Grow with the Pros: Chatsworth

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire has an illustrious heritage when it comes to growing, with food being grown on the 105-acre estate for centuries.

The Cavendish family moved to Chatsworth in the 1540s and there has been a kitchen garden on the estate ever since. It’s exact location on the estate has changed over the years, but today a kitchen garden and cutting garden sit side-by-side on a 2.75-acre site on a West-facing slope in the northern corner of the gardens.

The sloping kitchen garden ©Mick Brown

It was brought back to life in the early 1990s when the 11th Duke and Duchess saw a real interest in growing fruit and vegetables. It was a huge transformation converting what was once a paddock into a productive space for growing vegetables and flowers.

The new site was laid out over the course of two winters, with infrastructure such as drains and paths installed, raised beds built and a new mixed orchard planted. In the orchard is a range of fruit bred in Derbyshire, including the Beeley Pippin apple.

Chatsworth features a rare gem of four 50ft greenhouses, originally built in 1890 and still intact today. These fantastic historic buildings still feature the same hand-opening vents and the same pipework from when they were built.

Today over 60 types of edible crops, including a variety of cultivars for many crops, are grown in the kitchen garden. This ensures that produce can be supplied to the house year-round, with surplus sold on-site to visitors via a farm shop and stall. 

Ornate onions ©Mick Brown

The gardens are managed by three highly-skilled gardeners, each with their own area of specialist responsibility. Glenn Facer looks after the vegetables, Stefan Homerski is responsible for fruit and herbs, while Sophie Bromley manages the cutting garden. 

Stefan and Glenn bring decades of experience to Chatsworth. The former joined in 1997 while Glenn has been with the estate for over 30 years, the last 12 of which has been focused on growing vegetables and fruit. They will undoubtedly have seen a wide range of crops being grown in the kitchen garden over the years, so what would they say is their favourite crop to grow?

Glenn says: “There are a few really, but I do enjoy growing onions. It’s great seeing them start from seed in the greenhouse, then watching the bulbs develop once they’ve been planted out in the raised beds. beetroot (I grow 19 different varieties) and celeriac are other favourites all of which I show at the RHS Autumn Fruit and Vegetable Competition.”

On the same subject, Stefan adds: “Blueberries and Honey berries, I like these acid loving plants as I grew up picking these berries from the moors above Sheffield with my brother, sister, mum and dad from a very young age”

Honey berries will not be a usual crop to grow for many gardeners around the UK, however Stefan recommends them as they are “extremely hardy” and not as fussy about the soil pH as the likes of blueberries and cranberries.

Speaking of unusual crops, Glenn encourages more growers to experiment with salsify and scorzonera, two Victorian crops rarely seen these days in gardens or on allotments.

Glenn Facer ©Mick Brown

He says: “They are easy to grow and are a delicious winter crop that taste a bit like ‘oyster’. Left to bolt they produce beautiful flowers which are edible and make a lovely addition to salads. Salsify has long white roots and scorzonara has long dark purple/brown roots.”

With so many different crops being grown at Chatsworth, and each one bringing their own challenges, are there any particular plants that even the vastly-experienced duo of growers struggle with? 

Glenn identifies sweetcorn as challenging as they need warm summers, something that can be lacking in the north of England. Also, the strong Derbyshire winds can bend and break the stems. He advises putting small canes around the outside of each plant to give them extra support from changeable weather.

Stefan claims melons have been troublesome in recent years, saying: “Initially I used to find them OK to grow but in the past 4 – 5 years I’ve had problems with them rotting off before they fruit. This may be due to the quality of the loam mix we are now using so I am experimenting to see if I can make improvements in growing this crop.”

When it comes to tackling what for most gardeners seems a never-ending battle with weeds, the experts both say you can’t do better than hoeing and hand weeding. Stefan also suggests making sure to use varieties that are resistant to certain pests and diseases. 

Stefan Homerski ©Mick Brown

It can be difficult for home gardeners to sieve through a mass of information online, with Glenn admitting there is “so much advice available”. However, he does admit that the generosity of gardeners can undoubtedly help people learn new techniques and ideas.

He says “As a community we all like to share our ideas and knowledge and are happy to ask for advice when we see something being done well by another gardener. I particularly like Instagram as a way of meeting other skilled growers and for seeing good practice and new approaches to vegetable gardening.”

Coming in Part 2 of the Grow with the Pros at Chatsworth we focus on the cutting garden and hear from Sophie all about her favourite flowers, tips for growers wanting more cut flowers, and she gives valuable advice for healthy, strong plants and beautiful blooms.

Chatsworth House is located near to Bakewell in the Peak District in Derbyshire. The gardens are currently open and visitors must book timed tickets online via their website, which you can visit here

©Mick Brown

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