Chiswick House Kitchen Garden operates on no-dig principles and I hear from James Aufenast about this approach, growing a wide range of vegetables, and his advice for potatoes, carrots, quinoa and garlic.
The walled kitchen garden at Chiswick House is 1.2 acres and forms part of the larger 65-acre estate owned by Chiswick House & Gardens Trust in West London.
The kitchen garden boasts a rich history, having been founded as a growing space in 1682 and then continuing to produce food for 250 years. It was brought back to life by volunteers in 2005, being turned from an overgrown wilderness back into an area that could continue the garden’s legacy as a productive space for fruit and vegetables.
A devoted band of passionate volunteers help out every week to keep the garden looking in fantastic shape. And the kitchen garden is also home to learning and community programmes, welcoming groups from the local area including school children, autistic groups and people with learning difficulties.
James Aufenast started in the kitchen garden in October 2020 and looks to take the garden forward in a sustainable way, staying true to its history. Before arriving at Chiswick, he worked for the charity Edible London, growing vegetables in Wolves Lane Horticultural Centre, something which proved vital to families in the capital last year.
He says: “We were supplying local north London families in need and at the peak of the pandemic contributing to hampers that went to 50,000 families per week.”
The kitchen garden at Chiswick House is run on a no-dig approach and James experienced this way of gardening first-hand during a period working with the guru of no-dig, Charles Dowding.
“His organic, no-dig approach obviously appeals, but it is also the fact that Charles doesn’t assume anything to be the correct way of doing things,” says James.
“There is so much misinformation about gardening out there and so many ‘learnt’ elements that are taken to be the only way but are not – for example digging. Through questioning everything and experimenting with different approaches Charles has arrived at a series of techniques that make sense – and work.”
Another examples of where James recommends deviating from the traditional digging technique is when it comes to growing potatoes.
Rather than digging trenches, he advises cutting a slit in the ground, pulling the earth back and sliding the potato in the space. According to James, providing there is a layer of undug compost on top, it saves work in both prepping the ground and harvesting.
“The roots of the plant go into the main earth and the tubers (potatoes) stay largely within the compost layer, come harvest you can just pull them out – grabbing a handful of the main leaves,” he adds.
The kitchen garden features a traditional design of four quarters separated by paths. There is a vegetable quarter, flower quarter, fruit and nuttery corner, and also a community corner for the learning programmes. The reduced frost impact of the walled garden helps provide a wider choice of crops to grow on the site, and even allows stone fruits, such as nectarines and apricots, to be grown successfully.
Around 30 different types and 250 varieties of vegetables are growing in the kitchen garden, all propagated in-house from seed and all – bar carrots and parsnips – grown as transplants and planted on average a month after sowing.
There is also a fruit cage featuring strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberries. Add to that 280 fruit trees, including old pear and apple varieties, nectarine and quince, and also nut trees. So, with such a huge range of harvests coming from the garden, what does James say is actually his favourite crop to grow?
“I really enjoy carrots – and it’s a sensual thing,” he admits.
“Just the smell as you pull them out of the ground is remarkable. It really makes clear the difference between shop bought and growing your own.
“Plus they can be stored for a while into winter – varieties such as Oxhella and Berlicum are really valuable as foodstuff in the colder months.”
James also recommends that more growers start experimenting with quinoa, saying: “It’s actually well suited to our climate, originating from the lower slopes of the Andes. So it can cope with short days and cool nights.
“There’s very little maintenance, just watering now and then. When you come to harvest strip the stalk in one upward movement to remove the seeds.”
James also has advice for any growers out there struggling with rust on their garlic – something he has experienced himself in recent years. He reckons a solution to this is to either grow them indoors, such as in a polytunnel, or protecting them outside with fleece.
The kitchen garden at Chiswick House and Gardens is opening to the public in May, having been closed during the pandemic. The gardens are currently open for visits and visitors can purchase a ticket for the kitchen garden along with entry to the house, connecting the two experiences in the way the Duke of Burlington intended.
Visit the website here to discover exact opening hours.