The Apprentice House garden at Quarry Bank

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The garden next to the Apprentice House has been restored to a working allotment, demonstrating how produce was grown by the apprentices who worked at Quarry Bank in the early 19th century.

Samuel Greg, owner of Quarry Bank, encouraged the apprentice boys to take on a plot in order to grow vegetables. At that time gardens had to provide food for the table – sustainability and productivity was vital with so many mouths to feed and there were no supermarkets round the corner.

Restoring the garden

The restoration of the garden began in 1981, and required research into the layout and history of the original allotments as well as choosing the varieties of vegetables and fruit. The archive held at Quarry Bank was a great resource for this research and revealed records of old seed orders made by the Gregs from local seed merchants.

Finding suitable fruit was quite easy, as many old varieties still exist. The search also uncovered a lauded and locally remembered variety of apple called ‘Withington Welter’. Grafts were taken from trees in the village onto new stock and they are now flourishing here.

Historic veg

The vegetable varieties grown in the garden today are chosen from those that were grown in the UK before 1900. As new commercial varieties of vegetables are often grown for uniformity of size, or colour, it's interesting to grow old varieties, and they may be useful in future plant breeding.

The principle for growers in the past was utility rather than decoration - plants had to earn their keep. However, cottage gardens had ornamental as well as productive plants even in the 18th century - as well as being attractive, nectar rich flowers were valuable for bee keepers. Also there would have been herbs growing in the garden to add flavours for the cook and used as medicinal cures and cleaning agents for the house.

Herbs were used far more in the past, both for culinary purposes and for medicines and general household use. The apprentices at Quarry Bank Mill were fortunate in having regular visits from a doctor, but their everyday hurts and ailments would have been treated by the superintendent.

Looking after the garden

The Apprentice garden today is managed using organic principles, using no pesticides and maintaining soil fertility through the use of natural fertilisers such as manure and garden compost. There is always plenty of work to do; this is a garden which never stands still.

The garden is open all year round so we can demonstrate to visitors, even during the winter months, the daily gardening jobs. Our problems in the 21st century probably replicate many of the problems faced in the early 19th century and as gardeners working in this historical garden, we often think 'how would they have solved this problem?'