Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Inspiration from West Dean #1

I'm suffering from a bad case of coldframe envy.

I went down to West Dean Gardens a little while ago, and for a kitchen garden fanatic like me it was like being given the keys to the sweetshop. Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, who manage the garden and have overseen its restoration, must surely get some sort of award for dedication beyond the call of duty. Since 1991 they've turned the walled kitchen garden into a wonderful fusion of old-fashioned Victoriana and modern foody organic growing where they experiment with new (and old) cultivars using very 21st century techniques.

There's also a college which among other things runs lots of mouthwatering courses in things to do with horticulture, and the gardens host a series of legendary foody events celebrating things like chillies, tomatoes and apples. You'll see why it's my kind of place.

But back to those coldframes.

Brick bases to absorb lots of heat and pristine white wooden frames. These babies must be 8ft from front to back.

They stretch right along one length of greenhouse (and that's a very, very big greenhouse). And they're packed with mixed salads of every kind, all sown lovingly in densely-packed rows. I wish, wish, wish I could grow salad like this.

The whole thing was a lesson in how to contrast leaf shapes, colours and textures: even humble old lettuce gets to look a million dollars if you mix it with a sprinkling of purple basil and pinch of perilla.

My discovery of the day was this dwarf basil, Ocimum minimum, which grows like a tight little football packed with leaves. Picked over just like thyme, they're intensely fragrant: I always find ordinary basil a little tricky so this could be the answer.

The coldframe I really, really want, above all other, is this one. And the reason I want it is that bit of iron at the side: that's an automatic Victorian light-lifting contraption. You can wind up the lights bit by bit to harden things off or adjust for the weather: no more bits of wood propping up the glass and getting knocked out, to the accompanying sound of breaking glass, by over-enthusiastic dogs bounding about the garden.

As if that wasn't enough, they've got those lovely curvy glass panels too, designed to guide the water away from the wooden frame and down the centre of the glass. Sometimes those Victorians had the right idea.

I want, I want, I want....


VP said...

Me too, me too, me too!

That basil looks just like the Greek basil I've been growing this year. I have to confess at this point, I saw it in Sainsbury's (so can't really vouch for which type of basil it really is), bought a potful and split it up to make a basil hedge in the little bed I have on the patio. It's been brilliant stuff, so easy to use and very tasty.

Joanne said...

West Dean one of my favourite places to go and it gets better each time we visit. Everything is so well cared for.

James A-S said...

The curvy glass panels are called Beaver Tails.
One of my favourite descriptions. Oddly I went to west Dean for the first time this weekend. I intend to return as it is everything you say.

emmat said...

I have been burbling on about West Dean in my last three posts as I was teaching a course about garden blogging! I spent ages taking photos of the cold frames - I might have to post mine now having seen yours!

The Constant Gardener said...

VP - basil hedge! Of course! Doesn't it have to be replanted every year though? Or is this hardier basil than the usual?

Joanne - entirely agree

JAS - beaver tails.... :D
you seem to have been one of a slew of lecturers I missed at West Dean lately, I obviously must time my visits better.

and Emma - I've been enjoying your posts - but yes, now you're going to have to publish - can't get enough of 'em...

VP said...

Yes it will need replanting next year, but it's worth it. Mine's still productive and I'll be using masses of it tonight with my courgettes to make a pasta sauce :)

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