Just across the lawns from the castle is a swing barrier which says no entry. Ducking underneath and walking down an old well-worn track, I come to the orangery and a cluster of greenhouses which emerge from around the corner. Just behind here there used to be a bit of a muddle and a broken, dilapidated poly-tunnel, all of which is now gone.
Last winter, during lockdown, we cleaned this area out, hacked back some of the self-seeded rhododendrons and laurel, fenced it and built a series of proper raised vegetable beds. The fencing was very necessary to protect the seedling vegetables from the local rabbit population, bringing to mind the travails of Mr Macgregor with Peter Rabbit and their constant battles over the lettuces and carrots.
Gardening, growing vegetables, entering the best courgette or radish in a village fete or agricultural competition is a well-established English tradition. It all begins, of course, with a packet of seeds. Carefully watching to see them begin to sprout, is still something almost miraculous: how tiny seeds, placed in some earth can, with water and sunshine, transform themselves into something delicious to eat.
A traditional word to describe such an area such as this is a potager which aims to make the function of providing food pleasing as well as practical. Sheltered and usually south facing, this type of vegetable garden mixes flowers of both the edible and non-edible varieties in with the vegetables to produce a beautiful array. Herbs are often planted alongside both to enhance the productivity as well as the beauty of the garden.
Most crops are better off rotated annually into different beds so that different years produce different mixes. As the vegetables are harvested, the herbs and flowers keep growing and fill the gaps until another vegetable is planted. As ever, the key to success is a healthy rich soil, plenty of fertiliser and compost added in between plantings which will keep the crops coming. If the soil gets tired or is overworked, a potager can start to look rather raggedy very quickly. Equally vegetable beds work best in even numbers so you do not fall off the end of the rotation line. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, imaginary numbers and beds will not help!
The other important factor is to be honest with yourself about how much time you will be able to devote to your garden and to plan accordingly. It is best to start with a small, defined space which is why it is easier and simpler to start with raised beds and one of the main reasons for their popularity. I follow the wonderful efforts and results TV gardening experts such as Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh with admiration and interest but know that such perfection is far beyond me.
In the past, the knowledge of what to grow and how to do so was passed down within families and was part of most people’s everyday lives. These days, too many of us are divorced from the wherewithal to grow things but one of the encouraging side effects of lock down is that the interest in gardening and growing things has continued to expand.
My next plan for my new vegetable beds is to plan for pots of cosmos for the summer and others of nasturtiums which help reduce aphids on the vegetables. Colourful and cheerful, they flower for ages and a huge bunch of cosmos in a vase is excellent on every table whilst edible nasturtiums can turn even the plainest of salads into a work of art.
Growing food is all part of learning to eat and live well, ensuring we are as balanced and resilient as possible as we head towards another winter of the (hopefully fading in intensity) pandemic. It is a theme to explore on Sunday October 10th as part of the Highclere festival where speakers will be talking about cooking not just for enjoyment, for colours and taste, but for our health and the pleasure of cooking for and eating with family and friends.