The Kitchen Garden

Almost from the moment we arrived here our priority was to grow food, so any patch of ground we managed to uncover was fair game.  During the building works we grew a few veg at the very top of our land, under an oak tree.  Completely unsuitable for a vegetable garden but it was better than nothing for our first year.

Snow covered brassicas in the Cottage Garden

Snow covered brassicas in the Cottage Garden

By 1996 the veg had migrated down into the newly created beds in what is now the Cottage Garden, while we marked out their permanent home with bamboo canes in our field.  In the summer of 1996 my parents celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary and the rest of my family descended on us for the weekend.  Ian scythed a large square of long grass in the field to facilitate a game of frisbee and we announced that, by the following year, this would be our new kitchen garden.  I don’t think anyone really believed us at the time but by the following spring the first crops were in the ground.

In the middle of a field

In the middle of a field

The Kitchen Garden was our landmark garden and required a huge leap of faith to start planting in the middle of a windy field surrounded by rabbits and weeds.  To us it was just one part of an overall design which would eventually take shape across the whole plot.  To everyone else it was a vegetable plot in the middle of a field – and how stupid was that?

Having marked out the beds, we needed to provide protection from the wind and the rabbits.  We had a yearning for a walled kitchen garden in the tradition of the old Victorian country estates, to provide protection but also warmth and different micro-climates to grow a variety of trained fruits.  Walls, though, would have been horrendously expensive to build and a major headache to maintain and were never, therefore, a realistic option.

The Kitchen Garden  hedge

The Kitchen Garden hedge

We opted instead for hedges, which are far from maintenance free, but are unlikely to collapse and crush you and are far better for wildlife.  And once they are grown, they make a very effective windbreak.

We chose hornbeam for the hedges because it grows well on our heavy soil and makes a good formal hedge.  a lot of people mistake it for beech (as did we in our naiveté when we first arrived) but beech needs much freer drainage than we have here and hornbeam, I think, has a more interesting leaf – particularly the new growth which, in the Spring, has a beautiful bronze tinge.

New hornbeam leaves

New hornbeam leaves

So at the end of March 1997 it was off to the English Woodlands sale and back with 225 hornbeam plants.  Once all the plants were in the ground we sat back to admire our work.  It was then that it occurred to us that our old house in Eastbourne including front and back gardens, plus the other 3 houses and gardens in the terrace would all have fitted within our new Kitchen Garden – a realisation which brought home the enormity of what we had started.

Kitchen Garden circa 1998 - the first design

Kitchen Garden circa 1998 – the first design

Walking and Observing

Macavity & Rudge

Macavity & Rudge

In the early days we used to walk the boundaries each morning, accompanied by our two cats, Rudge and Macavity.  We would marvel at what we now owned and make plans about the gardens we would create here.

Summer walk with the cats

Summer walk with the cats

Our daily walks were not just territory marking, although there was probably an element of that for us and the cats. They were observational field trips, helping us to acquaint ourselves with the land in all its detail. Getting to know what grew here, what thrived here, how the climate varied from one area to another.

As the autumn progressed and the overgrowth began to die down, on one of these walks we made an exciting discovery.

Macavity & Rudge explore our wood

Macavity & Rudge explore our wood

Our land didn’t end at the thick bank of nettles as we had thought, but continued down through a half acre strip of woodland.

This discovery was made even more exciting when the wood burst into flower in the spring, unexpectedly fulfilling our dream of having our own bluebell wood.

Our bluebell wood

Our bluebell wood

Lichen

Lichen – Evernia prunastri

Every day we discovered something new – a fungus, some lichen, a wild flower, a creature of some sort.

Young fox

Young fox

Whether by instinct or good fortune we found we had chosen land mostly surrounded by an organic livestock farm, and nestled comfortably into the High Weald, an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  The potential for gardening organically and attracting wildlife was therefore already pretty high before we started.

Badger

Badger

Almost from the beginning our late evenings and early mornings were filled with badgers, foxes, bats and owls. A vast improvement on the late night revellers of town living.

After our daily ‘beating the bounds’ we would return to the field armed with tape measures and bamboo canes and gradually mark out the gardens we were to create.

Virtual gardens

Virtual gardens

These virtual gardens were a clear vision to us in our minds’ eyes, but to friends and family they were just an incomprehensible forest of sticks, some leaning at jaunty angles, blown over by the wind, which must have looked like a hopeless dream.

The Planting Begins

By the time we got to our second winter here we were ready to start planting trees.

Inverewe Gardens

Inverewe Gardens

A friend with a smallholding in Herefordshire, and who was influential in our change of lifestyle, once told us that he wished he’d planted trees when they first moved in, and it was definitely at the top of our list of things to do. We had seen the principle of shelter illustrated in a number of places, but nowhere more starkly than at the gardens at Inverewe on the west coast of Scotland where, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Osgood Mackenzie turned an inhospitable promontory of rock – Am Ploc ard (the High Lump) into magnificent sub-tropical gardens (now owned by the National Trust for Scotland).  But only after planting a thick shelter belt of trees and waiting twenty years for them to grow!

Our garden in Eastbourne

Our garden in Eastbourne

Our first task, then, was to create shelter from the South Westerly winds which blasted across our plot, and that meant planting trees.  Our plot was nothing like as hostile as the conditions faced by Mackenzie at Am Ploc ard, but it was clear that things would struggle unless we could slow the wind down a bit.  We love trees.  In our previous garden – a 50 x 20 foot plot in Eastbourne, we managed to incorporate nine trees in our second design, despite our limited space.  These were necessarily small and largely trained varieties, including six cordon fruit trees, so we were looking forward to planting something a bit less restrained.

We were spurred on in our quest to plant trees by the discovery of English Woodlands, a local nursery specialising in trees and hedging, where you could buy trees as one year old whips – little more than sticks with a few roots on the end – in batches of 25, for a few pence each.  Even better, English Woodlands used to have a sale at the end of each winter when they cleared out their remaining stock at silly prices.

Planting the Spinney in early 1997

Planting the Spinney in early 1997

The Spinney today

The Spinney today

During that second winter and early spring we planted over 200 trees and shrubs. Most of these went into a new half-acre wood we call the Spinney, which connected our two existing bits of woodland and would eventually form the first line of defence from the prevailing winds, but we also planted a small birch grove, an avenue of wild cherry and small leaved lime, an orchard, various random tree and shrub plantings (some the result of impulse buys at the English Woodlands sale!) and four short lengths of hedge.  Some of these plantings have since been moved (mostly from amongst the random plantings), one or two have died but most have thrived.

The First Year

First veg 1995 I

Our first veg at Merryweather’s

Our first year at Merryweathers was spent observing the land, extending the house to accommodate my parents and planning the gardens. We even managed to grow a few veg – in a totally unsuitable position, but one of the only areas of the garden not covered  with broken glass or scrap metal.

Sheep2 1994

The sheep – in the field for once!

We also experimented with “renting out” the field to a local farmer to graze his sheep.  I put “renting out” in inverted commas because we never did receive any payment.  We learned later that the farmer in question (who has long since moved away) had a reputation for being unreliable.  During their brief sojourn on our land, one of the sheep died and the rest spent most of their time either eating the bluebells in our wood, escaping into a neighbouring field or getting out into the lane and terrorising the postman.  (On my way to work one morning I passed the postman as he tried to deliver letters to the big house on the hill.  He was pressed against his van, surrounded by a menacing looking gang of sheep.  I knew they were our lodgers by the shifty look in their eyes and I drove by guiltily, hoping the postman wouldn’t make the connection.)

Mainly, though, that first year was dominated by the house-building works.  It was purgatory.  At one point there were builders of some sort or another working in every room in the house.

Macavity eyeing up the loft

Macavity eyeing up the loft

Our two cats, Rudge and Macavity, took to spending much of their time in the loft, huddled around the Aga stovepipe and occasionally appearing at the loft hatch to frighten whichever tradesman happened to be climbing the ladder at the time.

Rudge escaping the builders

Rudge escaping the builders

Outside, piles of builders’ rubble were added to the scrap metal and broken glass we inherited with the property.

Builders' rubble

Builders’ rubble

We spent each evening cleaning up and sifting through the rubble to salvage anything usable.

There is an amazing amount of wastage in the building trade – and probably many other walks of life.  Twenty years on and we are still using wood, bricks, screws, nails and other miscellany rejected by the builders, but invaluable to us.

How it all began..

"..a 5-and-something acre weedy field.."

“..a 5-and-something acre weedy field..”

When we first arrived at Merryweather’s Farm in 1994 it was more or less a blank slate. A 5-and-something acre weedy field, a handful of fruit trees poking their heads up through the nettles near the house, a half-acre wood we didn’t realise we had until we moved in and piles and piles of scrap metal.

..piles of scrap metal

..piles of scrap metal

Twenty years later and what we have is nothing short of miraculous. With no money, very little experience and virtually no help the two of us have transformed our plot into  gardens and woodland which support us, our family and a huge diversity of wildlife. And it looks good too.

The gardens at Merryweathers - no longer a barren field

The gardens at Merryweathers – no longer a barren field

Through this blog we will share with you the the story of the garden’s evolution, the things we have learnt along the way and the day-to-day highs and lows of life over the wiggly hedge. Thank you for joining us on the journey.