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

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.