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Featured Organic Veg Garden: Audley End

By Helen Wand, The Organic Veg Doctor.

Whilst I have written previously about Audley End, in that article I did not include any details about their wonderful organic kitchen garden. Had I have done so, I expect I would have got carried away and talked about nothing else, my speciality and passion being organic veg. Audley End is owned by Lord and Lady Salisbury and run in conjuction with English Heritage. After 250 years their kitchen gardens are now open to the public and what's more they even sell produce to the public, from their shop.

The kitchen gardens were officially opened by Prince Charles in July 2000, who as you are probably aware is a big advocate of the organic movement in the UK. Indeed, he has his own large estate called Highgrove which is exclusively organic. What's more it actually makes a profit. One of the most interesting things about Audley End's walled garden, is that their restoration project is in a fairly early stage. It is being done using the best of Victorian methods, combined with modern organic techniques.

So, from a historical point of view, as well as for the veg fanatic, it is possible to see how the Victorians actually "did" things. I do have quite a few old Victorian gardening books, and sometimes their method and style of writing can be a little confusing. But to actually see it in action, as it were, is not only interesting, but you can get a feel for what it must have felt like to be a head gardener in the 19th century. A bit like some reconstructed ancient villages you can visit in England. In this case however, you can actually talk to the man in charge, if you are lucky, the head gardener Mike Thurlow.

The kitchen gardens were originally established as far back as 1750 by Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth. To be more acurate she wouldn't have actually done any work, but just have supervised it through her head gardener, or possibly her estate manager. Then, in 1768 Sir John Griffin supervised the construction of several new glasshouses and a classical orangery, which is situated where the 19th century vine house now stands.

In 1802, Sir John's glasshouses and his orangery were demolished, and the vine house was built. The vine house has five seperate bays, and the Victorians kept these at different temperatures, to mature the grapes at different rates. This would have been a great deal more involved and labour intensive than today, when all we need to do is flick a switch, or fit a series of timers. In those days it would have involved a great deal of manual labour, such as having some poor lad stay up all night to stoke the fires!

As well as the grapes the kitchen garden at Audley, as did many similar "big house" gardens of the time, also produced pineapples, melons, figs, peaches, necturins, apples and pears. As well as varying the cultivation methods, they would also have carefully chosen the varieties they grew, so as to provide as near as possible, a year round fruit and veg supply. This would have required a great deal of planning, knowledge and shear hard work on behalf of the head gardener, as well as that of his men.

The kitchen garden continued to provide produce for the "big house", right up until the beginning of World War Two. After that, were let out to commercial growers, until a few years ago when the recent transformation took place. As I mentioned before, you can buy produce from the garden, when the house is open, either from the shop or if you live locally, via their box system.
The gardens and house are open from April to the end of October, for full details on opening times call the English Heritage information line +44 1799 522399 or +44 1799 522842.


Happy Vegging.






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