Audley End House and Gardens is home to a two-and-a-half acre walled garden that produces a variety of plants that were popular during its Victorian heyday. Today a team of 11 gardeners and 65 volunteers run the kitchen gardens to strict organic principles, and they grow many varieties of fruits and vegetables that were grown here in the 19th century.
But what exactly is organic gardening? And how did Victorian gardeners go about producing food for the family and staff at Audley End? We spoke to Senior Gardener Gemma Sturges to find out.
Victorian gardens and modern principles
The Victorian era was a period of cheap manual labour, strict social order and progressive advances in technology and science. Farmers and gardeners were very skilled at looking after their soils but they also used a multitude of chemicals, many of which we’d think of today as poisons. So although we can use some of the methods that the Victorians would recognise, we’re keen to run the garden in a safer way – one that’s more sustainable and friendlier to wildlife, too. For us it’s about balancing traditional horticulural practices with some modern methods – and that’s where organic comes in.
The kitchen garden at Audley was founded in the 18th century, and a team of gardeners was employed to provide the house with the highest quality flowers, fruit, and vegetables year round. These days we have 11 gardeners at Audley and three of those are dedicated to the kitchen gardens alone. We’re also really lucky to have a team of 65 volunteers.
Restored in 1999 with the help of Garden Organic, who managed it until 2013, the garden at Audley End is a fine working example of a Victorian kitchen garden. Today we balance traditional horticultural practices with a modern sensibility, and more sustainable techniques including modern organic principles.
What is an organic garden?
The organic movement started during the first half of the 20th century when modern large-scale agricultural practices began to become more widespread. But some farmers resisted the changes and refused to use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Some of these farmers and growers joined together in various associations including the Soil Association, which was founded in 1946. Audley End has been certified organic by the Soil Association since 2007.
The term ‘organic farming’ was created by Lord Northbourne in 1940, although the origins of organic growing can be dated back to the beginning of the 1800s with theories developed in mineral plant nutrition.
Organic gardening is holistic. Gardeners need to understand the importance of wildlife to grow. For instance, many crops rely on insects like bees and butterflies for pollination, and without that pollination, they won’t grow. This is why it’s so important to protect pollinators. Organic gardening is one way to do that, even though it can mean that maintenance and preparation takes a bit more effort.
Audley End kitchen gardens today
We grow an extensive – and delicious – selection of fruit and vegatables, including 150 varieties of apple, 70 varieties of pear and wall-trained plums and cherries. Under glass we have the 170ft Vinery ‘Black Hamburgh’ grape vines (one of the most prized fruits for the Victorian table) and they’re believed to be about 150 years old. We also have a peach house and a selection of heirloom tomatoes.
Meet our Victorian third gardener Edgar Ashman and watch him harvest apples for Mrs Crocombe in our video, How to Harvest Apples – The Victorian Way.
Organic gardening – a modern sensibility
Our team also uses crop rotation for the annual vegetable plots. This is an important tool in organic growing because it helps to reduce a build-up of crop-specific pests and diseases in the soil.
Crop rotation is also important to maintain soil fertility. In the four main vegetable plots at Audley we use a four-year rotation, so one year a bed will be used for onions and root vegetables, the next it will be legumes, then brassicas, and then potatoes, before going back to onions and other roots. Because of the different fertility needs of each crop, we make the most of the nutrients in the soil without exhausting them. For instance, legumes like peas and beans, add nitrogen to the soil (a traditional working practice). So the year after we grow those in a bed we’ll switch to growing brassicas like cabbage and kale, which are nitrogen hungry.
The essence of organic growing is working with nature and the wider ecosystem, rather than against it. And it’s about being aware that the soil is as important as the plants it supports.
By maintaining and building soil health and by encouraging biodiversity with beneficial insects and pollinators, we can produce delicious, sustainable food that doesn’t cost the earth.
Find out more about our historic gardens and seasonal highlights on our website.