A potted history of grow-your-own: why Scots are once again happy to supply their own veg
Growing your own fruit and veg is remodelling its image from retirement hobby to environmental neccessity. Here Jo Whittingham explains how gardening is a cornerstone of our culinary heritage.
Gardens are one source of fresh seasonal Scottish produce that it’s easy to take for granted. Our rich soils, cool, wet climate and long summer days suit cultivation so well that in the past, generations of Scots depended on home-grown produce for the only vegetables in their diet. The late-20th century’s cheap imports and industrial-scale horticulture put an end to this self-reliance, but now, with spiralling allotment waiting lists and vegetable seed sales up by 40 per cent in the last two years, it’s clear that home-grown veg is back on the menu.
We tend to assume that Scotland’s food culture revolves around crops that thrive here, such as hearty neeps and tatties and luscious summer raspberries, so it’s surprising to find that as late as the 17th century they were not widely grown in gardens. In fact, restrictive yearly tenancies meant ordinary folk had little incentive to improve their plots or money to buy new seed, so could cultivate only the toughest crops, such as kale, peas, broad beans and chard, from which they could collect seed for the following year. Consequently change was slow and while wild raspberries were gathered from hedgerows, new foreign vegetables, such as the yellow Swedish turnip and the Andean potato, weren’t commonly grown until later in the 18th century.
Instead, it was wealthy landowners who drove the development of Scotland’s kitchen gardens. Keen to have a varied supply of fruit and vegetables, they employed small armies of skilled gardeners and constructed walled gardens – the must-have horticultural accessory between the 17th and 19th centuries. Built on a gentle, south-facing slope, often over several acres, high stone walls protected crops from the elements and provided support and shelter for trained fruit trees. In 1700 a laird, unlike his labourers, might have enjoyed a diversity of vegetables including lettuce, carrots, cauliflowers, celery, and even asparagus and artichokes.
With improving communication between estates in Scotland and England, progress was swift and gardeners succeeded in cultivating increasingly exotic crops. Extra warmth was essential for delicate plants and during the 18th century the addition of glazed frames to traditional hot-beds of rotting manure allowed melons and, from about 1750, pineapples to be successfully grown. But the real breakthrough came in the 19th century when glasshouses arrived, furnishing those who could afford them with peaches, grapes, figs, pineapples and even the occasional banana. Mertoun House in Roxburghshire has fine examples of these structures, still filled with immaculately trained white peaches and figs.
Gradually, innovations in cultivation and new crops filtered out of walled gardens and by the end of the 18th century the potato had finally become a widely grown Scottish staple. To further encourage such progress and introduce competitiveness through annual shows, local gardening societies were set up during the 19th century, many of which, including Penicuik Horticultural Society (established 1842) and Killearn Cottagers’ Horticultural Society (established 1850), still thrive.
While the ordinary man had no choice but to garden thriftily, running a grand Victorian kitchen garden was spectacularly expensive. Even though gardeners were poorly paid, many were required to keep large gardens running – the Duke of Buccleuch employed 42 on his Dalkeith estate in the mid-19th century – making their home-grown produce a pricey commodity. Inevitably then, with improved transport links, the importation of produce became possible, finally rendering pineapple pits and vineries outmoded and unnecessary expenses.
The end for many of Scotland’s grandest kitchen gardens came when the First World War all but wiped out cheap labour and a generation of gardeners. Simultaneously, however, there was an explosion in domestic vegetable gardening, particularly in the cities, where any available land was turned into allotments (first created during the 1890s) to alleviate wartime food shortages and later economic difficulties. A corner of Edinburgh’s Inverleith Park became allotments during the First World War, while the city’s huge allotment site at Warriston Road was created for the unemployed during the depression of the late 1920s.
Ironically, as life became easier during the 1950s and 60s, vegetable growing on allotments and in back gardens suffered a similar fate to the Victorian walled garden. Commercial horticulture and cheap imports offered consumers affordable fruit and vegetables all year round. So allotments, perhaps associated with harder times, gradually fell out of fashion and many city sites were lost to development after years of neglect. Of course many old hands still grew their own in back gardens, but vegetable growing acquired a reputation as tricky, heavy work, which successfully deterred beginners for decades. Only a growing enthusiasm for local, organic food over the last few years has reawakened the passion for home-grown food in Scotland. A whole new generation of gardeners is discovering what our ancestors knew and relied upon; that surprisingly little effort can deliver the freshest, most delicious produce from our very own plots.
Glory of the Garden
Phantassie, East Linton
Organic vegetable growers who have expanded from a one-acre walled garden. Supply organic vegetable boxes, farmers markets and restaurants. www.phantassie.co.uk
Glendale Salads, Isle of Skye
Successful experiments in their own garden led Bridget and Kornelius Hagmann to start their business growing unusual organic salad leaves, herbs and soft fruit for their box scheme and local restaurants and hotels. email@example.com
Raasay Walled Garden
One of Scotland’s oldest walled gardens, until recently producing organic fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers for the local market. However, a fire in early 2009 has thrown its future in doubt.
Argyll Hotel, Iona
Fabulous 20-year-old organic vegetable garden, maintained by three gardeners, supplying herbs and vegetables for the hotel restaurant. www.argyllhoteliona.co.uk
Balfour Castle, Orkney
Full use is made of the Victorian walled kitchen garden to produce a daily harvest of fruit, vegetables and herbs for the hotel’s kitchen. www.balfourcastle.co.uk