Home grown

New Zealand-born Aaron Ber­telsen is now re­spon­si­ble for the ed­i­ble crops at this most quintessen­tially English coun­try gar­den.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS - STORY: JO MCCAR­ROLL

The Kiwi gar­dener grow­ing ed­i­bles at the very English Great Dix­ter gar­den

“Ev­ery day I draw on what I learned from my grand­fa­ther in New Zealand, whether I am plant­ing out seedlings a trowel’s length apart or striv­ing for a per­fectly straight row.”

Men­tion the great English gar­den of Great Dix­ter and most peo­ple think of the bold and ex­u­ber­ant or­na­men­tal bor­ders in which the gar­den’s owner, great hor­ti­cul­tural writer Christo­pher Lloyd, tried out his (at the time) revo­lu­tion­ary ideas about com­bin­ing shrub­bery and herba­ceous plants.

“But Christo­pher grew veg­eta­bles too,” says Aaron Ber­telsen, who grew up gar­den­ing with his grand­fa­ther at home on the west coast of Auck­land, but who has worked at Great Dix­ter on and off for more than 20 years.

Af­ter see­ing a story on Christo­pher in the Bri­tish mag­a­zine Gar­dens

Il­lus­trated, Aaron wrote to him from New Zealand to ask if he could come and work at Great Dix­ter as a vol­un­teer. Christo­pher wrote back to say yes.

“I ar­rived in 1996 plan­ning to stay for three months, but it turned into three years,” Aaron says.

Aaron then went on to train as a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist at the fa­mous Kew Gar­dens, be­fore spend­ing a few years work­ing at the Jerusalem Botanic Gar­dens.

But in 2005 he re­turned to Great Dix­ter, be­com­ing the of­fi­cial “veg­etable gar­dener and cook” in 2007, re­spon­si­ble for grow­ing ed­i­ble crops in the vege plot first started by Christo­pher’s par­ents Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd who bought the 180ha Great Dix­ter es­tate in 1910 and raised their six chil­dren there.

“It’s pretty much as it was,” Aaron says. “The rhubarb here has been in the same spot since 1912.”

Daisy’s note­books and diaries show that home­grown pro­duce formed a ma­jor part of the Lloyd fam­ily’s diet. Christo­pher, who taught him­self to cook af­ter his cook died in the 1970s and who was fa­mously hos­pitable, used to de­light in pro­duc­ing meals fea­tur­ing home­grown fruit and veg­eta­bles for him­self and guests.

“He was a pas­sion­ate cook,” Aaron says. “The veg­etable gar­den was prob­a­bly the only part of the gar­den he vis­ited ev­ery sin­gle day.”

The kitchen gar­den at Great Dix­ter is open to vis­i­tors, but it is a work­ing gar­den too, Aaron says. The beds might look sus­pi­ciously im­mac­u­late, with their per­fectly straight rows (Aaron likes old-fash­ioned straight rows partly for prac­ti­cal rea­sons – he feels it lets you see where things are and so keep on top of the weeds – but mainly, he ad­mits, be­cause he prefers it aes­thet­i­cally), but you can stroll through a hole in the hedge to see the less glam­orous work­ing end, with soft fruit grow­ing in chicken wire cages and vast steam­ing com­post heaps, smoth­ered in pump­kin and squash vines.

Aaron has a list of 16 fruit and veg­etable crops he wouldn’t be with­out, based on both his own ex­pe­ri­ence and Christo­pher’s ex­ten­sive notes, but he tries new things too. This year he is tri­alling a range of veg­eta­bles from Aus­tralian heir­loom seed spe­cial­ists The Dig­gers Club, and a sweet pea from New Zealand plant breeder Dr Keith Ham­mett (“which is ab­so­lutely charm­ing”).

Har­vest from the vege gar­den is used to feed vis­i­tors who at­tend one of the reg­u­lar study days or pub­lic sym­po­siums held at Great Dix­ter. Af­ter Christo­pher died in 2006, aged 84, such events be­gan to be held as a way to cover the costs of the gar­den’s up­keep, Aaron says.

That means vis­i­tors are likely to see gaps here and there, as crops are har­vested and eaten, Aaron says.

“But I think peo­ple would rather see a veg­etable gar­den with half the rows eaten, than a per­fect-look­ing one where the crops end up be­ing com­posted.”

Aaron’s first book, The Great Dix­ter Cook­book, has just been re­leased and is a col­lec­tion of sim­ple sea­sonal recipes – in­clud­ing some of Christo­pher and Daisy’s own – and prac­ti­cal gar­den­ing tips.

While grow­ing and pro­duc­ing pro­duce on the scale of Great Dix­ter takes space, en­ergy and time, Aaron be­lieves there are use­ful lessons here for ev­ery home gar­dener.

“You do not need a large plot or a lot of money to ex­pe­ri­ence the plea­sure of grow­ing your own.”

Great Dix­ter’s Kiwi-born gar­dener Aaron Ber­telsen: “My style of gar­den­ing is quite struc­tural. I like good clean lines and straight rows of veg­eta­bles”.

Aaron as a boy at Agri­cul­tural Day at Waimauku School.

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