Always the first person to enter the gardens, the Head Gardener emerges from his cottage soon after dawn. Looking at the sky for signs of the weather, he sniffs the air to judge temperature and moisture. Unlocking the gates, he makes his rounds of the glasshouses and beds, running his fingers through the soil to gauge the growing conditions. His day has begun ……
From the 18th Century onwards, the walled kitchen garden was an essential part of every English country house. It had to provide a continual supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers for the family and servants, but it was far more than merely an efficient centre of production. The essence of the walled kitchen garden lay in the quality and range of its produce – choice fruit and vegetables had to be provided for the owner’s dining table at a peak of perfection and through all seasons of the year. Before the modern era of international imports and the freezer, the gardeners were expected to provide dessert fruits such as strawberries from March and salads throughout the year. Large quantities of flowers and plants were also grown for the pleasure gardens and the house. The kitchen garden was a prized possession in its own right, regularly visited by the owner, his family and guests. When away for the London Season at their town house, the family were sent regular hampers by rail containing specialities such as soft fruit, peaches, grapes and melons and occasionally pineapples.
Forced on by such demands, the kitchen garden became the focus for extraordinary levels of ingenuity, skill and sheer hard work. These were the times prior to mechanisation when the digging was manual not rotovated. The gardeners were craftsmen producing the finest vegetables and fruit. At the major horticulture shows, renowned head gardeners from the great estates such as Chatsworth, Blenheim and Longleat, showcased their skills by competing head on with their camellias in the Spring, and with their figs, peaches, melons and grapes and oranges in late Summer.
The craft of the gardeners reached its apogee in these gardens which wherever possible were situated in a discreet location not visible from the house but near the stables where large quantities of invaluable manure were accessible. The gardeners themselves, dressed in the estate livery, had to be invisible, disappearing discreetly into the shrubbery when any family member appeared. Likewise the floral displays and pot plants in the house itself were changed soon after dawn every Friday by the head gardener and an assistant, to be completed by 8 am when the family drifted downstairs for their breakfasts.
The size of the kitchen gardens, with their orchards and nutteries, often extending to five or eight acres, allowed for a continuous production of every vegetable and fruit. With the emphasis on unusually early fruits these were often displayed to admiring guests on elaborate tiered dishes of crystal and silver at the dinner table.
Much ingenuity evolved over the years to overcome the vagaries of the seasons. The widespread use of the now mass-produced wonder material glass, and the cast-iron of the Victorian age, facilitated the design and improvement of greenhouses. Magnificent examples of these, such as the great 200 ft hothouse at Chatsworth, were constructed by the eminent gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton, who was also responsible for the leviathan Crystal Palace. Smaller examples had evolved throughout the 18th and 19th centuries into speciality houses such as vinerys heated by stoke holes placed at regular intervals in the rear hollow walls. The fires were for frost protection and early ripening of tender fruits. A duty gardener, charged with staying awake through the night, would keep watch to ensure the fires did not die. Every device to create and maintain warmth evolved from the early deep manure hotbeds to the later elaborate coke-fired heating systems of cast iron, hot water pipes, designed in the nineteenth century by specialist heating engineers.
Numerous outbuildings for every horticultural purpose supported the glasshouses; cold and hot frames, potting sheds where composts were carefully blended to suit particular plant needs, forcing houses, carpentry shops, pot and washing sheds.
Strategically placed was the Head Gardener’s house from which he could see most parts of his empire. The gardeners lived in the bothy with meals provided by their own cook. A strict hierarchy existed providing a system that allowed the youngest apprentice in his early teens to mature into the master craftsman Head Gardener.
The apprenticeship lasted for three years. Next, as a journeyman he would pass through the various stages of expertise, remaining no more than a year in any one situation. He moved from one eminent garden to another, possibly to a commercial nursery, a public botanic or municipal garden.
Where there were three or more journeymen the senior would be appointed Foreman. This conferred a certain amount of rank which he maintained until appointed Head Gardener .The whole process was known as moving on, providing a practical system of hands-on training and education in all horticultural techniques.
A typical complement of Inside and Outside Staff, might comprise the Head Gardener, four foresters for the woods and trees of the Park, foremen and gardeners for the glasshouses, for the lawns and shrubberies round the house, for the ponds and lake, for the flower garden, and four for the kitchen garden. Together with apprentices, the staff for a large garden could be as many as twenty gardeners. These were separate and distinct from the outside estate staff; both are shown in the group photograph of a northern estate of about 1890.
With the passing of the seasons, in the autumn, at the Harvest Festival in the estate church they would exhibit with pride for all to see the produce of their skills and labours. As the gardening year draws to a close with the short misty days of November, the Head Gardener can lock his gates around 4 pm and settle in the warmth of his office for one of his winter pleasures, selecting his seeds from the catalogues for the coming year. The snowdrops would soon be showing white and the renewal of Spring was not far off.
Paul Balen - 2014