There can be few more satisfying and attractive minimalist gardens than a well-kept kitchen garden although not when it is your own and you start noticing everything that requires attention. That doyen of floral plants women, Gertrude Jekyll, wrote "when I am free to take a quiet stroll for pure pleasure of the garden, I take it among the vegetables".
The ideal, old-fashioned kitchen garden of our imagination is a walled garden. In many European examples walls as high as 4 metres and the unexpected quietness inside creates an atmosphere of security, retreat and mystery.
As early as 2,300 B.C. the ancient Egyptians had walled kitchen gardens where they grew leeks, lettuces, gourds, cos, cucumbers, garlic, onions and radishes in chequerboard plots divided by irrigation channels. The Romans villas also had very sophisticated kitchen gardens but things went down hill throughout much of Europe during medieval times. For example the Romans in Britain grew a wide variety of herbs and vegetables including 12 kinds of cabbage and 11 types of lettuce. Yet when Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine, fancied a salad or lettuce she had to dispatch a messenger to Holland or Flanders to procure them. They even had to import the turnips and parsnips though why on earth anyone would want to is puzzling. Henry's wife must have continued to complain about her limp lettuces because apart from starting a habit of changing wives Henry was said to be personally responsible for reintroducing many of the Roman vegetables to Britain including the lettuce and the turnip and parsnip.
By Tudor times kitchen gardens no longer needed to be walled for defense but a rampart around the inside of the walls was fancied for views over the garden and the surrounding countryside. Elizabethan kitchen gardens reintroduced flowers around the outer edges but by the early 17th century kitchen gardens had generally returned to a more specialised form.
The example at Hamilton Gardens has many of the features of the classic European 18th / 19th century gardens if not the design detail. These were usually square or rectangular divided, depending on its size, into two, four or six compartments. The use of raised beds has been common since at least Roman times and took many forms often with impermanent retaining.
By the late 16th Century there was a strong demand for foreign, tender desert fruits like apricots, peaches and almonds and early flowering plums, cherries, gooseberries, currents, medlars and quinces which in northern Europe usually had to be grown against a 'fruit wall'. They were often trained and espaliered to create decorative and sometimes highly elaborate effects. The walls held the daytime heat, extended the growing season and were invaluable for the production of first class fruit. Research has shown that the amount of heat reflected close to a sunny brick wall can equal 7 degrees latitude and certainly crops in the Kitchen Garden at Hamilton Gardens often ripen before others in the region.
The quarters were planted in rotation with various brassicas, legumes, onions and root crops. A pond in the centre of the garden provided 'softened' water for dry spells.
While these gardens were expensive to make and maintain they produced a wide range of fruit and vegetables.