Gardening and Kitchen Gardens

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GARDENING AND KITCHEN GARDENS. The purpose of the kitchen garden is to supply the household to which it belongs with culinary herbs, fruit, and vegetables. There are, however, different types of households, and likewise different kinds of kitchen gardens. This entry deals mostly with the walled kitchen gardens that were created in northern Europe, and in particular in Great Britain, during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

Types of Kitchen Garden

The earliest garden of any kind was surely one that supplied its owner with edible and, to a certain extent, medicinal or useful household plants. People created such gardens in prehistoric times and they are still made today, albeit on a small scale and with fewer medicinal or household plants.

A productive garden requires certain essential elements that are common to all: They are usually situated close to the homestead; they need fertile soil, a supply of water, shelter from the worst of the weather, and protection from thieving birds, beasts, and people. Kitchen gardens with these basic requirements can be found in rocky, compost-filled craters on tropical islands; on cold, windswept seaside beaches; on rooftops in the center of huge towns; on narrow strips of land beneath ancient city walls; on river islets; and on terraced mountainsides. Security is provided by low stone or mud walls, hedges of thorns or spiky cacti, wooden or reed palings, ditches or moats, old bedsteads, and wire netting. Water comes from nearby springs, streams, rivers, or pools. In spite of the ingenuity required to make them productive, the produce of these gardens is likely to be erratic, as they are dependent on the seasons both for clement weather and rain; for this reason, and also because they usually have no supporting structures such as glasshouses, work sheds, or storage rooms, these gardens must be termed "primitive."

The country dweller's cottage kitchen garden forms another category. Lying somewhere between the basic, or primitive, kitchen garden and the much larger, walled kitchen garden, the typical cottager's garden forms the very surroundings of the cottage itself with flower beds, fruit trees, narrow paths, and small lawns as well as an open, cultivated vegetable patch. It might include a little orchard, bee hives, a pigsty, and a poultry house. The whole would be surrounded by a stout hedge, fence, or low wall. Before the arrival of modern piped water on tap, water would have been supplied by a well or a pump. The amount of produce grown on the vegetable patch might be sufficient to provide the family with a surplus of staples for storing over the winter, but the area would not necessarily be big enough to grow vegetables in succession, and the owners might not be able to afford a glasshouse, heated or unheated, for out-of-season luxuries. It could though, be laid out in a decorative manner, with a mixture of flowers and vegetables, trained fruit trees, and topiaried hedges.

The decorative kitchen garden, one designed as much for beauty as utility, is a constantly recurring theme in kitchen gardening. In the early twentieth century, when the fashion for this kind of kitchen garden had a little revival, it was referred to by English-speaking gardeners as the potager, an affectation that simply means "kitchen garden" in French.

Although well suited to it, the potager style of gardening is not confined to the cottage garden; it can be carried out on a vast scale as, for example, in the gardens of the Château of Villandry on the Loire in France, and it was often seen in walled kitchen gardens, too. In spirit the potager is poetic, inspired by classical Roman works such as Virgil's Georgics (see especially Georgic 4) and Hortulus, a poem on gardening written about 840 by the monk Walafrid Strabo. Renaissance gardens, too, with their vine-and jasmine-covered arbors, statues, urns, and fountains; clean sandy walks lined with clipped box, pinks, or herbs; little pavilions or gazebos at each corner overlooking the countryside beyond; and juxtapositions of fruit, flowers, and vegetables within were as pleasant to look at, contemplate, and walk in as they were useful. The theme continues into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the gradual removal of the kitchen garden from close proximity to the house and the separation of the garden as a whole into various compartments. The essayist Sir William Temple in his Epicurus of 1685 describes this arrangement: "so as to be like one of the Rooms out of which you step into another." By the end of the eighteenth century, kitchen gardens in many of the larger estates had been removed to a considerable distance from the house. George Carter in his catalogue for the exhibition of the work of the landscape designer Humphry Repton notes that Repton wished the walk toward the kitchen garden to be as ornamental as the kitchen garden itself (pp. 6768). Once there, the visitor would find features similar to those described in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century manuals on gardening: gazebos, fruit trees trained over hoops to provide shady walks, and beds lined by flowers with the more ornamental kinds of vegetable on show, the commoner kinds concealed. In winter, the visitor could seek the warmth and beauty of the glasshouses.

The garden at Villandry is a Renaissance pastiche; it was created on a sixteenth-century site in the twentieth century, and is based on contemporary designs for parterres by Androuet de Cerceaunot that there is any evidence that de Cerceau used vegetables in this way. In practice, in many a modern jardin potager, the parterre -like layout of the beds, and the heights and colors of the plants therein are of more importance than the supply of food to the household. When the cropping of one cabbage can jeopardize the beauty of a whole row, this type of kitchen garden begins to look like a plaything.

For town-dwellers, fruit and vegetables have always been available from shops, itinerant tradesmen, and markets. These outlets were supplied with produce grown in outlying commercial market gardens, many of which specialized in only one or two kinds of fruit or vegetable (asparagus, strawberries, mushrooms, or grapes, for example). From the late nineteenth century onward, produce markets depended increasingly on stuff imported from abroad, and it is this factorplus the relative cheapness of bought food compared to the cost of growing one's ownthat has contributed to the demise of the great walled kitchen gardens. On the other hand, with the creation of the allotment system in the early nineteenth century, town-dwellers (ranging from wealthy tradesmen to artisans of the working class) were, and still are, enabled to raise a few fruits, flowers, and vegetables of their own on communal, rented plots provided either by philanthropists, speculators, or the municipality on the outskirts of towns. The original purpose of the allotment system was to offer a healthy pastime for heads of households who might otherwise squander their time and money in public houses and other dens of vice. Ten such gardens would occupy one acre and in 1835, according to William Howitt, in Rural Life in England, there were, on the outskirts of the English manufacturing town of Nottingham alone, "upwards of 5000 gardens, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class" (pp. 550553).

Allotment gardens, traditionally equipped with little huts or summer houses, are still in use throughout Great Britain and Europe, providing their tenants, as they did in the past, with welcome retreats from the noise and dust of the city, as well as a healthy occupation and a supply of wholesome fresh food. Market gardens, with their vast glasshouses and forcing beds are not, for the purposes of this article, strictly kitchen gardens, although they supply similar produce, but the allotment garden is definitely in the kitchen garden category, being private and non-commercial.

Walled kitchen gardens invariably formed part of the gardens attached to any substantial country house. Unlike the other domestic kitchen gardens described above, these gardens were huge, occupying anything from one to twenty acres, commensurate in size with households often consisting of more servants than family, and capable of providing enough produce for feasts, balls, banquets, and numerous staying guests as well.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, kitchen gardens had reached the peak of perfection: the rarest and best of fruits, flowers, and vegetables were to be found here, raised by teams of highly skilled gardeners who used the latest in horticultural technology. This is not to say that the wealthier classes were alone in their love of luxuryplus a degree of natural curiosity and competitivenessbut peaches, melons, muscats, and pineapples cannot be raised in one's own garden without considerable financial means.

These gardens supplied their masters with a succession of fruits and vegetables all year round, both delicacies and staples, and with ornamental plants and flowers for the house and for personal adornment. Indeed, the demise of these great gardens, which began after World War I, and was virtually complete by the end of World War II, is largely due to such fruits and vegetables being cheaply available to everyone in a supermarket. The modern shopper might be surprised to learn that from the late eighteenth century onward, glasshouses in these walled gardens were providing heat and shelter for tropical fruits and orchids as well as more temperate plants. Forcing beds ensured that there would be new potatoes, asparagus, and strawberries for Christmas and in early spring; mushrooms were grown in dark, heated sheds, to be available at all times; insulated and ventilated storage rooms kept grapes, apples, and pears in perfect condition over winter and into springtime. Common roots and vegetables such as onions, cabbages, and pumpkins were likewise stored in specially constructed cellars and attics. Garden produce was even frozen, and kept in ice-houses. The kitchens made surpluses into pickles and preserves, and if the family was staying in town, fresh fruit, flowers, and vegetableswashed, trimmed, and packed in hamperswere sent up as required by the gardeners.


In layout, walled kitchen gardens show a marked similarity to one another; this is due to their being essentially working gardens, the design of which is led by function and has evolved through practice. Ideally they are rectangular, with the longest walls facing the sun; lean-to hothouses are ranged against the sunny side of the northernmost wall; sheds behind them (known as "back sheds") house boilers or furnaces to heat the glasshouses, work-rooms, storage rooms, and tool rooms, the men's mess room, the head gardener's office, his seed room, the mushroom house, and sometimes a bothy or hut for the unmarried gardeners. The head gardener is given a house for himself and his family, often built onto the walls themselves, and always as close as possible to the hothouses, so that he can keep a close watch on them and their contents. Forcing pits, frames, and hot beds occupy a separate yard beside or behind the back sheds, as does an enclosure for packing materials, poles and posts, fuel, composts, and manures. The "slip garden" (the area outside the main walls) was also cultivated, usually with the more robust vegetables or with soft fruits. The slip in front of the southernmost wall was sometimes used as an ornamental flower garden, especially if it was the garden through which visitors from the house might pass on their way to view the kitchen garden.

With the exception of glasshouses, which were not seen in kitchen gardens until the early eighteenth century, and then only rarely, the monastic, royal, and aristocratic gardens of medieval Europe were very similar; they were modeled on treatises written by classical authorities such as Pliny, Cato, Varro, and Columella. Situated conveniently close to the back kitchens and the stables or home farm (which provided dung), stoutly defended by walls of mud, brick, or stone (depending on the locality), they were laid out if possible on land sloping toward the sun, on a four-square grid, with long, narrow raised beds.

The layout of the beds and paths was dictated by a watering system in which the paths between the beds acted as channels, the water coming either from central ponds, reservoirs beyond the garden, or wells, tanks, and cisterns within it. It was distributed in water carts, or by pumps and water wheels. The invention of the hydraulic ram in the mid-nineteenth century allowed gardens to be made on higher ground than would have been possible before. The invention of the horse-drawn seed drill in the late seventeenth century, whereby seed was sown in rows on flat ground, was taken up at first by farmers and then by market gardeners, effectively doing away with raised beds in the larger gardens of the more northern parts of Europe.

Diversity of Plants

The variety of plants grown in the earliest kitchen gardens was dependent on locality; those known to thrive in the wild were taken in and "improved" by selective breeding, fertile soil, shelter, and abundant watering. Travelers, merchants, nurserymen, and itinerant seedsmen introduced novelties from further afield. With the voyages of discovery made by Europeans from the fifteenth century onward, plants from across the world were brought into Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Britain. They were taken to the gardens of botanists and apothecaries, as well as the kitchen and flower gardens of enthusiasts, to be assessed as much for their economic or medicinal values as for their edibility or beauty.

These introductions were challenging to the gardener. Many of them needed protection over winter and heat in order to survive. The hot bed, a flat-topped mound of warm, fermenting horse dung covered by a bed of rich, sifted soil and surmounted by a protective frame, was introduced to Moorish Spain by the Arabs in the eleventh century, but was not used in the rest of Europe until four centuries later, when it was used for raising the seedlings of exotics, melons, cucumbers and out-of-season salads. Orangeries (also known as conservatories or greenhouses) were used for conserving citrus fruits and other exotic greens. Originally a dark, well-insulated overwintering shed, the orangery gradually evolved into a high-windowed ornamental building, with heat provided by small smoky stoves. Dutch gardeners led the way in seventeenth-century stove and glasshouse development. They made their orangeries lighter by giving them sloping glass fronts; they improved ventilation and perfected a system of underfloor heating by means of hotair flues heated by small furnaces at the back of the house. With the discovery toward the end of the seventeenth century of how to raise pineapples, they introduced the use of hot beds heated by fermenting tan bark, in place of horse dung.

By the 1720s, British gardeners had overtaken the Dutch in horticultural invention. Gripped by a mania for growing pineapples, they developed glazed, heated pits and glasshouses expressly for that fruit, eventually adapting the system to suit vines, peaches, and tropical plants. With the industrial revolution, which began in Britain, came the invention of the steam boiler and later the hot water boiler, as well as the glassworks and foundries for the manufacture of iron-framed glasshouses in which to raise these plants, and a new, industrial wealthy middle class to enjoy them.

Even before the sixteenth century, Flemish and French gardeners were masters in the cultivation of fruit. They raised innumerable varieties of hardy fruits such as plums, apples, pears, and cherries, as well as figs, grapes, and the more tender, early-flowering apricots, almonds, peaches, and nectarines. They were experts in grafting and in training trees to grow as fans, espaliers, cordons, and free-standing dwarfs. With the arrival in Britain of the Dutch King William III, in 1688, this style of fruit growing became fashionable in British gardens where, until then, fruit growing had been concentrated mostly on hardy orchard fruits. As on the Continent, dwarf fruit trees, pruned to form decorative balls, goblets, spindles or pyramids, were used ornamentally in beds lining the kitchen garden paths, or were even given a jardin clos, an enclosed fruit garden of their own. Fruit trees with branches trained as horizontal bars (espaliers), as single, double, or treble stems, either upright, oblique, or horizontal (cordons), or as branches trained into a flat palm or fan shape (fans) needed the support of free-standing trellises or high walls. Walls were especially needed too, to accommodate the more tender wall-fruits.

An Industrial Quality

Thus the walls surrounding the kitchen gardens of northern Europe and Great Britain increased both in height and extent. Gardens of more than four acres were divided and subdivided by yet more walls, some of which were heated by horizontal, serpentine flues running from small fireplaces situated at the back.

High garden walls were beneficial to wall-fruits, created a benign, sheltering microclimate within the garden, provided support for taller, more extensive glasshouses and back sheds, and hid the whole process of growing kitchen produce from sight, giving the place a secretive air. It should be noted, though, that this complex was the headquarters of the gardens as a whole; it was where the entire workforce assembled and received orders, where the garden boys were educated by the head gardener, where equipment was kept, and all the choicest plants raised and nurtured.

It was also becoming increasingly industrial. For a visitor to an early-nineteenth-century kitchen garden, as described by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey : "The walls seemed countless in number, endless in length; a village of hot-houses seemed to arise among them, and a whole parish to be at work within the inclosure." She does not mention the numerous smoking chimneys perched above hot walls and glass housesor how, on a windy day, strawy dung from frames, pits, and hot beds would be blowing about and there would be a noticeable smell of rotting cabbage leaves, celery, onions, and leeks. These aspects, and even the very sight of "a whole parish" going to and fro with their barrows and carts, were less pleasing to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century gentlefolk.

The Landscape Movement

Apart from the sensibilities of its owners, the landscape movement was to some extent responsible for the removal of the kitchen garden with its high walls to some distance from the house. If it could still be seen, it was screened by beds of tall, ornamental shrubs or, if the screen was to act as a shelter belt as well, by tall forest trees. "If from your best room windows any objects should intercept your sight," wrote landscape designer J. Trusler in his Elements of Modern Gardening (1784), "go to the top of the house and from thence select the best distance and background, preserving in the piece such of the buildings and plantations as will suit the composition. . . ." Not every one agreed; the political reformer William Cobbett, in his English Gardener thought it "the most miserable taste to seek to poke away the kitchen garden, in order to get it out of sight" (p. 8).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these arguments seem trivial, for the gardens are in ruins, with little but the walls to be seen. But there is some hope for their revival. Local communities see them as sources of fresh, organic produce; others will use them as living museums in which to teach old horticultural skills, and display long-forgotten fruits and vegetables.

See also British Isles: England; Fruit; Food Production, History of; Horticulture; Organic Farming and Gardening; Vegetables .


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Susan Campbell