Isle of Wight Apple People and Places

Osborne House

There are apple trees in two places at Osborne, in the Walled Garden and at the Swiss Cottage.  Apples and other fruit trees were grown at Osborne house when Queen Victoria lived there but there are no records of the varieties grown.

When I was shown around the Walled garden by Head gardener Toby Beasley in January the meticulous training and pruning of the fruit trees made  patterns against the old brick walls. The apples in the Walled Garden were all planted in May, 2000.  Not an ideal time of year to plant fruit trees but this was when the construction had finished and the garden was available to plant.  Luckily an irrigation system had been installed at the same time and the trees were well watered during their first dry summer.  The design is similar to the garden at Audley End and other country house gardens in the Victorian and Edwardian era with paths crossing at a right angle in the centre of the garden by a small pond. This was a common design both practical and reputedly so that the ladies of the house could walk along the centre ornamental paths without seeing the gardeners behind the trees.

Fruit trees are trained on arches over the main paths with a row of apples (Lane’s Prince Albert) planted as espaliers on wires behind them. The arches are planted alternately with apples and pears, originally there were roses trained over the arches with the apples, it looked spectacular when the roses were in bloom but was not really practical so the roses have gone.  The apples are planted in pairs, Queen, Lady Sudeley, Sandringham, Blenheim Orange and Bismarck.  There is a wide variety of other fruit in the garden, maximising the use of the walls, Morello Cherries on the north wall, Plums and pears on the east and west walls and tender fruit, nectarines and apricots on the south wall. All are trained as fans, espaliers, u-shaped double cordons and something new to me, as riders. This is where a fruit tree is taken up on a single stem between two fan shaped trees and then branches out sideways above the trees below making the most of the space and the warm wall. Pruning is mostly done in the summer for trained fruit trees. 

There are also an orange and a lemon tree at each end of the greenhouse which are protected in winter.  The only photo of the walled garden taken in Queen Victoria’s time shows an orange tree in this position – so far plenty of lemons but no oranges.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the Osborne Estate the one acre Walled Garden was shown as a productive unit but was not large enough to supply the needs of the royal household.  It was reckoned by Loudon that one acre of land, intensively cultivated could supply the needs of nine people. Osborne was supplied by the royal garden at Frogmore, Windsor and supplies were sent by road, rail and ferry to the Island.  Nobody really knows what the garden was like in Queen Victoria’s time but we do know that the Queen liked to have fresh flowers in the house and these were probably grown here.  Extra cold frames to extend the season were built in the gardeners’ yard next door.  Many of the trees and shrubs for the Osborne Estate were raised here.

The Walled garden was closed to the public for many years and was used as a nursery by the gardeners to raise plants for the estate.  It was then cleared, the soil sterilised and it was replanted with the fruit trees, some vegetables, including asparagus and rhubarb,  and flowers both for visual impact and to supply cut flowers for the house as it did in Victoria’s day.  Everything grown in here would have been available in the nineteenth century.  Even the annuals which are replanted each year are cultivars which could have been grown in a Victorian garden. This year 2012 one bed will have plants with royal names and the other will have a hot and cold theme, the annuals change from year to year.

Fruit trees were also planted at Swiss Cottage as part of the fruit and vegetable gardens for the royal children to cultivate.  The produce was used in the kitchen at the Swiss Cottage where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would visit for a meal prepared by the children. Originally there were seven plots, later extended to nine as the family grew. At one time there was a ‘fruit avenue’ in the beds nearest the Swiss Cottage and on the other side of the path, today there are  few fruit trees in some of the beds including two Irish Peach apples.  The other trees are planted in the grass so that the cottage is surrounded by an orchard.  The soil is not perfect for fruit tree cultivation at Osborne and the original trees died out soon after Queen Victoria’s death.  The soil is gravel over heavy clay and has poor drainage.  In recent years the fruit trees have been replanted and are now growing well after a poor start, these include nuts, cherries, gages, plums, quinces, medlars and mulberries as well as apples.  There is one old tree of Lane’s Prince Albert that is possibly 40 or 50 years old and nine newly planted but old apple varieties.  The Lane’s Prince Albert fell over in the recent gales and is now on its side but still there and still growing.
A beautifully kept garden and well worth a visit.