Restoring Quex Gardens in Birchington

 

The gardens at Quex House are not only beautiful but a fascinating slice of living history.

 

The Victorian walled garden is a working garden, with produce being grown and locally sold, all while the garden itself is undergoing renovation for its historic features. We spoke to head gardener, Sue Harris, about the effect of the past on the present and how Quex’s gardens are growing and changing.

 

“Quex is very interesting to me because it’s never been anyone’s job to tidy away,” Sue explains. “So, there are layers and layers of everything previous all over the place so you can always find evidence of what went on before the next phase and the next phase. I came into the gardens in 2013, puzzling over a lot of this, and began to work it out. I also began to work out what restoration had gone on in the 1990s, which again, some of it was very good and some of it masked things that had happened in the past.

“What we’re currently looking to restore is a great run of glass against the south-facing wall, which consists of three big vine houses and two orchid houses. What we have restored here is a big winter garden glass house, which was added much later, probably in the 1930s, when the garden would have been rented out and the family wouldn’t have had much access. From the late 1920s, the walled garden became a commercial market garden, so it wasn’t for the family to go wandering around it.

“What we’ve got in use at the moment is a cucumber pit. We’ve used that consistently for many years and we’ve grown a few hundred cucumbers out of it every year. We also have a stove house in the centre of the walled garden, which has a big collection of cacti and succulents. In its time it would have been heated with pipes that evaporated steam, so it would have been very humid conditions. Obviously, it’s not sustainable to heat glass for plants in this situation; we do have a small amount of heated modern glass for propagation, but the collections we keep under glass don’t need that kind of care. So, the stove house now has cacti and succulents in, and it’s very popular with visitors when we’re open.

“The other glass house we’re working on is a small fernery on the north-facing wall. That was once part of a much larger glass house that extended on both sides of the wall, but what we have now is just a small fernery on the shade side.”

 

Although it’s hard work to keep a place like Quex Gardens, where the historical rubs shoulders with the functional, Sue knows that it’s all worth it. “It’s a beautiful place,” Sue says. “It works on many levels. It’s what I consider a safe and secure space. In gardening we’d call it a protected environment – for anything that’s under glass or polytunnels or behind walls – and I like to extend that in a wider sense because I do work with groups from KCC with learning disabilities and also with some residents from a mental health home. It’s part of a whole rethink about how you treat a place of privilege.”

 

Find out more about Quex Gardens on the Quex Park website.

by Alice Smales

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