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From plot to plate at Ham House and Garden, Richmond

PUBLISHED: 12:36 28 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:03 20 February 2013

From plot to plate at Ham House and Garden, Richmond

From plot to plate at Ham House and Garden, Richmond

Take inspiration for growing fruit and veg at home by visiting the kitchen garden at Ham House near Richmond, where they've been growing their own for 400 years...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2011

Take inspiration for growing fruit and veg at home by visiting the kitchen garden at Ham House near Richmond, where theyve been growing their own for 400 years...

Words and photography by Leigh Clapp

One of the National Trust properties that emanates history from its very fabric, Ham House, near Richmond, has changed little over the past 300 years, and that goes for the formal gardens as well. In addition to the oldest orangery in Britain, built in 1674, there is also a 400-year-old walled kitchen garden, overseen today by head gardener Sandra King and gardener Patrick Kelly. A wonderful place to get a bit of inspiration for growing your own fruit and veg, it also provides a fascinating insight into a time when the kitchen garden was a living larder.

Back in the late 1600s, the owner of Ham House was the flamboyant Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart, who developed the kitchen garden to complement her new orangery. In those days, it was the custom to build highly decorative gardens around these glasshouses of exotic fruits. Vegetables, miniature fruit trees and flowers would be placed closest to the building with less ornamental plots further away for larger quantities of vegetables. As well as being a source of food, the garden was also a medicine cabinet of healing and scented plants too.

Today, the kitchen garden is primarily a visitor attraction, presenting how people grew, and what they grew, back in the 17th century, says Sandra. It ornaments the orangery, as was Elizabeth Murrays original intention she would have turned it from a more utilitarian space into a productive but attractive part of her garden tour for visitors, as it is now, using topiary and edging plants to make it more decorative.

Now the shift is moving more towards providing fresh produce for the Orangery caf, for the visitors to eat. We are expanding the kitchen garden to offer more produce through the year, keeping their costs and food miles down. This is great for our carbon footprint at Ham.

Authentic methods
Although 16 plots were reinstated in 2000 and two extra beds this year, in the 1670s the kitchen garden was twice the length you see today. However, this is still a real glimpse into the past combined with the practical knowledge of the present to create a superb kitchen garden that both inspires the home gardener and helps supply the caf. Visitors can see and learn about heritage crops and the processes of growing food, from the plot to the table, and adapt ideas for their own gardens.

We tend to stick to authentic methods of production, rather than going commercial, adds Sandra. For example, we use sticks to keep off pigeons and put up with flea beetle on the turnips and radish rather than using fleece or netting, to give it that old look.

Meanwhile, Patrick guides a team of gardeners and enthusiastic volunteers who keep the garden ticking over. Neatly planted rows of vegetables are interspersed with culinary and medicinal herbs and flowers, while wall-trained fruits edge the perimeter. At the end of summer, there are squashes and pumpkins scrambling up supports or peering out from under large leaves, root vegetables are being harvested and splashes of red from ruby chard stems and ripened raspberries tempt the taste buds. Be sure to take a look at the dedicated bed of 17th century varieties that includes produce with intriguing names such as the root vegetables scorzonera, skirret and salsify.

Visitors understandably linger longer in the kitchen garden than in any other part of the grounds at Ham, stopping to both admire and to chat to the gardeners and volunteers in order to pick up tips.

If you get an opportunity to meet Patrick, ask him about his foreign exchange trip to the renowned Potager du Roi next to Versailles, which gave him a superb insight into 17th century kitchen garden produce and practices from the time of King Louis XIV.

What I was most impressed by was the scale of production, he says. It was good to come across so many great varieties of fruit and vegetables, some of which we already grew at Ham and some I am now trying out on my allotment!

Ham House, Ham, Richmond-upon-Thames TW10 7RS. Garden, shop and caf open daily (11am-4pm). Free garden tours every day.

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