Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Unearthing the past in Gibside's walled garden ...

earth-moving in the walled garden
Since the walled garden finally shed its car park status at the end of March, things have been moving fast. The past 2 weeks have seen Gibside's walled garden being excavated once again in the continuing story of its restoration. Neither grave-digging, nor hunting for buried treasure, we have in fact been uncovering an important part of the history of the walled garden: planting plates.

brick-edged 18th century planting plate
The majority of the plates discovered date back to the 18th century and were part of the New Kitchen Garden project initiated by George Bowes during the 1730s. As part of this project a row of fruit trees - probably a mixture of apple and pears - was planted down each side of the main path. The planting plates, which look surprisingly like modern day patios, were positioned underneath each tree so that root growth could be controlled: this meant that the height of the tree could be kept within picking reach and that its fruiting vigour could be maintained. Today, if we buy a fruit tree from a nursery or garden centre, it will be grafted onto a dwarf rootstock which will do both of these things for us ... but in those days, the rootstocks were primitive and coarse, so additional solutions were called for.

18th & 19th century plates exposed
We found over 30 plates, most of which consisted of sandstone slabs of paving arranged in a square approximately 2m2, but others, more elaborately, were edged on 3 sides with brick. This was not the only surprise we encountered however, for when we uncovered the plates in the west of the garden we found that some had circular brick "plates" superimposed on top, and in a few cases we found no trace of the sandstone squares, and only these rough brick rings. We believe, because of their depth and size, that these are later 19th century additions used due to improvements in rootstock technology.
plate number 3 is catalogued
Time constraints, and wildlife factors (eg: ensuring the safety of our Great Crested Newt population just coming out of hibernation) meant that our small team of archaeologists and volunteers needed to clean and catalogue the plates as quickly as possible. Therefore, on the 18th April, the last of the remaining plates were once again safely interred in their earthy abode.

The role of the plates doesn't end here though for they will play a continuing part in the walled garden's 21st century incarnation. We have carefully marked the centre point of each plate and will be establishing 2 new apple tree borders (at the end of May) where the originals once stood.

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Head Gardener Keith Blundell as the plates prove elusive

a brick culvert and an unusual plate

tools of the trade: spade, brush, kneeler & pointing trowel

the digger waits for filling in to begin

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