Netherlands is an oasis of calm in a richly planted garden Flavour of the garden At Gravetye Manor, head gardener Tom Coward is passionate about growing heritage apples
Gravetye Manor inWestinWest Sussex is renowned for its glorious gardens, but in a wild orchard on the edge of the garden, head gardener Tom Coward is reintroducing a taste of the garden’s fruitful past
Every season has its joys in the garden, but if I had to pick a month it would be October. The light has a special quality at this time of year, somehow making colours appear richer as the borders reach their climax. This last display before the first frosts set in can feel like the garden shaking a fist at the approaching winter. Every drop of sunshine feels like the precious last sip from the bottle and best of all, this is the peak of the apple season.
Our orchard dates back to the 1890s when the charismatic garden writer William Robinson first moved to Gravetye. The romance of carefully shaped trees rising out of wildflower meadows was an essential element to his wild garden. He chose his site carefully, on the edge of the property using the orchard to help blend the garden in to the surrounding forest. The sheltered, two-acre, south-facing slope is quite protected from frosts and cold winds and warms up in the summer to ripen some amazing fruit. Most of Robinson’s trees have long gone, but a few ancient specimens still remain, mainly ‘Blenheim Orange’ and a few ‘Crawley Beauty’. So as part of our garden restoration project we decided we had to plant a new generation of trees. This was essential to preserve this historic feature, and exciting to develop such a special crop for Gravetye’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
The harvest starts in late August with ‘Discovery’ and runs deep into November, with ‘Braeburn’ probably being last. Most of our cultivars ripen around the second or
third week of October and although the rest of the garden always needs attention, this is a relatively quiet time. So to set a few days aside to deal with a glut of wonderful fruit is a real pleasure. The trees we planted some five years ago are rewarding us with their first decent crop and the years of regeneration pruning of our old specimens are beginning to pay off with a bumper harvest this season.
Our orchard is designed as a wild garden and organised totally differently to commercial production. Instead of straight rows of dwarf trees, our apples are spaced erratically, and interplanted with thousands of naturalised bulbs. Each cultivar is grafted on vigorous and semi-vigorous rootstocks, so the trees will become tall, majestic specimens, trained into traditional, open-centered, vase-shaped trees. We still expect the crop to pay for itself, and every fruit we produce is used.
Developing fruit growing at Gravetye has been one of the most exciting parts of my job. And to see diners in the restaurant, enjoying fruit picked from the trees outside, is one of the best rewards.
This page At Gravetye Manor, head gardener Tom Coward has been renovating the gardens since 2010, giving William Robinson’s 19th-century vision a contemporary twist. Here at the back of the hotel, the fluffy grass Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ catches the autumn light in what was once Robinson’s flower garden. Facing page In the wilder orchard, Tom harvestsTheheritageapples,orchardwhichatthoughGravetye grown for theirManorbeautyisdesignedareall asputatowilduse.garden.