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Tuesday, 17 May 2016

In search of the perfect kitchen garden

Anyone dreaming of creating their own kitchen garden will find inspiration in spadeloads at Hampton Court. Two years ago, Historic Royal Palaces reclaimed part of an area that had once provided fruit and vegetables for the kings and queens living at the palace. The original garden was divided into six square, walled areas, each about one acre in size, and had been built for William and Mary in 1689 on the site of Henry VIII’s tiltyard (jousting had gone out of fashion). With the help of contemporary paintings and engravings, it's been possible to work out the layout of the beds and discover what crops were being grown there in the 18th c. (It seems salads – or Grand Sallats – were a favourite of the royal household: lettuce, rocket, endive, cucumbers, parsley and more unusual ingredients such as costmary, hartshorn and sweet maudlin feature in recipes from that time.)
But all this changed when Queen Victoria came to the throne. She combined all the royal kitchen gardens in London into one operation at Windsor Castle. The Hampton Court one was leased out as market gardens for many years, before being converted to pleasure gardens in the 1930s
Today, the garden has returned literally to its roots, with espaliered fruit trees fanning out along the mellow brick walls and beans climbing up traditional wigwams (above). Rhubarb is forced under terracotta pots, tender shoots are sheltered by wicker plant protectors and melons ripen in hazel frames where rotting straw and fresh manure heat the soil. And of course, there are plenty of salad leaves.
Head gardener Terry Gough (above) is the fourteenth to hold that position since Capability Brown (1764 – 1783) and is rightly proud of what has been achieved. He says they use traditional gardening skills and techniques where relevant and appropriate, but also modern time-saving machinery to guarantee sustainability. As to the neat box borders and colourful flowers that catch the eye, he points out that as well as being useful, kitchen gardens were traditionally ornamental.
Terry Gough stresses the importance of respecting the efforts of those who preceded him, so there are unlikely to be any dramatic changes during his tenure, though one major new project has been the creation in another part of the old tiltyard of a new garden for families, designed by landscape architect Robert Myers. The Magic Garden was opened in April by the Duchess of Cambridge, and is designed to bring alive the history and legends of the Tudor court.
Whenever possible, produce from the kitchen garden is used in the palace restaurants - I was served a delicious chicken terrine with salad and new potatoes (above). Should you want to try some traditional gardening at home, heritage seeds of now-rare varieties are on sale in the gift shop.
The good news is that because it's an educational facility, access to the kitchen garden is free of charge, though you need a ticket to visit the formal gardens. and the palace. Until September 4 2016 there's a fascinating exhibition in the palace, The Empress and the Gardener, of drawings of the estate as it was when Capability Brown was in charge. More at
A separate ticket for just the Maze and Magic Garden is also available.

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