Harvest time in the Walled Garden at Scotney Castle
The Walled Garden is a hive of activity all year round but particularly so in the late summer months as the crops starts to ripen and the harvest comes in. Linda, our gardener in charge, talks about some of the challenges and principles she follows and the joy of harvest time.
Whilst every season has it's highlights, there's something very satisfying about this time of year as the crops start to be harvested and the fruits of our labour can be enjoyed. Whereas in years gone by, the Walled Garden would have been the main source of fruits and vegetables for the house at Scotney, providing food for the family and servants all year round, today we get to share it with staff, volunteers and visitors. We also send some of it to the tea-room for use in their seasonal recipes, such as the scone of the month and soups.
Planning the year ahead
A garden of this size (exactly 1 acre within the Grade II listed walls), takes some planning. This begins at the end of the summer when we get together to assess what's grown well and what's struggled, as well as what's been popular.
There are seven vegetable beds in total and we rotate the crops around every year. This year we grew the following:
Bed 1 = Pumpkins
Bed 2 = Potatoes
Bed 3 = Brassicas: spring and winter cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, calabrese, green and purple sprouts, swede, turnip and kohl rabi
Bed 4 = Alliums: Red and white onions, shallots and garlic
Bed 5 = Cucurbits: squash, courgettes and cucumbers
Bed 6 = Legumes: French, runner and broad beans and peas
Bed 7 = Salads and roots: Carrots, parsnip, beetroot, radish, lettuce, surplus onions, fennel and spinach.
In the two fruit cages we grow gooseberries, white/red/black currants and blueberries, then in the other, summer and autumn raspberries and strawberries. Against the walls there are apples, pears, apricots, peaches, greengages, plums, sweet and morello cherries, quince and figs. Although the vinehouse is currently closed due to structural issues, the two vines inside, both muscat of Alexandria, are thriving.
There is a small, formal herb garden, with seating for visitors. There is also a mint bed plus other herbs and salads grown in the raised beds such as parsley, coriander, strawberry spinach, mizuna, thyme, etc. We also have cut flower beds which provide seasonal flowers for display in the house and around the property.
Dealing with the changeable climate, pests and diseases
As all gardeners know, planning is all well and good but many factors can affect the volume of crops produced in any particular year. The weather, available man power, pests and diseases all play their part in what we're able to acheive. This year in particular has not been a great year for germination. Warm, sunny weather very early boosted germination and growth followed by long periods of cold weather. The seedlings were vunerable and unable to cope with climate change. Those that did survive were fewer in number and then faced drought. Replacing the seedlings was difficult because some, or indeed most seeds require certain temperatures to germinate. If they are too hot, too cold, too damp, too dark (deep, cloudy days), germination may not happen. In fact, the final crop this year, as a result of the changeable weather, doesn't seem as plentiful as last year's when we had more reliable, hot summer.
We avoid spraying chemicals or digging in any additives to the soil as we don’t feel that the garden has suffered irretrievably. Last year the cabbage white butterflies were determined to let their caterpillars enjoy their fair share, as did the slugs in the spring. This meant our brassicas didn't fare well and this year we were plagued by gooseberry sawfly. Unfortunately, this wiped out 50% of our gooseberry crop but we watched with interest as the parasitic wasps took over. Aphids have been prolific this year but once their lifecycle moved on, the ladybirds moved in by mid-summer when the plants seem to produce new leaves and fresh crops without too much harm. The slowest pests to be rid of in the walled garden are rabbits. The occasional, fearless baby rabbit will hop in and hide in the herbaceaous border. Salad crops are their favourites but they have been seen hiding amongst the potatoes. We have seen a bird of prey reap the benefits of their presence but also believe foxes do quite well too.
" Harvesting signifies the end of summer; a time to start winding down in preparation for winter. The colourful crops make wonderful displays; rose flowers turn into rose hips and hand forks are swapped with pens to commence ordering and planning for next year. It's a chance to reflect on our disappointments and our successes of the summer season."
Following no-dig principles
The idea of no-dig gardening has been around for sometime now and is based on imitating nature. The theory is that as not much can grow under a deep, shaded canopy, so by covering the weeds, they don’t get any light. In a woodland, the ground is only turned over by birds or the surface scrapped by hooves. Seeds that are buried underground can remain dormant for a number of years until light, moisture and heat will stimulate germination so by not digging, less weed seeds are likely to germinate. The only food trees receive in a woodland is by the manure of wildlife or fallen leaves in Autumn. This is when it's the ideal time is to spread a thin layer of compost on the beds.
The last two years we've used a mix of 50% manure and 50% green waste. Mushroom compost is our other option of choice. As the soil contains a pecking order of bugs and worms, digging rearranges this and pests are likely to take advantage if the natural barriers are not in their usual place. Lastly, digging doesn’t necessarily help soil structure. The best way is to compost and cultivate with a variety of crops.
The benefits of companion planting
We like to follow the principles of companion planting as well to help the battle against pests and diseases. There is a belief that certain plants grow particularly well with others, but this can also act in reverse way if they are challenged to grow with others.
The allium family (onions, garlic, leek, shallots and chives) are particularly acidic and release strong chemicals in the air as well as in the ground. This can often deter some plants from thriving next to them. By growing a broad range of crops and herbs in close proximity to each other, this can be a way to deter/confuse some pests such as carrot root fly. This year in bed 7 we planted in approximately 1 metre blocks along each row. Each block contained a different crop e.g. carrots, radish, lettuce, parsnip, spring onions etc. Companion planting can also encourage a range of pollinating insects. Borage, nasturtiums, thyme, phacelia, mint, lavender are all magnets for bees, butterflies and other insects which help in the garden.
Take some some produce when you next visit
Whenever you visit, look out for produce available to take home in the Walled Garden. Any donation you leave will go towards the conservation projects taking place around the property and wider estate, plus you'll know it's grown local. We're also boosting our funds by selling plants we've propagated from the garden or sown ourselves that are surplus to requirement.
Come work with us
If you'd like to get involved with growing fruit and vegetables, why not consider volunteering with us? We're looking for some dedicated volunteers to work in the Walled Garden helping with sowing, weeding, tending, harvesting and presentation standards to ensure it looks good all year round. There may also be some days where help is needed in the main garden but if this sounds of interest to you, please get in touch. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01892 893820. Take a look at the link below to discover more about volunteering at Scotney Castle.