The Renovation of a Historic Kitchen Garden: Chateau Holtmühle in the Netherlands

By Andrea Govaert MAIH

On a recent visit to the Netherlands, I stumbled on a restored castle complex. It was autumn, and the area was ablaze with the light and colours of a typical northern landscape.

Autumn colours at the grounds of Chateau Holtmühle, Tegelen, the Netherlands. Images/ Andrea Govaert

Chateau Holtmühle, jointly with its associated properties, grounds and gardens of 37 hectares, is situated in the south of the Netherlands, in the village of Tegelen, one of many villages scattered along the banks of the river Maes, close to the borders with Germany.

Parts of the castle date back to the 14th century. Its principal construction was completed in the 17th century. The municipality of Tegelen acquired the crumbling castle complex in 1967. After a prolonged period of restoration, Chateau Holtmühle was ‘reborn’ in 1993 and converted into a hotel, whilst keeping the history and classical architecture of the complex.

Initially, the gardens were not considered in the overhaul and thus had fallen into complete disrepair. However, at the initiative of current head gardener Henk Kruizinga, the gardens were restored and opened to the public in 2014.

The concept of a kitchen garden evolved from the medieval hortus conclusus (‘enclosed garden’), established by monastic communities that relied on growing their own produce for survival. Therefore a hortus conclusus was, and still is, primarily utilitarian. The beauty of a kitchen garden lies in the quiet geometrical order of (raised) garden beds, dedicated to different types of produce.

A kitchen garden is often segregated from a ‘leisure garden’ by walls, fences, moats or hedges to protect the produce from straying animals, thieves as well as the elements. The original design of the kitchen garden at Chateau Holtmühle, feeding the castle inhabitants, is based on this concept. The garden is surrounded by a moat filled with water lilies, irises, rush and other marginal plants as well as trained Fagus sylvatica, Carpinus betulus and clipped yew hedges.

Left: Henk Kruizinga, head gardener at Chateau Holtmühle. Right: Clipped yew surround the kitchen garden. Images/ Andrea Govaert

The garden itself is divided into garden beds dedicated to culinary and/or medicinal plants and herbs, such as Rucola eruca vesicaria, Borago officinalis, Mondarda fistulosa, various mint varieties and common herbs such as sage, parsley, garlic, and basil.

Additionally there are beds containing annuals and perennials with cosmetic qualities and edible flowers such as Lavandula augustifolia, Calendula officinalis, Matricia chamomilla, Anthriscus cerefolium, Centaurea cyanus, Hesperis matronalis, Viola tricolor, Tropaeolum majus and finally, the majestic Verbascum nigrum (black mullein). With its finely haired leaves and long straight stems, it was dried and dipped in resin to use as torches already by the Romans until late in the 16th century.

The kitchen garden also has an orchard with neat rows of apple, plum, and cherry trees, as well as Ficus carica and Mespilus germanica (medlar). The latter was commonly planted in German and Dutch monastic gardens for its brownish fruits that are best eaten raw when slightly rotten (particularly after the first frost), or eaten cooked in compotes and jams.

Unlike its botanical name suggests, the tree originates from the area around the Black and Caspian Seas. Today it is increasingly rare in Germany and the Netherlands and its fruits are not very popular.

Left: The garden beds, at the end of the season. Right: Fruit of the Mespilus germanica. Images/ Andrea Govaert

Finally, the orchard contains a Vitex agnus-castus, (the Vitex, chaste tree or monk’s pepper), a native of the Mediterranean basin, that was first described by Linnaeus in 1753. Its fruits, about the size of a peppercorn, were reportedly used to reduce the libido of monks during the middle ages, hence its common name ‘monk’s pepper’. It is still frequently harvested to treat other ailments.

Vitex agnus-castus surrounded by clipped Lavandula augustifolia bushes. Image/ Andrea Govaert

The restored garden operates on similar principles as its 17th-century predecessor: it supplies fresh, organic produce to the chefs employed at the Chateau, including eggs, herbs, honey, fruits, (edible) flowers and mushrooms.

Further, the garden is a training ground for young horticultural staff, who subsequently may find employment in nearby horticultural industries, and often return regularly as volunteers to tend to the garden. Finally, the garden is a source of inspiration and knowledge for aspiring gardeners, volunteers, visitors as well as horticulturalists involved in the increasingly popular concept of community kitchen gardens, which currently sprout in many places around the world, also here in Australia.

To this effect, renovated historical kitchen gardens provide an endless source of knowledge, including the botanical history of individual plants and trees, why and how they found their way into a garden and which parts of these plants were used for what purpose. A purpose that over time may have gone lost and forgotten; it nevertheless helps us understand how a place evolved to what it is today.

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