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The Country House Kitchen Garden 1600â"1950
By C. Anne Wilson
The History PressCopyright © 2014 C. Anne Wilson, Susan Campbell, Malcolm Thick Simone Sekers, Todd Gray, Una A. Robertson, Joan Thirsk, Layinka Swinburne
All rights reserved.
Digging, Sowing Andcropping in the Open Ground, 1600–1900
The layout of a kitchen garden in the early seventeenth century, with grid-like paths dividing the open ground into cultivable compartments or 'quarters', is classical; it is an ancient design that enabled the soil to be worked on and watered by the most simple and direct means. It is a layout that would have been seen too, in kitchen gardens throughout the three centuries covered by this chapter, and one that is still adhered to today. Over the same period, although there is a marked increase in the number of varieties of each type of fruit, salad and vegetable grown on the open ground, the crops remain remarkably similar.
However, three characteristics of the kitchen garden were to change considerably between 1600 and 1900. First, the kitchen garden itself, which had hitherto been close to the house, began to be moved further from it. Second, the walls surrounding the kitchen garden became progressively higher. Third, the raised or sunken beds within the quarters, and the small paths which had previously separated them, were to disappear, so that crops could be grown on the flat, in long rows.
The alteration of the kitchen garden's position vis-à-vis the house was due partly to seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetics and partly to the realization that a kitchen garden's requirements of soil, drainage, shelter, space, aspect and access were often better suited by a site that was not necessarily beneath the very windows of the mansion. The recognition, early in the seventeenth century, that ornamental plants had different requirements from plants grown as food, and the development of new methods of cultivation, were further reasons for the removal of the kitchen garden to a distance. The kitchen garden walls were built increasingly high, at first to support a greater area of fruit trees, and later to accommodate lean-to glasshouses as well. The protection afforded by high walls also benefited crops grown on the open ground, but their forbidding appearance, from the outside at least, and the way in which they interrupted views from the house, were further reasons for the re-siting of the kitchen garden.
This chapter is primarily concerned with the ways in which the beds on the open ground were dug, sown and cropped; however, some mention of the situation of the kitchen garden and its walls must be made as well, since the subjects are linked.
The Early Seventeenth-Century Kitchen Garden
At the start of the seventeenth century, the kitchen garden of a family with moderate means was an integral part of the garden as a whole. It was usually found close to the 'offices' – that is to say the kitchen, outbuildings and stables – but it was often visible from the best rooms as well. Vegetables and salads were grown in compartments, in individual beds, with small mud paths between them. They might be screened from the visitor's view by flowery borders or fruit trees trained on open fencing. (This form of screen was known later as a polehedge or contre espalier.) Coarser fruits and vegetables – cider apples and perry pears, peas and beans for drying, and various root crops – could be grown in orchards and fields, but the early seventeenth-century kitchen garden, like the Tudor garden that preceded it, contained a mixture of fruit trees and fruit bushes, salad plants, useful herbs, tender, edible roots and delicate leafy vegetables as well as flowers and ornamental shrubs.
The owners of these gardens stored vegetables with good keeping qualities over the winter months, but they also liked to have freshly gathered vegetables in the winter. Vegetables and salads were needed to add variety too, to a Lenten diet. To fulfil these requirements they sowed as many hardy varieties of vegetable as possible in the late summer, thinning them or transplanting them in the autumn and leaving them to grow in sheltered beds and borders over winter. Cabbages, beets, spinach, certain varieties of lettuce, endives, turnips and broad beans came into this category; with the advent of hotbeds and glasshouses (see Chapter 5) the choice was very much extended.
The desire for sweet and tender vegetables was satisfied in some cases by allowing leafy plants with a tendency to do so to sprout again after cutting. This technique, now known as cut-and-come-again, was practised by the Greeks and Romans, as well as by gardeners of every age thereafter. Basil, lettuce and cabbage benefited in particular from this technique, which was also applied to beets, borage, orach, greens and leeks. Earth was raked over the stumps in summer so that they sprouted again four or five times.
The late Tudor garden, as described by Thomas Hill in The Gardener's Labyrinth, in 1577, was very similar in layout to a kitchen garden at the start of the seventeenth century. (The book was reissued several times until 1660.) Hill's garden was divided into winter and summer crops and the beds were grouped according to species.
Brassicas such as coleworts and cabbages were placed in one section of the garden, in 'large and long' beds a foot apart. An alley 3 feet or more wide divided them from the next section, which consisted of 'beddes of a reasonable bredth for the Rapes and Turen [turnip] roots'. Smaller beds of leafy, annual salad plants and culinary herbs such as orach, spinach, rocket, parsley, sorrel, chervil, leaf-beets, dill, mint and fennel formed one section; the onion tribe another. Asparagus, which was cooked and eaten cold as a salad, was also grown in this quarter, and treated as a perennial.
Woody, perennial herbs such as sage, lavender, rosemary, thyme and marjoram had their own beds too, though by the seventeenth century these tended to be more permanent than those of the annuals. Another section was devoted to nursery beds for cuttings and flower, salad and vegetable seedlings which were transplanted, when large enough, to other beds. There were individual beds for strongly scented herbs and for medicinal herbs, as well as for onions and their relatives and for melons and cucumbers. Hill's beds, like those in the gardens of the centuries preceding him, and indeed like the beds today in many north African and Mediterranean gardens, were based on those of the gardens of 'the worthie Antients' – the authors of the Greek and Roman husbandries – from whom Hill also took much of his advice.
Hill emulated the Romans by growing his vegetables, useful herbs and salads in individual beds, but the Elizabethans and early Stuarts liked to combine utility with pleasure. The one enclosure, usually formed by walls, fences, close palings or hedges, was embellished with arbours covered by vines, melons and scented climbers; it was provided with shaded benches, camomile seats and a source of water such as an ornamental pool, well or fountain. Water was applied to individual plants as well as the paths used as channels by means of pumps and watering pots.
In many Tudor gardens a raised walk was built inside the enclosing walls to form a promenade from which the surrounding landscape could be viewed. This effectively reduced the height of the wall inside. As the seventeenth century progressed, and the taste for delicate fruits such as peaches, dessert grapes and figs increased, old-fashioned raised walks became redundant. The inner walls needed to be high enough to support fruit trees of a decent size.
To add a further touch of decoration, some of the vegetable beds within the quarters were laid out in circular or diagonal patterns and, as these gardens were for walking and talking in as well as for produce, the main paths were covered with sifted sand to keep visitors' feet dry. In this way the owner could '... diligently view the prosperitie of his hearbes and flowers ... for the delight and comfort of his wearied mind ...'.
Preparing the Ground
In classical Mediterranean gardens and in European gardens thereafter, the quarters which were to be sown and planted with summer salads, vegetables and roots were dug and dunged all over in the autumn, before the frosts set in, then laid out and sown in the spring. The quarters which were to be sown in the autumn were dug and manured in the spring, leaving them fallow all summer; either way, digging allowed the benefits of heat and cold, air and moisture to work on the soil.
Before the quarters were formed into beds and planted they were well dug again, then raked and hoed to get rid of stones and weeds. Pliny reckoned that it would take eight men a day to dig a Roman acre (two-thirds of an English acre) 3 feet deep, mixing dung as they went and marking it out in plots. Hill's gardener marked the size, shapes and positions of his beds, plots, borders and channels:
of such a breadth especially troden forth, that the weeders hands may well reach into the middest of the same, least they thus going to the beddes ... treade downe both the seedes shooting up, & plants above the earth. To the helpe of which, let the paths betweene the beddes be of such reasonable breadth (as a mans foote) that they passing along by, may freely weede the one halfe first, and next the other half to weede.
The resulting beds came to exactly the same size as those described in the ancient husbandries: they were 6 feet wide and 12 feet long 'if the plotte be large'.
Open ground intended for vegetable crops was dug extra deeply, or trenched, every four or five years. This is a system of digging with spades that probably pre-dates the agricultural plough; the depth of Pliny's digging suggests that trenching was practised by the Romans. John Evelyn describes trenching as: 'The digging two-spades depth deepe, & making a Trench, laying the first spade-depth of earth formost, the second & worst behind it, so as when the Trenches are finish'd, the first earth be thrown in, the next above it.' Evelyn's Scottish contemporary John Reid goes into more detail, and concludes with the advice '... and if at every trenching you apply proper manures mixt with the second spading, or under the last shovelling, and in five years retrench, it will become to your wish, for all gardens, and plantations.'
Digging was done with spades and mattocks rather than forks; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forks were made of iron, but were not strong enough for heavy digging. They were used for lifting dung and garden rubbish, digging up root vegetables and, with spades or hoes, for lightly stirring or 'tilling' the soil. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that strong, steel-tined forks began to be manufactured for the express purpose of digging the ground.
Beds and Channels
Hill's vegetable beds, again as in Roman gardens, were separated by well-trodden and gently sloping paths which could be used when necessary as irrigation channels, taking water to each bed. Hill noted too that the channels might be supplied with central gutters to help them carry surplus rain into a convenient place at the lowest point of the garden. (The problem of muddy channels was one of the factors which later led to the development of level beds.)
Between beds of similar types of vegetables, Hill's channels were one foot wide, but where one section needed to be separated from the next the channels were 31/2 feet wide. The beds were raised a foot or so above the channels (in damp places they might be raised as much as 2 feet). Contemporary illustrations show that the soil in flower-beds was sometimes retained by planks laid lengthways, and medieval illustrations show herb-beds edged with wattle. Hill rarely mentioned sunken beds, perhaps because they were more appropriate to climates drier than that of Britain.
The main walks around and through the quarters were never disturbed, but the disposition of the beds and borders within the quarters was altered whenever manuring was considered necessary. Both beds and channels were dug up, then created afresh. Crop rotation was practised too, as it had been from earliest times, with certain sections either left fallow, cultivated with a different crop from the previous one, or given a dressing of some kind of manure.
Another feature of Hill's garden was the hotbed. Hill is the first to mention the device in English gardening literature, making it a relative novelty in the Stuart garden, where it became increasingly useful. Its warmth was used to hasten the germination of the seeds of newly introduced plants such as melons and oranges, as well as early crops of radishes, salads, cauliflowers and cucumbers. (Its management is described in Chapter 5.)
Until that time the only plants provided with artificial heat were orange trees and other evergreens from warmer climates, which were put in a shed for the winter, with pans of burning charcoal to protect them from frost. The most up-to-date gardeners therefore made room for at least one hotbed, using a protected, south-facing corner of the garden which, from the nature of its crop, soon became known as 'the melonry'. However, the necessary heaps of fresh manure made the melonry's presence all too noticeable from the house. By the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century it had been given an enclosed space of its own.
Further Reasons for a Separate Kitchen Garden
The combination of a flower and vegetable garden, and the proximity to the house of the vegetable beds, were becoming difficult to manage, if not actually unattractive to look at. William Lawson, author of The Country Housewife's Garden of 1618, was one of the first to suggest that there should be two gardens, a flower garden and a kitchen garden, partly because they required 'divers manners of husbandry'. But he was still prepared to see some potherbs in the 'garden for Flowres', and a kitchen garden not entirely lacking in flowers.
John Parkinson, writing ten years later, had another reason for the removal of the vegetable beds to a distance: he liked the flower garden 'to be in the sight and full prospect of all the chiefe and choisest rooms of the house', but:
so contrariwise, your herbe garden should be on one or the other side of the house, and those best and choyse rooms: for the many different sents that arise from the herbes, as Cabbages, Onions &c, are scarce well pleasing to perfume the lodgings of any house; and the many overtures and breaches as it were of many of the beds thereof, which must necessarily bee, are as little pleasing to the sight.
Not that the kitchen garden should be bereft of beauty and symmetry: John Reid liked balance not only in the siting of his kitchen garden, with 'its half on each side the House and Courts', but also in his planting:
... the order is to make every sort [of vegetable] oppose itself. Example, if you plant a Ridge of Artichocks on the one hand, plant another at the same place on the other: and still where you have perennialls on one side, set the same sort on the other; and so of Annualls. In short what ever you have on the one side, you should have the same in every circumstance on the other.
By the end of the seventeenth century the separation of the pleasure garden from the kitchen garden was so complete that Jean de La Quintinye, the gardener who created the great potager for Louis XIV at Versailles, had to point out that: 'no one will undertake to make one [a kitchen garden], unless he may be able to afford himself the Pleasure of seeing it well Cultivated, and consequently he will desire to see it often, which cannot be done, the Garden being at a distance, or of difficult Access'. By then the formal garden had pride of place beside the house, but such was his passion for fruits and vegetables that La Quintinye advised those who had a limited space for a garden, whether in town or country, to dispense with parterres and flowers altogether and to:
... employ ones Ground in Plants that are for use: that part of the Kitchen-Garden which is most pleasing, ought to be put most within sight of the House, keeping such as might offend the Sight or Smell, most at a distance: Fine Espaliers, Dwarfs, Greens, Artichokes, Sallads and the perpetual Action of the Gard'ners, &c, being sufficient to employ the Neighbourhood of some Windows, even for pretty considerable Houses, as well as for ordinary ones.
The Victorians did not find 'the perpetual Action of the Gard'ners' so entertaining. Their gardeners were expected to be invisible. Special walks and even tunnels were constructed so that no one could see garden produce being taken to the house.
Excerpted from The Country House Kitchen Garden 1600â"1950 by C. Anne Wilson. Copyright © 2014 C. Anne Wilson, Susan Campbell, Malcolm Thick Simone Sekers, Todd Gray, Una A. Robertson, Joan Thirsk, Layinka Swinburne. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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