them with pineapples in a dual purpose ‘pinery-vinery' were carried out in the 18th century, but this method was eventually discarded as impractical and the first glasshouses designed for the sole production of grapes were developed in the 1780s (Campbell, 2005, p.179).
These vineries were large single-span glasshouses set against the southern side of the tallest, northernmost wall of the garden. The vine was planted outside and trained through a hole in the wall and then trained under the slanting glass on wires attached to the beams.
The introduction of arches at the base of the walls of the glasshouse is considered to be an early 19th-century development. This allowed the roots a wider area in which to spread (Ibid:181).
In order to extend the growing season as long as possible, separate bays were created for early, maincrop and late varieties, so that each bay could be fired up at different times, in order to produce a succession of fresh grapes. Some ranges could be huge (the vineries at Holkham Hall are 200 foot long and 20 foot high) but even the smallest walled garden would have its vinery, with perhaps just the two bays. By the 19th century over 100 varieties of dessert grapes, both black and white, were widely grown.
The production of perfect grapes was almost as demanding as the production of pineapples. Each bunch had to be perfect, weighing several pounds, with large grapes, ‘none less than 3 ½ inches in circumference' and with their bloom intact (Morgan & Richards, p.113).The heaviest on record, according to Thompson's Gardener's Assistant, was a bunch of Black Hamburgh weighing over 21lbs. (Thompson, p.503).
Grapes were an integral part of Victorian table displays, one example of a novelty display was a small vine grown in a pot, which could then be placed on the table for the guests to pick their own grapes fresh from the vine (Davies, p.130).
The introduction of coal-fired water boilers in the early 19th century and the repeal of the Glass Tax in 1845 led to a boom in manufactured glasshouses designed for a wide variety of purposes. Span-roofed houses were now feasible and by mid-century the range had expanded to include orchid houses, all-purpose plant houses, pits and frames of all kinds, peach houses and vineries, not to mention ornamental conservatories and palm houses.
Back sheds are invariably found on the northern side of the northernmost wall, so as not to take up any precious wall space that could be used for growing fruit. Usually a long row of lean-to brick sheds, this was the ‘business end' of the garden. Here was found the potting shed, the tool shed, the boiler house and coal store, maybe a mushroom house, perhaps a forcing house and a fruit store.
The mess room usually had a small fire-grate, somewhere for the gardeners to eat their lunch and brew up some tea. There might sometimes be rudimentary living accommodation in the eaves above. Here too was the Head Gardener's office, perhaps with a wooden seed cabinet and shelves for the grape bottles, so that he could keep a close eye on their precious contents.
Unless it was a very small establishment, the walled garden would have its own team of gardeners who only worked in the kitchen garden. The number depended on the size of the garden: a rough estimate is that two to three gardeners were needed per acre. This team might be further sub-divided into two teams: those that worked solely in the glasshouses and others who worked outside.
There was a strict hierarchy in the gardening profession. To become a head gardener took years of training ‘on the job' as there was no formal training until the late 1880s (Campbell 2005, p.21).
A boy could start as a gardener's boy as young as 13 and would remain in the garden for about three years, doing most of the menial work - stoking the fires and boilers, washing pots, weeding and watering, and general fetching and carrying.
He was also expected to learn from the other gardeners, and to do a certain amount of studying in his spare time. Only then could he progress to the level of journeyman, and extend his knowledge by working in other gardens for varying amounts of time, which increased his range of skills.
As they were unmarried, it was the journeymen who lived in the bothies. Standards of accommodation varied enormously: in large establishments there might be purpose-built accommodation in the form of a house divided into cubicles, a kind of hostel. In others he might not be so lucky and could end up in a bunk under the draughty eaves of a leaky back shed.
Having served as a journeyman in several different gardens, he could now think about applying for a position as head gardener, although in some establishments there were opportunities to become a foreman (Goodway, p.21).
The head gardener's position carried a certain amount of status. A first-rate head gardener could make all the difference between success and failure in a garden: a good one therefore, was much sought after. His was essentially a managerial role, being in charge of the workforce and a budget. He ordered the seeds, supervised when and where to grow the produce and liaised with the family regarding their needs.
A good head gardener was an intelligent man, who would enhance his master's reputation by entering - and hopefully winning at - flower and produce shows, and perhaps breeding new varieties of plants. Many became well known for their articles in the horticultural press and for their particular area of expertise.
The head gardener invariably had the best accommodation - a cottage or villa, often set into the south facing wall of the garden so that he could keep an eye on the precious contents of the glasshouses.
The future of walled gardens
With the advent of the supermarket, fresh produce from all over the world is now available to all, and the original purpose of the walled kitchen garden is no longer valid. However there is still plenty of potential for walled gardens today.
In the recent past they have often been used as plant nurseries, but now the increased interest in organic vegetables and fruit presents new opportunities for ‘niche marketing'.
Walled gardens also offer possibilities as heritage sites, for education and horticultural training (for instance Shugborough and Chiswick House Kitchen Garden). More recently they have become an ideal location for the growing practice of horticultural therapy, such as the ‘Gardening Leave' scheme at Auchincruive and Helmsley Walled Garden.
There are also many examples of groups of enthusiasts coming together to renovate a walled garden in order to provide a focus for the local community, as at Allesley Walled Garden and Cowbridge Physic Garden, or as shared allotments such as the Beddgelert Allotments, Craflwyn and a Community Supported Agriculture scheme in the walled garden at Swillington Organic Farm.
These few examples demonstrate that walled enclosures can provide a unique environment for a variety of uses in keeping with their original function. With such imaginative new roles, walled kitchen gardens have a much better chance of surviving in the modern world.
Campbell, S., A History of Kitchen Gardening (Frances Lincoln, 2005).
Campbell, S., ‘The Kitchen Gardens at Knowsley Hall', Stanley Estates Newsletter, (2004) issue 14 pp.16-17.
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Cobbett, W., (1829) The English Gardener (ed. Oxford University Press. 1980).
Davies, J., The Victorian Kitchen Garden (BBC Books, 1987).
Delamer, E.S., The Kitchen Garden; or, the culture in the open ground of roots, vegetables, herbs and fruits (Routledge, 1855.
Dixon Hunt, J & E. de Jong, 'The Anglo-Dutch Garden in the Age of William and Mary' in Journal of Garden History (1988) vol. 8: nos 2 and 3.
Green, F ‘The Heated Garden Walls at Belsay Hall' in Archaeologia Aeliana (2000) 5 XXVIII pp.223-230.
Goodway, K., ‘Journeymen Gardeners and the Bothy' in Staffordshire Walled Gardens (Staffordshire Parks and Gardens Trust, 2003).
Keen, M., ‘Lay hoggin, not tarmac...', The Daily Telegraph 30 May 2008.
Morgan, J. & A. Richards, A Paradise out of a Common Field, the Pleasures and Plenty of the Victorian Garden (Century, 1990).
O'Neil, Jean, ‘Walls in half circles and serpentine walls' in Garden History 8 (3) 1980 pp.69-76.
Sherman, Sandra ‘The Pineapple in England' in Petits Propos Culinaires 81, August 2006, Prospect Books.
Thompson, Robert (1878) The Gardener's Assistant, Practical and Scientific (CD Rom, The National Archivist).
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