Our chat with the Fulham Palace head gardener

Our chat with the Fulham Palace head gardener

Posted 4th Sep 2012

The historic walled garden at Fulham Palace is currently undergoing a major overhaul, delving into its fascinating horticultural history and reviving the garden to its original splendour. LandLove's Natalie Mason speaks to the lady leading the project, head gardener Lucy Hart

How did you first get started in gardening?

I always wanted to work in horticulture and have done so since I was 13. I was a Saturday kid in smallholdings, various fields and nurseries but then went on to get a degree in horticulture and studied for a diploma at Kew. Eventually I became team leader and horticultural manager at Kew and was with them for eight years and absolutely loved it.

How did you end up as head gardener at Fulham Palace then?

Well I'm a London-based gardener and applied for the head gardener position at Fulham Palace and started back in November [2011], I also garden for Bishop's Park next to us. Fulham Palace is so different to Kew. Kew is a huge organisation and has been going for over 250 years, which I thought was a long time until I started here, where the gardens date back to the 15th century.

When I arrived here the head gardener position was new, they'd had senior gardeners before but never a head gardener as such. I've come in and do everything from planning the garden to buying the sink drainer and cutlery dish, so it's really experiencing the whole spectrum. I'm not a control freak but I'm enjoying having control and knowing that things will happen. It's quite refreshing to have a small team and to work so closely with Sian [Harrington - the chief executive for the Fulham Palace Trust] in setting up the apprenticeships etc.

How many are in your team?

There was just the three of us, the garden senior supervisor, the garden supervisor and me. But we now have thirty volunteers with us, most of them working on a weekly basis and Saturdays and they'll be here to learn more about horticulture and help out in the gardens. We were really looking for a diverse mix of people to join us who could become ambassadors for the palace and I think they will really add value to the team.

We also took on two apprentices in August, for which I received over seventy applications so it was really popular. We're also taking on a trainee through the Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme as we are part of the Heritage Lottery Fund. So all in all we've doubled our permanent staff and gained thirty volunteers. Everyone is really up for it though and it feels like some progression is being made and I honestly think we're going to move mountains together.

Tell me what a typical day here is like?

Well every day is different but generally we get here for 7.30am and we work on different projects at different times, so it was the Knot Garden in May for example. At the moment I come in and write for the garden blog first then sometimes do other writing, the other day I had to write an onion article for a journal, and recently there's been a lot of other admin work to do with all the applications we've been getting. Then I like to get out in the garden and start dead-heading plants, clearing up and netting around the archeological dig. 

It's all about team work so it's important for me to organise the team as we don't let anyone work alone. I also like to organise the week ahead so we know what we're doing, although you can never really have a routine with gardening as the weather does what it wants and plants will die so it can be quite unpredictable.

What size is the land you have to cover here?

I work over the palace gardens which are thirteen acres, the walled garden is two and half acres and Bishops Park is twenty three acres, so it's a pretty huge space.

What time do you finish your day then?

Well normally around 7pm, we tend to do around 11 hours a day but a gardener expects to do that. There's still office stuff to do as well but I live really close so it's not too much of a hardship. I love the job, I'm never bored and there's just so much potential here.

 What is your favourite part of the garden?

I'd say the Knot Garden at the moment as it's the most recent thing we've done. I love the succession of flowing achillea in it, the garden is actually the original design from 1828 when Bishop Bloomfield was here.

Do you have much input on the design of the garden?

Yes I get very involved in the design, I'm a qualified garden designer. We are actually in the process of selecting an architect to advise us on the whole garden at the moment. I would like a contemporary garden but in keeping with the historical theme, I mean bishops have lived here since 700 and I want to represent that historical side.

Bishop Compton, who was here from 1675-1713, was famous for his interest in botany and he was the first person to bring several plants into the UK. He brought in the American magnolia Virginia, cork oak, black walnut and the coffea arabica plant.

How far do you go to be green and eco-friendly in what you do here?

Well I want to be completely organic in the walled garden, and so far we are. We do sometimes have to use herbicide outside of the walled garden but where we're growing produce we will keep it green, we owe it to the people consuming it. I really do care about nature and insects so I wouldn't want to do anything that would harm that.

We recycle our water here as well. We collect the water from the bothies and the vinery and it's stored in tanks underground for us to reuse when watering the plants.

I'm sure our readers would love to hear your top gardening tips if you have any you could share?

Of course, well my first gardening tip would be to Chelsea chop your plants in May, it really does stop plants falling later on and getting your staking organised in May is essential as well. Don't leave it until after May or your plants will suffer.

My second tip would be to use liquid seaweed to feed your plants. It's completely organic and it's the best as it works with the soil and doesn't disrupt the microorganisms within it, like some foods do, so the plants and soil are much healthier.

Another tip would be to use nematodes if you have a slug problem or for red ants or anything else like that. You can pop it in your watering can and keep pests under control organically. 

I know it's been a wet summer but the weather has been a joy for us so far as our flowers are blooming rather than being scorched from the sun, and ornamental gardens are looking amazing right now. However, if you're trying to grow lettuces and any other salad crops they really need sun so they are suffering at the moment. Planning your vegetable garden ahead is really important.

If your plants are suffering with this weather try sowing your seeds in modules and letting them establish in the greenhouse first before planting them in the ground. This process requires a lot more work as it's more nurturing but it's one way of helping them to grow. Lettuces are something that really need to establish so try growing those in this way.

Netting is another essential task to protect your plants from pests. It's important to remember to treat every plant individually as they all need different care.

What for you is the most satisfying part of the job?

I love laying the plants out and seeing how they're going to be and look. We've had a lot of donations from Kew and it was great laying all those out. 

And what's the toughest part of the job?

The worst thing for me is the admin side of it, but that should get better now the recruitment is coming to an end. I much prefer to be out in the garden.

Finally, how do you feel about the year ahead?

It's really exciting as we've only touched the tip of the iceberg and the next year will be fantastic. The garden is never complete as it's always evolving but this time next year we would have started growing produce in the walled garden for the palace cafe and things will really be coming along.

Lucy's garden blog and more information on the gardens can be found on the Fulham Palace website at www.fulhampalace.org.

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