09 April 2018
I recently had the privilege to be invited to The Walled Gardens at Croome (a privately owned house and garden in the grounds of the National Trust’s Croome Court) to speak to owners Karen and Chris Cronin about asparagus and the moment their lives changed when they spotted it was “For Sale”. It was just one of those moments: within 10 minutes of stepping inside the gardens, they’d fallen for it and bought it without looking any further around the dilapidated grounds and outbuildings.
“We didn’t really realise what we’d taken on, we just loved it”, Karen adds. So alongside their busy lives running another business (manufacturing stage sets for rock bands), they took on restoring the gardens and the gardener’s cottage (which would then become their home) to their former glory.
Karen clearly points out she had no real previous gardening experience before acquiring the 5 acres of gardens; she simply read books and “googled” to find out the typical produce that would have been grown in walled gardens and set out to grow it. She explained “Back in the day, the garden would have had the task of producing food and flowers for the owner of Croome Court, and I simply wanted to emulate that.”
Karen explained it had been quite a journey, which started with the renovation of the gardener’s cottage into a home, then the restoration of the wall around 5 acres of garden (7 acres in its entirety) and, finally, clearing the wilderness that has become today’s garden.
Karen outlined that plants tend to flourish due to soil which is naturally nutrient rich which is intrinsic to the arable lands and micro climate of the Vale of Evesham alongside the additional shelter provided by the wall. She added “Some produce like asparagus stays in particular beds but others are rotated, or simply our curiosity and enthusiasm to try new crops means beds change”. She continued “Experience has shown that the south wall bed is particularly good for tomatoes and here we grow many varieties of traditional English tomatoes as well as some rarer heritage varieties.”
Back to asparagus. The Valley of Evesham is world famous for its asparagus, some say it's the sandy soil and mild climate, while others say that Evesham growers simply have what it takes to patiently coax those spears along... We will leave that decision to you, but it does take patience as Karen explained to me.
Asparagus is one of many crops successfully grown in the walled gardens. The key main criteria with growing asparagus is you need patience and time, mainly because you can’t harvest it for the first 4 years as the plant needs to establish. When planting, you dig a trench about 30 cm deep, add a layer of sand and fan out the crowns, then cover with soil with the bud tips just visible and then you wait. When eventually cutting season arrives, it’s a labour of love for 8 weeks, and requires picking every day.
When Karen showed me the Asparagus bed, it’s hard to believe in a matter of weeks it will be picking season: it was a bed of dead looking twigs which, Karen highlighted, have to be pulled out very soon to avoid the asparagus beetle getting into it.
Karen adds “We tend to leave the first few as they tend to be a bit straggly and then they start producing nice big spears that need cutting every day”. She continues “It’s a bit like a grass: new shoots sprout up all the time”. As the season draws to an end, the asparagus is left to grow and produces big plumes of blossom which are chopped down to the stalks prior to winter.
Asparagus Shoots growing in The Walled Gardens at Croome
When asked if you need to fertilise, Karen said “We don’t, but I’m sure farmers would to maximise yields, but we are more about growing fruit and vegetable as it would have been when it was the food factory for the main house. Akin to times past, we live off the produce but, rather than feed the lord of the manor family, we sell the produce to visitors.”
Squash Patch at The Croome Walled Gardens - Credit Peter Young
Karen then explained how The Walled Gardens have become the attraction they are today. “For the first 15 years we restored the house and garden ourselves; it was quite an undertaking. Then about 5 years ago, coinciding with the time National Trust took on the main house, conversations started around the gardens becoming a standalone visitor attraction at Croome. Together we created and embarked on a 5-year plan. Karen adds “We knew we couldn’t do it ourselves, but National Trust Croome’s General Manager, Michael Smith offered us access to their pool of volunteers. We now have 13 volunteers who come in Tuesday to Thursday to work in the gardens and others that come in at the weekend to help stewards and answer visitor questions. They also helped us lay the gravel paths, making it accessible to wheel chairs and buggies alike”. The result is now Croome benefits from an additional attraction, but if you are purely interested in the gardens you are welcome to visit us separately.
Volunteers Jame and Kate Benstead at Croome Walled Gardens Photo - Credit Peter Young
Karen adds “We believe we are the largest Georgian walled garden in Britain, and the attraction also includes a visitor centre art gallery and shop alongside standalone exhibitions. In the gardens we also offer complementary tea and coffee and cakes made by Karen (there’s no end to her talents), and welcome donations.”
The Tunnels at The Walled Gardens at Croome
My tour is coming to an end and Karen and I head off to the visitor centre, which used to be the vinery and boiler house. Here she shows me a real gem that I really wasn’t expecting: hidden tunnels that used to house pipes which took heat to the glass houses. Quite an extraordinary engineering feet (and in amazing condition) for something that must have been more than 300 years old. She explains “The boiler house would heat water that pushed steam into the glass houses. The pipes were put in brick tunnels so that any problems could be resolved”.
So if you are in Worcestershire for asparagus season, please pop into Croome so you can see it growing, but also take time to enjoy the Outdoor Sculpture and the Art exhibitions and explore the tunnels. It’s worth every penny of your entrance fee (£5 for adults and children are free). If you arrive after asparagus season, let us know the crops you see… I’ve heard they have bananas, can you confirm that please?
I’d like to pass on huge thanks to Karen, Chris and Victoria Cronin for providing this opportunity – I look forward to returning.
Finally here are 4 health benefits that will encourage you to eat more asparagus:
- Eating asparagus promotes healthy bacteria in the large intestine and can help reduce bloating.
- Asparagus contains vitamin K, essential for healthy blood clotting;
- Asparagus is a rich source of vitamin C, which boosts your immune system;
- Asparagus is a mild diuretic and is believed to help detoxify the body.