A brief history of the walled garden and why they're a gardener's dream

Whether you've inherited a walled garden in need of some love, or want to create your own, this is what you need to know

Coming across an abandoned walled garden, you’ll often find a rather wild and unruly place, dotted with hints at what was there before – snippets of yew hedge, flower bed borders half concealed in the undergrowth, evidence of having been a well cared for and important part of a home. “They are a lovely window into a past life” says garden designer Angel Collins, who has worked on many throughout her career, “when vegetables not only fed the whole household all year around, but the abundant vegetables were also given as presents to tenants and local villagers.”

More often than not, inherited walled gardens are given a new purpose; now people prefer to optimise their sheltered and sunny positions as places of entertainment and pleasure as opposed to hard graft and productivity. But equally there are some inspiring projects where large houses with restaurants have resurrected theirs to provide food for their kitchens, or community-based funding has helped bring some productivity back to a previously neglected space.

Here’s a brief history of the walled garden, along with ideas on how to design a similar space of your own (big or small, you can apply the concept even if you don’t have acres to work with) and what and how to grow in it.

What were walled gardens used for?

Deep borders make an impact at Jasper Conran's Dorset garden

Andrew Montgomery

Historical walled gardens were often enormous places, carefully managed by gardeners working closely with its household to fulfil its needs. One acre could feed twelve people, and some even reached up to 30 acres. One of the largest was Queen Victoria’s royal kitchen garden at Windsor; built in 1844, it was an enormous 31 acres.

The first walled gardens were found in Persia and were places of calm and reflection as opposed to places for growing; religion dictated their design and when they became commonplace in monasteries the same ecclesiastical approach was taken to forming their layouts, featuring straight lines, motifs, and an overriding sense of order.

When they became a part of big country houses they were usually out of sight of the main pleasure grounds but near enough to the house to be useful. With high walls they had their own microclimates – south-facing walls were used to grow espaliered fruit and with the introduction of greenhouses (and the repeal of the glass tax in 1845 and window tax in 1851), the growing season was extended and they became even more useful.

Everything from gooseberries, raspberries, currants, strawberries and apples were grown and, when adventurous Victorians returned from their travels, they also became handy places to keep rare plants that would otherwise have suffered in the British climate.

How to design a walled garden or sheltered growing space

A walled garden that also plays host to a pizza oven and dining table at a handsome country house on the Wiltshire-Somerset border

Michael Sinclair

If you’re planning on building one of your own, consider how much protection from the elements you need and crucially what you’re going to be growing in there. Building red brick walls isn’t cheap or particularly sustainable, so if you’re trying to create a similar microclimate with less funds and less of an impact on the environment, look at alternatives. A very green option is to use an existing wall (say, of the side of your house or boundary) and work around that, using thick evergreen hedging instead of a wall to form the additional boundaries. A thick Yew hedge is perfect for this but you could also use holly, holm oak or another hardy evergreen hedging plant.

When it comes to positioning it, assuming it’s going to be a productive space you’ll want it near the kitchen but in the sunniest spot in your garden. I always suggest to clients who want productive spaces that they integrate this with an entertaining area and create an ornamental vegetable garden; think of it as the open plan kitchen-diner of the outdoor world. That way you don’t have to give up a whole part of your garden that is exclusively for growing – it can be somewhere you can enjoy spending time too.

What to do with one you’ve inherited

If you do have one that’s too big to use just to feed your own family, there are other ways to make use of these sunny, sheltered spots, says Angel Collins. “Nowadays if someone inherits an abandoned walled garden, I think nine times out of ten, the walled garden will become a place to play (croquet and tennis), a place to swim (they are a good place to hide a pool and are usually the warmest and most sheltered part of the garden), and a place to grow some cut flowers, beautiful roses and a few vegetables” says Angel.

What to grow in a walled garden

“I think it’s important to try and resurrect the historic side of these walled gardens” continues Angel, “so I added morello cherries on the north walls and figs and espaliered apricots on the south with marvellously trained apples and pears are on the remaining walls.

“In between the swags of yew I planted Malus transitoria and Malus hupehensis. Lots of herbs were planted along the walls with silver artichokes, fennel, alliums, sweet pea obelisks and rainbow chard to complete the picture.”

Walled garden inspiration from the past and present

A glimpse from the walled garden of the wisteria walk in the pool garden on a historic Pennsylvania estate, with its arches of Wisteria sinensis and W. sinensis ‘Alba’, reimagined by Arabella Lennox-Boyd.

Ngoc Minh Ngo

If you want more inspiration for designing a modern kitchen garden, look up Harris Bugg studio’s contribution to RHS Garden Bridgewater, where the designers took inspiration from the Bridgewater canal which played a huge part in Manchester’s role in the Industrial Revolution to inform the layout of their design.

For a more traditional approach, pay a visit to Floors Castle, where Angel helped revive the walled garden with Jim and Sarah Marshall. “The walled garden at Floors Castle is said to be the largest in Scotland” explains Angel,  “and was transformed by the late Guy and Virginia Roxburghe, the previous Duke and Duchess. Along with Jim and Sarah Marshall I helped plant the Tapestry Garden which replaced the old plant centre.

“There are many beautiful herbaceous borders along with an amazing fruit cage and several greenhouses full of beautiful cucumbers, tomatoes, white peaches and melons. In between the herbaceous borders are many beautifully grown vegetables. It’s a truly old-fashioned walled garden and well worth a visit, complemented by the best lunch in Scotland.”

@tabijgee_gardendesign | www.tjg-gardens.com