What’s happening in the Kitchen Garden at Standen?

The Kitchen Garden at Standen is the place of a real plot to plate story, as produce is carried only metres from where it is harvested to the Barn Café before being made into seasonal dishes. Historically, as soon as the land had been acquired by the Beales, Margaret Beale set about with the beginnings of the Kitchen Garden in 1891. Complete with a number of glasshouses growing fruit and vegetables, her motivation saw the produce supplied to both Standen and the Beale’s London residence. Her love for home-grown produce resonates in the garden today, as Kitchen Gardener Carolyn Hibbert and her dedicated team of volunteers take pride in showing visitors the joys of homegrown produce.

A medley of medlars, winter 2019

There are lots of veg and fruit growing here at Standen. Discover more about one particular fruit from Kitchen Gardener, Carolyn Hibbert.

What do you call a glut of Medlars? Our Head Gardener suggested a ‘medley’ which I quite like the sound of. Maybe the tree has now reached maturity or maybe it was the careful and thoughtful pruning we did last year (I will admit that there was a lot of standing around looking at the tree with the occasional bit of pruning but it is important to get the shape right), but it looks like we’ll have a bumper harvest of over 10 kilos this year.

Due to its prime location on the corner of Goose Green near the entrance to Standen, we get lots of questions about this tree. What is it? What do you do with it? What do the fruits taste like?

The Medlar tree on Goose Green at Standen
Medlar fruits hanging from the tree located on Goose Green at Standen
The Medlar tree on Goose Green at Standen

The Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a small ornamental deciduous fruit tree which has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Native to Iran, southwest Asia and south eastern Europe, it was brought to England by the Romans. The variety we have at Standen is called ‘Nottingham’ which has an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. It bears large white flowers in May and the leaves turn a rusty orange colour in autumn. The flowers are a good source of nectar for bees and beneficial insects and also attract moths and other night flying insects which in turn attract bats. Medlar trees are easy to grow, have good resistance to pests and diseases and are self fertile. They have a relatively short lifespan of 30 to 50 years.

Once a popular fruit, it seems to have fallen out of fashion perhaps because it doesn’t look very appetising. They are high in Vitamin C and ready to eat when little other fresh fruit is available to harvest. The fruits are picked in November when still firm and a soft caramel colour. They are left to ripen or ‘blet’ until they become dark brown, soft and wrinkled before they can be eaten or turned into jelly.

Home-made Medlar jelly
Medlar jelly in jars
Home-made Medlar jelly

Medlars make a lovely bronze coloured jelly which is often referred to as fruity and aromatic or tasting like spiced apple. It can be served with cold roast meats and cheeses in place of redcurrant jelly or cranberry sauce. There are many recipes available online but the important thing to remember is that the fruit is low in pectin and it can be hard to get it to set. Most recipes use lemons but you can also add an apple or use a preserving sugar with pectin added.

Using natural dyes from the Kitchen Garden, summer 2019

It isn’t just edibles that are grown here at Standen, as the Morris & Co. Inspired by Nature exhibition *ended on Sun 10 Nov 2019* saw a dye bed nurtured in the Kitchen Garden.

Hear more from Kitchen Gardener, Carolyn Hibbert.

‘The dye bed in the Kitchen Garden was originally set up to showcase not just culinary herbs, but also those with medicinal, cosmetic and dye properties. With the restoration of more of the Kitchen Garden and the creation of a new smaller herb bed for the café ongoing, the old herb bed has gradually been converted into a dye plant bed. This has coincided with our experiments in natural dyeing.

These vibrant colours have been produced by natural dyes
close up image of Wool dyed natural giving colours of red, blue, yellow and orange along with a naturally dyed scarf resting on a bench
These vibrant colours have been produced by natural dyes

‘The plants were mainly chosen for their ease of use or the interesting colours they produce. The flowers of dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) and dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) dry well for later use and give good yellows. While St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) gives both green and red shades if harvested at the right time (around St John’s day on 24 June) and dyed in the correct sequence. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) petals give a yellow colour on wool but a bright pink on cotton. It was originally used to dye the red tape used to tie official documents. It is not light fast, so it was easy to tell if a document had been opened by the colour of the ribbon.

‘We chose woad, madder and weld as they were dyes that William Morris is known to have used. Madder roots (Rubia tinctorum) provide both orange and red shades, but it takes three years to establish before it can be harvested. Woad (Isatis tinctoria) and Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) give wonderful soft blues, while weld (Reseda luteola) is one of the best dyes for yellows and is overdyed with woad to give Lincoln green. Walnut was also used by Morris, the outer husks around the nut providing a rich brown.

Weld overdyed with madder, madder, walnut, and daffodil dyed wool
orange, red, brown and yellow naturally dyed wool hanging to dry on a wooden stick
Weld overdyed with madder, madder, walnut, and daffodil dyed wool

‘The important thing I have learnt about natural dyeing is not to approach it from a scientific point of view, as the colours are not always reproducible. There are so many factors that can affect the colours you get including the weather, the soil, when you harvest, and the water you use (rain or tap). If you approach natural dyeing with the view that any colour you achieve will be soft and beautiful then you will not be disappointed.’

" The art of dyeing, I am bound to say, is a difficult one, needing for its practice a good craftsman, with plenty of experience. Matching a colour by means of it is an agreeable but somewhat anxious game to play."
- William Morris
Visitors sitting outside the cafe at Standen House, West Sussex

Enjoy seasonal dishes at Standen 

An 18th-century barn is home to the Barn Café which serves a range of seasonal dishes, and hot and cold drinks. Come and enjoy homemade cakes and hot meals, some made with produce from our Kitchen Garden.