Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of growing plants in some wonderful settings, and the kitchen garden at Gravetye Manor is one of the most rewarding. Its 12ft-high, sandstone wall forms a perfect ellipse, enclosing about 1½ acres of south-facing, sloping ground. As well as being a thing of architectural beauty, it offers shelter from the wind, protection from pests, and it traps the heat of the day. The soil is light and rich after receiving regular doses of compost down the generations; it warms up quickly in the spring and is easily worked in most conditions.
The manor and its gardens are surrounded by nearly 1,000 acres of forest and, in places, some trees reach over the kitchen-garden walls, underlining a strong contrast bet-ween the neat and ordered rows of crops within and the beauty of the wild garden outside. Often in the evenings, tawny owls can be heard calling to each other and numerous bats hunt for insects trapped within the gardens walls. It has a truly magical atmosphere.
Kitchen gardens like this were once commonplace around the country, but as most have become lost, derelict or changed beyond recognition over time, it’s a privilege to be able to manage one in a traditional way. On opening the old, broken kitchen-garden gates on my first day of work a few years ago, I was greeted by a sea of weeds of every description. As there was much to do elsewhere in the 36-acre gardens, our first season was spent just controlling weeds and generally tidying up, but there has since been much progress.
This spring is the start of our third season of cropping and rewards are tangible as each year sees a significant step forward. Last winter, among many other projects, we replanted an original avenue of espaliered apples, but, now spring is approaching, we’re turning our minds to the cropping for next year.
One and a half acres is a relatively large area for a vegetable garden, but, with a busy restaurant serving some 50 covers a day, space is at a premium. We therefore concentrate most effort on the delicacies that only taste their best direct from the garden-crops such as asparagus, kale and artichokes are so much better when eaten immediately after harvesting.
The other important crop we grow is cut flowers, especially unusual ones that are hard to buy in, such as scented roses. We grow a lot of herbaceous perennials and annuals for cutting and they also appear in the flower-garden borders. The walled garden gives Sue, our head florist, ingredients that add to the originality of her arrangements and link the hotel directly to the garden; the cut-flower plantings are also handy as stock beds, to grow on herbaceous perennials destined for the borders.
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Rotating the crop beds
The walled garden is divided into six major beds in which our crops rotate annually. The beds that are to be planted with brassicas, legumes or cucurbits all get trench dug with well-rotted horse manure, as these crops are greedy.
Salad, potato and root crops are content with just a well-forked-over bed, but will need feeding through the season. Following this system, each bed is enriched every other year, ensuring a continually fertile soil, with the minimum amount of effort. Most of this work is carried out in winter, but it’s still not too late to get this done, before the spring sowing and planting starts in earnest.
Spring and summer are the busiest times, when success-ional sowings, weeding and harvesting can become almost overwhelming, so it’s good to get organised now. We always place our seed order well in advance, and, at the same time, we plan how much of each crop will be needed by Rupert, the executive head chef. We usually use flavourful, tried-and-tested varieties we know perform well here, but we also enjoy experimenting with new things as this is the only way to really find what best suits your garden and kitchen.
All our planned sowings are noted in the kitchen-garden diary so that nothing gets missed out in the growing season. It therefore becomes an invaluable record of the year’s successes and failures.