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.