A plan for all seasons

When you run the Royal Kitchen Garden at Hampton court, you need to know some of the historical techniques that were employed by gardeners decades ago. Vicki Cooke does some timely research.

Chateau de Villandry
Crop rotation on a grand scale at Chateau de Villandry. Image: Jean Vernon
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When the weather is atrocious, it’s entirely acceptable to not want to be outside in the garden. However, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Now is the best time to get things all planned out ready for the coming season.

Crop rotation

This time of the year provides valuable ‘downtime’ to get organised, order seeds and materials and work out a plan for the garden next year. This is something that has been done by head gardeners for hundreds of years and their accumulated knowledge was often written down in various Gardener’s Kalenders, Almanacks and Discourses. It’s interesting for us working in an historic garden to see what advice we can still follow from these old books but also what is relevant to the home gardener.

 “Another thing I would have you take notice of is that you do not sow one sort of crop too often on the same piece of ground, but sow it with changeable crops, especially parsnips and carrots, the which being sown too often without change will be liable to canker, rot or be very apt to be wormeaten”           The Compleat English Gardener, 1710

potager
Gardeners of old understood the value of crop rotation.

Gardeners of old understood the value of crop rotation – growing the same crop in a piece of ground year after year meant that it would deteriorate though the reason why was often not understood.  We now know that some crops will deplete specific soil nutrients from the soil, which might be less important for a different crop. This is useful to know in your own garden as it means you don’t have to feed your entire veg plot, just the areas that need it most, like brassicas and squashes, and then plan to follow those crops with plant types that prefer less fertile soil, like the root crops and leafy salads. On a very small scale, the rotation to prevent pests and diseases matters less, as everything is being grown so close together anyway, but it is good practice to follow if you can.

Gap fillers

The kitchen gardeners of yesteryear were also very good at using every last square inch of soil. If this was considered necessary on a 1 acre plot, it is even more vital on a small backyard veg garden. Temporary gaps in the garden can be filled by rocket and radish as they are up and harvested in as little as 6 weeks. The seed of carrot and parsnip can be very slow to germinate, so you can take advantage of the bare ground while they germinate, by sowing lines of radish in between the rows. By the time they are harvested, the other seedlings should be through. Old gardening books even recommended sowing quick crops of radish onto the south facing sides of potato ridges. The seed for these quick to grow vegetables is often very cheap, so stock up now to always some on hand to fill in those gaps.

Successional planting

Plan now what crops to have ready to plant as soon as another is harvested. For example, after we harvest our first and second early potatoes in June and July here in the Hampton Court Palace Royal Kitchen garden, we then direct sow the beds with Florence (bulb) fennel and radicchio.

An early sowing of beetroot will be harvested in plenty of time for spinach to be sown in its place. Once onions are lifted in august, there is space to sow autumn and winter salads such as claytonia, lettuce, spinach and cornsalad.  

At the start of the season, a quick crop of lettuces from an early, indoor sowing can be harvested before the leeks are transplanted in June.

Pea varieties such as ‘Meteor’ can be sown in November (protect from birds and mice) after a summer vegetable, then harvested early June and the area replanted with beetroot, leeks or cabbage plants.

The old head gardeners knew that careful planning was the key to a productive vegetable garden and these dismal days are the perfect excuse to get ahead of the game, do some reading, order some seed and get your own plot planned for the season ahead.

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
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