You know, all this talk of energy conservation’s not new. Solar power, in particular, was used by the Victorians in the design of their walled gardens in order to prolong the growing season and achieve above-average yields, including of some quite exotic fare, like pineapples! The walled gardens played a key role providing fresh fruit and vegetables to the Big House and the surrounding estate and the growing season had to be stretched for as long as possible.
Here at the Scottish Country Garden, we have a two-acre walled garden. It has 3 metre-high walls and is surrounded by protective woodland. This creates a unique microclimate that is, for much of the year, several degrees warmer inside than out, exemplified by the lawns inside growing 2-3 times faster than the grass outside, and in active growth for roughly a month longer at either end of the season. The garden is positioned to maximise the power from the sun’s rays on the south-facing border at the hottest time of the day (just after noon) and in fact, in common with many gardens, it’s not square, but more of a parallelogram! But the cleverest trick is how they built the walls. The best material is clearly brick – it stores the heat – but bricks were expensive in Victorian times (not aided by the Brick Tax of 1874) and much dearer than locally hewn stone.
Most of our walls here are, then, built from locally hewn whin stone (there is a quarry not far away which still extracts this stone), but where it mattered, brick has been used. So we have whin east-facing and north-facing walls (getting relatively weak morning sun or no sun at all) and brick west-facing walls (which get all the afternoon sun). Interestingly, though, while the outside of the south wall (which receives full sun) is made of brick, the inside south-facing wall (which is the north wall of the walled garden, still with me?!), comprises a 2/3 base layer of whin, with the top 1/3 brick! Perhaps the architects felt that the relatively sheltered south-facing wall inside the garden didn’t need as much heat-storage as the south–facing wall outside? (They were probably right!) But perhaps it was in recognition that many climbing plants, while they like full sun on their faces, like to have their roots in the shade.
In Victorian times, the gardeners would grow different crops on each wall: along the south walls would be apricots, nectarines and peaches; the north-facing walls would house gooseberries, currents, morello cherries as well as late varieties of plums and pears. Sweet cherries, early plums, apples and figs faced east, with more peaches, greengages and early pears facing west.
Here, we have most of our apples and pears growing on the east and west-facing walls, and on the ‘outside’ south-facing wall (round in the kitchen and secret gardens). Inside the walled garden, we have some elderly plums, wall-trained gooseberries and a very rapidly growing magnolia, amongst other things, growing on the south-facing wall, with a further plum and a cherry growing on the west-facing wall.
Best place to be in winter? Definitely inside the walls!