Victorian Walled Gardens
The Victorian Walled Garden – A brief history and pragmatic perspective.
Historic change provided the impetus
The Victorian Walled Garden did not appear overnight. Vegetable gardens evolved from the simple need people had to feed themselves. At one time virtually every cottage and country house in Britain contained a modest vegetable garden. In time, these gardens evolved in direct proportion to their owner’s personal wealth, for the more wealthy this extended to include feeding an extended household and to regularly entertaining house guests. The period of greatest growth and changes in gardening ran parallel with the growth of the British Empire which fuelled it, especially between 1800 and 1914. After 1914 there simply wasn’t the manpower or the economic resources and, in many places, even the desire to garden to quite the same extent as in the past.
Pictured above: Aerial photo of part of the walled gardens restored and remodelled by Mike Gilmore.
The growth of the Victorian walled garden coincided with a number of simultaneous social and economic developments in Britain after 1800. From 1800, Britain experienced explosive economic growth and social change. This growth was fuelled by global exploration and the development of steam-driven commercial transport. No longer were the adventurous limited to the distance a horse could travel in one day, or the direction and speed of the prevailing oceanic winds. In short, the wealthy Victorian could personally finance men to gather any unusual and exotic plant they wished and the Victorians developed the means to cultivate the plants upon their return, despite the vagaries of the English weather.
There were two types of walled garden, the most common was the walled vegetable garden offering practical solutions and hitherto unknown treats for the Victorian dining table. The second type was the walled flower garden which provided a feast for the eyes! At my garden at ‘Winsford Walled Garden’ had both types. Money was never a problem for some. Picture in your mind if you will a large square vegetable plot with enough space to grow everything your heart desires. Now surround it with heated greenhouses so large they made a wall ‘superfluous’. These greenhouses once enabled the owners to enjoy whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it – well almost!
Pictured above: Aerial view of the west gardens containing restored greenhouses, bamboo grove, mixed herbaceous borders and hostas.
Why did the Victorians build walled gardens? No, it’s NOT what you first think of. . .
There’s a common misconception among gardeners today, that walled gardens were originally built “to protect the plants from the weather”. I do not believe this was the case and I’m going to provide the undeniable evidence that supports my personal viewpoint.
- Let’s begin with a generally accepted fact in gardening. That any wall or hedge is able to protect the planting behind it up to a distance of 2x the height of the wall or hedge. Taking this further, a 10ft high garden wall or hedge will afford protection from the weather up to a distance of 20ft from the base of the wall. Therefore, the wily Victorian who wishes to build his walled garden “to protect his plants from the weather”, should build his opposing 10ft high brick walls a maximum of 40ft apart! There is no walled garden with 10ft high walls just 40ft apart anywhere. In reality, the smallest walled gardens extended from about 180ft across and many were 600ft or more across.
- Next, consider Queen Victoria’s garden at Windsor Castle. After all, you could not get more ‘Victorian’ than that! In 1853 her Majesty’s vegetable gardens were enclosed by garden walls 10ft high. Even though the gardens themselves covered 32 acres! Just how much ‘protection from the weather’ do you think her vegetables received? Not a lot.
- Most vegetables don’t grow much higher than your waist in summer and in winter most Victorian walled gardens looked little better than a ploughed field until the arrival of spring, which largely obviated the need to protect vegetables from the elements! It certainly didn’t make economic sense for a wealthy, pragmatic Victorian owner.
- Furthermore, every walled garden is susceptible to swirling, tornado-like air currents within. This was our initial experience at Winsford and we found it highly damaging to our first plantings in the gardens because, instead of simply passing through the garden, the winds would remain inside the walls doing their devillish worst. So, any walled vegetable gardens containing the usual low-growing plants would only exacerbate the effects of the tornado effect within.
The real purpose of having walled gardens was further reinforced to me when I discovered my gardens at Winsford were located between the homes of the Head Gardener and the Estate Bailiff. Both men occupied the plumb jobs outside the main house, (the butler and cook being the top jobs inside the house). These two gentlemen could observe the goings on in the gardens with great ease. Wealthy Victorians went to considerable expense to enclose their gardens with high walls, and they did so to protect the valuable produce within the walls from petty theft! Any petty thief would think twice about going over 14ft high garden walls and then snucking past the homes of the two most important men on the estate at night with a bag of ‘swag’ over the shoulder!
Remember, walled gardens were packed with expensively produced food, much of it unobtainable to the local populace a) because of its rarity – like pineapples for instance and b) because they contained out of season vegetables. Finally, you need to appreciate the surrounding population was often poor and hungry, especially in winter, and without a wall, every estate garden was an open pantry.
This is where Winsford is very different today, because our planting within the walls includes an extensive range of large hardy shrubs and small trees which not only provide internally screened zones, they also raise the overall height of the internal planting. This has the effect of encouraging the prevailing winds to ‘glance over’ the top of the garden walls rather than drop down and swirl about inside it. Once the plantings had established themselves and the gardens could benefit from the ‘glancing-over’ effect after five years growth, our neighbours brought it to our attention that the gardens were about 3-5C warmer than their own! Now lets return to the historical…….
Pictured above: A boot scrape located between the gardens at Winsford for gardeners to use when crossing from the walled vegetable gardens in to the walled flower gardens.
Having constructed the expensive walls the pragmatic Victorian owner made full use of them. On walls facing towards the north it was quite common to grow espaliers of cool-loving plants such as blackberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and cherries. While on east-facing walls apples, cherries and the hardier pear cultivars were often grown. Figs, plums and the warmer-loving pear and apple varieties could be happily grown upon the warmer west-facing wall. The hot south-facing wall (the north wall) was reserved for growing tomatoes, peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries. Head gardeners didn’t only take advantage of the inside walls… Very often the outer walls were covered in scrambling berry fruits of all types.
Practical owners, with an eye on their pocket, used the walls as a basis for gardener cottages so their occupants could act as ‘nightwatchmen’ over their produce, the backs of the walls were often used to support stores, potting sheds and boiler houses.
In 1845 the glass tax was abolished, three years later plate glass was invented, and three years after that the window tax was also abolished. As a result of these three events the cost of glass plummeted in Britain. Even today, there is obvious evidence in older houses where windows had previously been bricked up to reduce the owner’s exposure to the glass and window taxes. Window tax was payable on all properties with six or more windows. It was no coincidence that London’s enormous Crystal Palace which Joseph Paxton designed for the Great Exhibition was built just six years after the abolition of glass tax (in 1851). After 1845 the wealthy could afford to build large greenhouses against their south-facing garden walls.
Improvements in Victorian boiler design
Northern England is built upon coal and this was the fuel of choice for every Victorian greenhouse. The later half of the nineteenth century also witnessed considerable boiler design improvements that lead to increased heating efficiency. A large, mid-nineteenth century boiler measuring 150x68x53cms cost £46 and was capable of heating 503m of 100mm diameter heating pipe. By comparison, a large, late-nineteenth century boiler could measure as much as 243x92x90cms, cost £95, yet was capable of heating 1540m of 100mm diameter heating pipe.
Between the 1880’s and 1912 the English walled garden reached its peak. Not only did the great estates employ hundreds of gardeners and contain huge growing areas under glass, but it was not uncommon for people of comparatively modest means (retired army officers, medical professionals and the clergy) to employ half a dozen gardeners to cultivate fresh garden vegetables, fruit and cut flowers under glass. Quite often such people had travelled extensively, seen exotic plants in the course of their work and now had the time and the means to enjoy exotic plants in their retirement.
Specially designed greenhouses were available for chrysanthemums, carnations, and orchids. An orchid enthusiast would have at least two houses enabling the owner to cultivate both cool and hot house orchid varieties. Later, as the Victorians discovered the inherent beauty in the foliage of exotic plants from distant lands, they designed and built fabulous Foliage Houses. The Winter Garden was essentially a conservatory designed to provide a haven for evergreens and winter flowering plants.
In vegetable gardens, the development of three-quarter span greenhouses enabled wealthy owners to cultivate early, mid and late season grapes of various kinds, both for the bottle and as fresh bunches to eat and to impress their peers at the dinner table. Today, we are so used to global transportation stocking our supermarkets, it is difficult for us to even imagine the effect on wealthy Victorians when they saw bunches of fresh fruit on the dining table in the middle of winter.
The Head Gardener was king
Just as a modern restaurant is judged by its Head Chef so, the Victorian walled garden was judged by its Head Gardener. As gardens evolved during the nineteenth century so did the knowledge and skills of the Head Gardener. His first task was to provide the kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the year. The Head Gardener who could not only grow the ordinary with the exotic, but who could successfully store the garden’s produce, so that the owner and his guests might enjoy out-of-season fruit and vegetables just as they might be enjoyed in the summer, was highly valued. Head hunting is not a modern corporate phenomenon, wealthy Victorians were certainly not averse to tempting a valued Head Gardener away from one estate to their own.
Tools for the job
Victorian secateurs. Throughout the nineteenth century the fledgling horticultural industry developed at a tremendous rate to keep up with the England’s interest in gardening. Garden magazines, plant nurseries and tool manufacturers all provided for the insatiable appetite of the gardening public just as it does today.
Pictured left: Victorian secateurs showing how little has changed.
Garden tools were developed to make gardening easier. Some garden tools, such as spades, forks, wheelbarrows and secateurs have barely changed in a 100 years. While others such as the lawnmower have developed a great deal. The original lawnmower looked as though it could lay a tarmac road when compared to the sleek, compact modern machines of today.
Many Victorian garden tool designs did prove totally unwieldy and impractical and were thus condemned to byegone dustbins. What examples do remain in museums today, provide a curious and often humorous insight to a previous age.
Gardening could kill
Visitors to Winsford’s greenhouses often remark how wonderful it would have been to work in the fabulous greenhouses during Victorian times. This somewhat romantic illusion of our contemporary garden visitors to Winsford Walled Garden is based largely upon their idea of working in a heated greenhouse through the cold English winters. But in the Victorian era there was no such thing as ‘Health & Safety at Work’ as there is today. Victorian employers owed no ‘duty of care’. There was little, if indeed any, research into the dangers of using lead paint, working with lead-lined tools and the use of the common pesticides and insecticides of the period. Just imagine regularly spraying your greenhouse plants with arsenic, without even a protective face mask! No wonder the greenhouse staff of the Victorian era rarely reached thirty-five years of age.