The merry Month of May

As a food historian the Walled Garden is particularly important because it show us what our ancestors were able to grow. This is to some extent mirrored in the current thinking of using seasonal and regional produce as much as possible.

Imagine we’re living 200 years ago say around the early 1820’s, fifteen or so years before Queen Victoria comes to the throne. The Napoleonic Wars are behind us and England’s second Industrial Revolution is about to take off. Here at Springvale House – that was the name of Ballywalter Park then – we have a fantastically productive Walled Garden, the area is just under 3 acres. We have a glass house where we grew all the exotic species like peaches, ‘apricocks’, grapes and strawberries. The rest of the space is filled with fruit trees and endless vegetables to feed not only the then owner George Matthews Esq.and his family, but also all his staff and servants. Newtownards is a long way away, but surplus produce will regularly be taken to Market House at Conway Square. This would include squabs from the Pigeon House and guano from the same place. These were valuable items in the economy of a Walled Garden and sale of both would pay for the Keeper of the Doocot.

So tomorrow we are in May and according to Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife’s Companion, page 394 headed; Garden Stuff in Season in May we should be in for a plentiful month. The biggest difference between her book published in 1752 and us today is that we do not have enough gardeners to use the hotbeds. Quite a variety of salad stuff will soon be available, but early carrots, turnips and French beans will not be ready here for quite some time.
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As you can see from the photos our plants are ready, but the ground is not warm enough and the weather forecast is for colder weather later in the week.

Mrs. Bradley writes in a very endearing manner about asparagus for example:
Asparagus is in the heighest Perfection; and there is another Bud fit to be named on this Occasion, because it is excellent in its Kind, and approaches to the Nature of the Asparagus in Delicacy, but being less common it will give an agreeable Variety, this is the Tragopagon or Garden Goatsbeard.
Does she mean wild spirea? I have googled it and with the further help from a couple of plant books I do not think so. It looks like it is the flowering salsify. This plant has not had its Latin name – Tragopagon – altered, which is a God send, so many have and they become almost impossible to trace. We do sow salsify because it is delicious, and is known as the vegetable oyster. Sadly we do not get the long elegant tap roots that I long for. The soil here is far too rich and not nearly sandy enough.

Martha Bradley goes on to talk about the lack of fruit at this time of the year. She is writing when rhubarb was used solely as medicine. She tells us that the early cherry called May Duke: ‘ ….. with a little assistance of the Gardiner’s forcing, comes in just in Time to save the Credit of its Name.’ When we planted up the Walled Garden orchard we also put 5 cherries against the East Wall. I think I blogged about it not so long ago. Among the varieties we chose there is indeed a May Duke. However, I do not think that even the artfulness of JT will ensure that we have cherries before the end of May. So as Mrs. Bradley says regarding fruit generally :
This Month we must be content with the few we have, and be choice of them; the next will pour them upon us in great Plenty………. we’ll just have to make the most of what we have until we get into June.

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