How the garden grows

Aerial view of the walled garden at Blickling in 1948. Picture: NTPL

Aerial view of the walled garden at Blickling in 1948. Picture: NTPL - Credit: Archant

Mike Owers is a man with a big project on his hands – the regeneration of the disused walled garden on the National Trust’s Blickling Estate, as Jeremy Owen explains.

Mike Bowers, project manager for the Blickling walled garden regeneration project. Photographer: Jo

Mike Bowers, project manager for the Blickling walled garden regeneration project. Photographer: Jo Bosch - Credit: Archant

You could call it every green-fingered gardener’s dream – the chance to recreate a long-lost, historic walled garden. Set that dream among the picturesque grounds of the National Trust’s Blickling Hall, the distinctive red-brick Jacobean mansion near Aylsham, and you have something truly special on your hands.

Imagine then how Mike Owers feels, for he’s the man tasked with transforming Blickling’s unused walled garden into a fully-functioning, living and breathing kitchen garden, with 1.5 acres bursting with fruit, vegetables and bags of colour.

“The opportunity to create a walled garden on this scale from scratch, which people will still be enjoying in 50 to 60 years’ time, just doesn’t come along very often,” says Mike. “We are starting from nothing but our plan is to end up with something pretty special.”

The aim of the project is to return the walled garden to a working kitchen garden for the first time since the 1950s, supplying fruit and vegetables to the restaurant. The layout will be based on a design similar to how the garden looked back then.

The garden cleared before work begins. Photographer: Paul Bailey

The garden cleared before work begins. Photographer: Paul Bailey - Credit: Archant

“We are not trying to bring back exactly what was here in the past. Rather we want to recapture the spirit of what was here while still making use of modern techniques and plants. We have a lot of history to draw on and it is important we are honest to that, but we must also produce a garden for now and not just look back to the past.”

That means visitors will see a blend of the traditional and the modern. One of the glasshouses is already being restored, with a second to be done in the future.

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East Anglian varieties of fruit and vegetable will be planted in the garden, with those originating in Norfolk given preference where possible. Coupled with that, Mike and the garden team are also researching historical documents to discover which of the heritage varieties that once grew at Blickling they can bring back.

That research has turned up a number of interesting fruit trees and plants, such as the Caroline apple, named after Caroline, Lady Suffield, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire and who inherited Blickling in 1793. And then there is the mysterious Colonel Harbord’s Pippin, thought to be a very large cooking apple, which appears to have become extinct in the 1970s. Legend has it the apples can grow up to 11 inches round – although Mike thinks that could be a tall tale.

“I’m not sure how much I believe that, but I am hopeful that someone somewhere may still have a tree growing in their garden. I’d certainly love to have the apple back in the walled garden here and see just how large the fruit grows!”

Mike feels a deep connection to Blickling’s previous gardeners, a list of names that goes back over 400 years. One day, while looking into placing an online order for a nectarine tree called Humboldt, he discovered some research about a previous gardener, H. G. Oclee, who had ordered exactly the same tree in 1882.

Mike has a blank canvas to work with, save for a few pear trees that have survived from the when the garden was last used just after the Second World War, and some nectarine and peach trees, which are more recent additions.

“We have a five-year plan and I think visitors will enjoy watching the project develop. We have a lot of work to do and it is not going to be a full, working garden in just six months. Some things will take a lot of time. The trees trained flat to the walls take on one tier per year, so it will take several years for them to mature. But in two years’ time it should already be a productive garden with a lot of the other soft fruit becoming established.”

Mike started his gardening career here, having joined the National Trust on a careership scheme back in 2003. Since then he’s worked at a variety of gardens, including those at the trust’s Clumber Park, in Nottinghamshire, which has its own four-acre walled garden.

“It is great to come back to Blickling,” says Mike. “I actually met my wife here, when she was house steward and I was on my careership, so it is a nice connection with me coming back. Blickling is such a wonderful place. It is going to be great playing my part in continuing to make it special for many years to come.”

Want to help the project take shape? You can donate at