PUBLISHED: 13:19 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:19 20 March 2017
The Victorian Kitchen Garden at Audley End provides great inspiration and is a delightful place to visit in order to witness the joys of spring bursting into life.
April showers, spring sunshine and warmer temperatures are the perfect combination for growing your own vegetables and fruit, and the magnificent Victorian Kitchen Garden at Audley End near Saffron Walden is a must-visit venue for inspiration. This nine acre garden may be big, but you are sure to walk away with ideas to try in smaller spaces, such as trained fruit. Many of the fruit trees and soft fruit bushes are trained into cordons and espaliers which are not only an attractive method of growing fruit giving a high yield, but also a great idea for smaller gardens where space is limited.
The Victorian Kitchen Garden, created in the 18th century, is part of the Jacobean Audley End estate and provided fresh fruit and flowers for the household, reaching its peak of productivity in the Victorian era. In the 20th century, the kitchen garden gradually went into decline as demand for produce diminished, but in 1999, Garden Organic teamed up with English Heritage to restore this historic garden back to its Victorian splendour and today the garden has a good collection of heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables, all cultivated organically.
Head gardener at Audley End is Alan North, who joined the estate four years ago. ‘Over the last few years there has been a big surge of effort in the kitchen garden,’ he explains, ‘to get the area looking even better and more productive. We’ve made a few changes as well, but the end result is that the garden has high quality organic produce and more diversity.’
The walled kitchen garden maintains its organic status by being affiliated with the Soil Association, with visits twice a year to ensure the garden’s organic certification credentials are up to standard. ‘As an organic garden,’ Alan says, ‘we are limited with what pest and disease control and fertiliser we can use and we’ve concentrated on good soil condition to focus on plant health and quality.’
Having good soil is the starting point for any gardener and there’s a large, dedicated composting area on the estate which produces Audley End Compost for the kitchen garden and other ornamental borders. With the addition of horse and chicken manure from the estate, which is added to green composting waste from the gardens, the end result produces fine, crumbly compost which conditions and feeds the soil and plants.
‘We shred everything up before composting,’ explains Alan. ‘This speeds the process up, making usable compost in four months.’
In the kitchen garden, the beds are composted in February ready for new crops of vegetables, fruit and flowers. While heritage varieties are in abundance, the gardeners like to try new varieties as well so you’ll find soya and edamame beans and modern vegetables that have good pest and disease resistance. Produce and cut flowers are used in the house and restaurants, and you can buy things from the shop on site. Audley End Kitchen Garden also supplies fruit and vegetables to the Cambridge Organic Food Company for its organic food boxes.
Another new introduction is a cutting garden running the full length of the productive area. Classic Victorian cut flowers including dahlias, rudbeckias and asters, as well as heritage cultivars of tulips and daffodils, are all grown in big blocks mingling with areas for salad crops. The effect is quite stunning when plants are in full bloom and also attract and introduce beneficial wildlife into the garden which helps with the pest and disease control.
Last year a heritage pear orchard was created in the garden. The young trees will be shaped as pyramids, keeping the main leader stem so that the trees grow with pruning to this pyramidal shape. Alongside is a new heritage collection of plum trees and these two new areas are enclosed and stand alongside mature fruit trees trained as espaliers and cordons.
Elsewhere, enjoy displays of seasonal blooms in the showhouse, a central area of vinehouse, where you’ll find an eye-catching array of multi-coloured butterfly orchids Schizanthus pinnatus in spring followed by summer displays from scented pelargoniums, fuchsias and exotic plants.
The nearby Orchard House has a rare collection of Thomas Rivers stone fruits like peaches and nectarines grown in pots with large holes in the bottom allowing roots to spread into raised beds. Thomas Rivers was a notable nurseryman from Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, who developed many fruit cultivars during the 19th century and developed this method of growing stone fruit.
Do take time to look at the smaller walled garden area, which has a wildflower lawn surrounded by modern planting, and enjoy the display rooms where the Victorian gardeners used to work and live, including William Cresswell who worked at the estate in 1874 and who left a detailed diary on techniques used and crops grown in Victorian times.
Be inspired by Audley End Victorian Kitchen Garden
Audley End House and Gardens
Off London Road
The Victorian Kitchen Garden is open throughout most of the year. Check the website for opening times and details for other areas of the Audley End estate.
24 and 25 June
Visit Audley End for this annual summer plant fair and garden festival and join the garden team over the weekend for tours, talks and workshops. There will be unusual and interesting plants for sale from a wide range of nurseries, plus a garden advice desk. Teas, music and children’s crafts will also be available. See website for further details.