Alitex Glasshouse Growing Experiences: Lucy Hart, Head Gardener, Fulham Palace Walled Gardens

Alitex Growing On

Catching up with Lucy Hart, the head gardener at Fulham Palace Walled Gardens is always such a fascinating way to spend time. Aside from being at the top of her professional game, she is also totally committed to a sense of history and preserving the best of what has been before in her tenure at these London gardens.

Lucy came from The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew before arriving in late 2011 to take up her position at Fulham Palace Gardens. With her botanically orientated background, she is relishing the “other side”, of horticulture – that of creating edible produce from new cultivars, and also adhering to the historical background of the gardens.

“The idea that there is so much yet to learn about The Fulham Palace Walled Gardens, keeps the short and long term future exciting. We are hoping to eventually reinstate the vines and pineapples which were originally grown here under glass (the vinery pinery), which, with sufficient funding we will be able to manage in the new Alitex glasshouse”, said Lucy.

Alitex glasshouse crops in 2012

For any 2012 visitors to the Gardens you will have seen glasshouse crops of tomatoes, chillies and aubergines which worked well. In a departure from referencing historical records, Lucy decided on instant crops with produce which could be used in the café, as the lead time was short and – well, she’d just started! The crops were a huge success and filled the glasshouse beautifully. Lucy admits lessons were learnt, especially with staking. Lucy will revert next time to a more traditional method of tying cords from the top of the glasshouse which are then staked at ground level, encouraging the plants to freely grow skywards. Lucy had thought she would miss the absence of blinds in this south facing large glasshouse but, given that 2012 was such a poor sunshine year, she only really noticed it in September when the sun came out! With plans for a vinery in the pipeline, the leaves will create their own shade within the glasshouse in future years – very self sufficient!

Heating the Alitex greenhouse

Lucy told me how the original heating pipes are still where they originally were – Alitex built on the self-same footprint – but that they are cosmetic now - they would have cost too much to restore. Instead electric heaters are now used but since there are currently no tropical plantings it is not such an issue as it could have been. The position of the greenhouse against a curved wall, aside from being such a visual feature, works to absorb all the day’s sunlight and hold onto it for as long as possible. In terms of future crops of pineapples Lucy intends to import fresh manure to “centrally heat”, these crops in the traditional way. Manure could also be used to act as basal heat for seeds and cuttings in the propagation area.

Creating a calm atmosphere in the centre of London

The bothy buildings directly behind the curved wall against which the Alitex greenhouse sits are used in a traditional way – to store tools, as a potting shed and as the offices for Lucy and her team of apprentices, gardeners and volunteers. I love the fact that there is a wood burner in the larger shed which gives off wood smoke during the colder months which drifts across the gardens; it takes visitors away from the fact they are in London and makes them feel as though they are in deep countryside – certainly an aspiration which was shared by Hooker under his directorship of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It makes Fulham Palace Gardens resonate with the same kind of tranquil and calm feeling, making it such a lovely place to be; indeed Lucy will be coming back to the gardens with her baby in the summer months (whilst on maternity leave) to simply sit and enjoy the atmosphere (and possibly the delicious produce supplied to the café!).

Acknowledging the input of previous incumbents

Lucy wants to take full advantage of successes from past incumbents; the estate was owned by the Bishops of London for over 1300 years and the Palace was their country home from at least the 11th century, and their main residence from the 18th century until 1973. In 1675 Henry Compton was made Bishop; his effect on the gardens was immense – in various historical records evidence can be found of the splendour of the gardens. He imported several new plant species to Fulham Palace Gardens and first cultivated some flora still found in Britain today. He also grew the first coffee tree in England.

In the middle section of the greenhouse Lucy has planted flower beds of pelargoniums as Bishop Compton was a big collector, introducing a number of cultivars into England. Passiflora (passion flower vines) were also an historical favourite during the Victorian era and Lucy has managed to have some donated by her old employer Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Lucy was quite clear on the relationship between the past and the present at Fulham Palace –

“I don’t want to tie ourselves too much to heritage varieties and potentially limit horticultural crop production. It’s not something the former head gardeners would have done or indeed any of the other Bishops interested in the gardens who have lived here. We need to restore what was marvellous about the Gardens and the glasshouse, with reference to what went before but with the benefits of modern thinking and technology. Alitex have done exactly that with the glasshouse structure.”

The future growing plans in the Alitex greenhouse

Making full use of the glasshouse is a priority as the produce not only looks good but is made into chutneys and fresh salads in the café. The intention is to use the west wing of the glasshouse for this purpose, which should provide a seasonal insight for visitors into the life-cycle of food. In the east wing, plants will be propagated by the gardening team, using the shelter and natural heat a glass house provides. The central area is perfect for entertaining and it may well be used for this purpose in the future.

Evidence keeps coming to light of treasures that were grown in the gardens – just recently Lucy came across a blueprint for growing peaches in the glasshouse which dates back to the early 20th century. There are also underground stone arches just outside of the glasshouse walls where the roots of vines were encouraged to reach and extend out across the gardens. This sense of buried “treasure”, clearly provides excitement for all who have the pleasure of working within such historic gardens.

Given that Hilary Mantel has just picked up The Costa novel prize for her second book which traces political and historical figures around the time of Thomas Cromwell, it seems that Lucy and her team are not alone in being fascinated and entertained by what went before.

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