The History of
Fruit Growing in Gardens
The history of fruit growing in gardens is an ancient story. Fruit was probably cultivated around dwellings long before purely decorative plants. Fruit is produced on trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals so they have a place in every garden however large or small.
Productive fruit plants were regarded as ornamental and an essential part of the garden until the creation of, usually walled, kitchen gardens in the 18th century. We should not think they were banished from the garden as they were considered unattractive. They did not suit the English landscape park or later flower gardens that developed in the 19th century. Owners were, though, proud of their kitchen garden both for their layout and display and their superb and sophisticated horticulture. They were an essential part of the tour of any garden and landscape and admired as much as the latest acquisitions in a fashionable pinetum or border.
Fruit was an essential part of the diet of the household and would be used to impress guests with unusual fruit, perfect specimens and out of season. Fresh fruit at the end of a meal is an Italian tradition that became the height of fashion in the 19th century. While the development of fruit varieties, new crops and cultivation developed in larger gardens, fruit was grown by everyone to supplement diets of grains and green vegetables where meat was scarce. We now know that fruit is exceptionally good for you in a balanced diet. It is full of vitamins, minerals and fibres so necessary for the relatively comfortable and sedentary lives that we now lead.
The oldest surviving garden in Europe is the mosque garden in Cordoba from around 982. It is a delightful courtyard of orange trees on the same grid as the columns on the mosque. Moorish and Arab influenced gardens were also common in Sicily and this fashion spread north in Italy in medieval times. They were a major influence on the development of the Italian renaissance garden from the 1400s onwards. Those gardens were mainly formal designs with a lot of box edged formal shapes (which originated in Roman gardens) with dwarfed fruit trees in them.
The fashion for these gardens moved north to France, the Netherlands and Britain and fruit plants were essential in their design and use. As training became more sophisticated it could be used to show off the owner’s skills as espaliers, cordons, arches, baskets, tables and many other shapes. This reached its peak at Versailles where Louis XIV had relegated the fruit and vegetables to the Potager du Roi, round the corner from the main gardens. The surviving garden at Westbury Court, Gloucestershire, is from the early 1700s. It still retains the Dutch influence and has espaliered fruit trees on the walls in the main garden.
With the development of walled kitchen gardens, on the Versailles model, in Victorian Britain all the walls were covered in trained fruit trees. Exotic fruits were grown in glasshouses, including peaches and pineapples.
These kitchen gardens had a great variety of apples, pears, plums, cherries and other fruits. They were developed by mainly British nurseryman to give the longest possible season of quality fruits for growers. Most of these are growing in the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm.
Brogdale Farm is just south of Faversham, in the North Kent Fruit Belt, and is home to the National Fruit Collection. This is a collection of fruit varieties as living and fruiting trees and it is the most comprehensive and best documented in the world.
This is of great interest to gardeners and garden historians as the varieties go back over hundreds of years and they can be propagated for historic garden restoration and community orchards based on local varieties. The varieties for the restoration of the early 18th century garden at Westbury Court in Gloucestershire, in the 1970s, came from the National Fruit Collection and the plum stones from the Mary Rose, the Tudor warship, were identified with reference to the N.F.C.
The National Fruit Collection belongs to the nation and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) run it. Defra’s interest is in the genetic resources of the varieties for breeding fruit crops for the future. These are needed so that we can respond to climate and environmental change, pests and diseases and develop cultivation techniques using traditional and new varieties suited to the new conditions. As a gene bank, it has international status as part of the UK’s contribution to the United Nations’ International Treaty on the Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources.
The number of varieties is amazing. There are 2,200 apples, 650 pears, 320 plums, 300 cherries and smaller collections of grapes, cobnuts, cider apples and perry pears, quinces, medlars, apricots, currants and gooseberries. Within the Collections there is a great diversity of apples that are eating, cooking and cider varieties, plums that include eating, cooking, gages, mirabelles and quetsches while the cherries include sweet ones, morellos and the old, sour Kent duke cherries.
They came to the collections from many different countries and now propagation material is sent to research stations around the world.
There is a long history in Britain of collecting fruit varieties, even from the early days of the Royal Horticultural Society two hundred years ago. The collections were brought together in 1952 in a new research station at Brogdale. When this was dosed in 1990 the National Fruit Collection was kept for the nation. It is now managed for Defra by Reading University. The Collections are managed by the charity Brogdale Collections (www.brogdalecollections.co.uk).
There are guided tours of the Collections and three fruit festivals a year, Cherry, Cider and Apple. At the festivals there are free tastings, as many varieties as possible are available to buy, local produce and crafts are sold and there are the usual family attractions. These are held over a weekend and there are also day events for the blossom, soft fruit, plums and Kentish cobnuts. The farm also has a permanent Market Place with shops selling local foods and crafts.
Brogdale Collections has expanded the visitor attraction to tell the story of the Collections and the history of fruit growing from the Garden of the Oranges to the present day. The importance of fruit in all gardens through history is only now being realised. Cultivated fruits were developed from wild species, often originating in some unexpected countries, and we can use the old varieties in the Collections to show how modern ones have developed from them. Were the older ones better or is this just a memory? Brogdale will let people answer this for themselves. There are many ways to grow fruit, from the big standard trees of the traditional orchards to the dwarf trees that are planted now. But these are not so new, they were known in 16th century Italian gardens!
The visitor centre will explain the Collections in depth and the wonderful stories associated with many of the varieties. Some were bred by nurserymen but many others were found in gardens or by roadsides. Brogdale is also about the future and we will explain the genetics underlying plant breeding and that the principles of the genetics is pretty much the same for humans. With so many attractive and tasty varieties the charity will work to interest people in the value of fruit in a healthy diet and the current debates about what we should eat.
Tom La Dell
By kind permission of the author
and Kent Gardens Trust
Julia’s Late Golden
This late season dessert apple was found growing in a shrubbery in a garden in Codford St Peter, near Warminster, shortly after 2001 by our distinguised member Mrs Mary Hember. Declared
a new variety by Brogdale, and subsequently propagated, it is named after the owner’s daughter, Julia, who died of leukaemia aged 33.