Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener at Ham House in London, is often asked if early winter is a quiet period in the garden. Assumptions are made that the bulbs are all already in, herbaceous growth is dying back (or cut down), the mower blades are on their sharpening leave and it’s too wet and cold for hedge-cutting, surely?
Now, November and December are always busy: changes in climate, bulb quality and bulb breeding mean that everybody (with Monty’s blessing) has Christmas as their bulb-planting deadline. We're planting well over 15,000 spring bulbs by hand in the garden at Ham House this year, so any extra time is welcome.
Mid-November, our cannas were still standing tall and flowering. In frost our yew hedges reveal the tiniest inconsistency of line; so now is a time for straightening and shaping, standing back, evaluating, jumping up and down to keep warm.
" Changes in climate, bulb quality and breeding mean that everybody has Christmas as their bulb-planting deadline."
Plans for a new orchard
We're also planting a new orchard. But is it a 'new orchard'? Ham House's new orchard has wonderful, vivid historic precedent. We know that from 1609 an orchard was on site and have records of 163 apple and pear trees grown here from 1653.
Surveyor and cartographer John Rocque’s map ‘London and the country near ten miles around’ (1746) shows several orchards near Ham House and along Ham Street.
In fact, many of our ideas about our ‘new orchard’ were fully expressed (in fairly impenetrable language) by English gardener Ralph Austen writing in 1653.
To paraphrase Austen, as it’s far easier: orchards and apple trees offer a connection to nature, a space to gain spiritual as well as physical food, a place that offers something for all the senses. In good time, they will also offer shade in hotter summers, ground stability and carbon storage.
The young trees we've planted at Ham House have some shade and good soil. We believe they are somewhat future-proofed.
Living the apple dream
Planning a new orchard has involved some of the idealistic process you would imagine. We've pored over heritage lists and contemplated our cider-making capacity (there’s no doubt about cider drinking capacity).
We've visited the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale and peat free, traditional growers, like the marvellous Bernwode and been encouraged to embrace modern cultivars for their disease hardiness and quality of fruit: to offer our visitors and us volume and real variety.
I’m also delighted that we have stories to tell of apples originating from Vauxhall, Chelsea and Merton – the changing character of our London home expressed in fruit tastes and tales.
What I'm most looking forward to is the change in atmosphere that this new historic space will create. As the trees establish and grow, the kitchen garden will become more intimate, invite use and inspection in detail by wildlife and humankind, it will encourage a more personal response. In its planning and planting, we've created a garden for people and for nature with bespoke seating and meadow wildflowers, long-season blossom and fruit. We have thought long-term.
When the time comes to have a picnic or sit and read a book under apple trees, I'm going to have to make that time - it’s a garden for gardeners too.
" We have pored over heritage lists and have stories to tell of apples originating from Vauxhall, Chelsea and Merton."