When I was in Derbyshire a while back, I went to Chatsworth House (this may actually be a legal requirement under local byelaws: certainly every other person in Derbyshire seemed to be there at the same time as me).
It has a spectacular and very famous garden of 105 acres, nearly half a millennium old, with bits created by the likes of Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) and Lawrence ‘Capability’ Brown. It has cascades, a maze, a rockery and the biggest gravity-fed fountain in ….
Meh. I bypassed the lot and spent the whole day in the veg garden.
Visiting other people’s kitchen gardens is a bit of an obsession. I don’t think I’ve ever come away without some never-before-seen revelation excitedly scribbled in my notebook. The Duke of Devonshire (or rather, his large and talented team of gardeners) grows apple trees in wonderful raised beds, the rows of veg radiating out in rays from the trunk. In the Heathcoat-Amorys’ veg garden at Knightshayes (now owned by the National Trust) redcurrants are trained in whimsical scribbles against the walls. And take an extra notebook for Audley End, in Essex, as it used to be managed by Garden Organic and is full of heritage varieties you’ve never heard of before (but now really, really want to grow).
You needn’t stop visiting after summer is over: in fact, don’t. Veg gardens are often open to the public at times when we wouldn’t allow the dog to see our own patches. And that means the gardeners still have to make them look good: go in November, December and January when everyone else has gone home and you’ll find out how.
In fact if I could, I’d visit a kitchen garden every month of the year.
January: West Dean, Sussex to drool over the architectural shapes formed by trained fruit in winter. They grow apples and pears in espaliers, cordons, double-U’s, goblets and pyramids, over archways and in criss-cross patterns.
February: The Kitchen Garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxfordshire where there are no excuses for failed crops in February. It’s the test of a good kitchen garden to see what they’ve got growing at this time of year: and Le Manoir always, always passes with flying colours.
March: The Model Kitchen Garden, RHS Wisley, Surrey - not my favourite kitchen garden as it rather lacks the wow factor, but it’s great for picking up tips especially in early spring when they erect a positive forest of cloches and polythene tunnels to get early-sown seedlings going.
April: The Kitchen Garden at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire to breathe in the massed blossom of dozens of apple trees, planted in an orchard in one corner of the delightful walled vegetable garden.
May: Rosemary Verey’s potager at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire just to find out how it’s done. A masterpiece of formal yet charming kitchen garden design, it’s now the grounds of a luxury hotel so you’ll have to book a stay. It’s tough, this kitchen garden visiting lark…
June: Knightshayes Walled Kitchen Garden, Devon to see what new veg they’re growing this year. When I visited in 2012 it was achocha, oca and species (i.e. wild) tomatoes: who knows what head gardener Lorraine will come up with next.
July: Forde Abbey, Dorset to see that rare phenomenon, a veg garden which is also a front garden. Admittedly, it’s larger than your average front garden, but you walk through it to approach the Abbey. Can’t think of a better way to start your visit.
August: The Duke’s Garden at Chatsworth, Derbyshire, where the extensive cutting gardens – treated, Victorian fashion, as an integral part of the kitchen garden – is in full and breathtaking flower.
September: The Vine House at Hampton Court Palace, London, where the world’s largest grapevine lives. It’s a ‘Black Hamburg’ and over 240 years old so they’ve got to be doing something right: pick up insider tips and some fresh-picked bunches on your way out.
October: Audley End, Essex for their eyepopping annual display of heirloom squashes and pumpkins – around 30 different varieties in all in shades of yellow, orange, blue and white, sometimes all at once.
November: The Potager at Chateau Villandry, France – well, I never said they had to be in the UK, did I? In November it’s all frost-rimed kales and crisply-edged curlicue hedging. Plus the flights are cheap and you’ll have the place almost entirely to yourself.
December: The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall to see them harvest pineapples. Home to one of the two functioning Victorian pineapple pits in the country (the other is at Tatton Park in Cheshire – one for next year’s list), Heligan’s home-grown pineapples cost an eyewatering £1000 each to grow. But goodness, the swank value…