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 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.