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Lucy Hart, Gardener

June 25, 2023
by the gentle author

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One of my favourite gardens in London is at Fulham Palace. So it was a great delight to cycle over from Spitalfields to meet the horticultural genius behind this wondrous creation, Lucy Hart, Head Gardener. Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie joined us, driving from Bethnal Green to create the accompanying photoessay.

In recent years, Lucy has created an enchanted vegetable garden interwoven by flowers within the confines of this ancient walled enclave overlooked by the tower of All Saints, Fulham. I defy anyone not to be seduced by Lucy’s inspired planting combinations – purple gladioli and cabbages or carrots and marigolds – enfolded among old fruit trees and punctuated by long lines of runner beans.

This is the ultimate walled garden of romance, recalling The Secret Garden or Tom’s Midnight Garden, with a fine knot garden and magnificent architectural glasshouses filled by the pungent fragrance of tomato leaves, all within the embrace of crumbling Tudor walls lined with deep herbaceous borders.

Escaping the blinding sunlight at noon, Lucy, Sarah & I sought refuge within the shadow of a venerable apple tree. Lucy told us her story, revealing her horticultural passions, while the sprinklers tick-ticked around us casting rainbows as their showers of waterdrops fell upon the verdant foliage.

“When I was thirteen, I started working on Saturdays at my local nursery in Wallington, Surrey, paying attention to the pelargoniums and seasonal bedding plants, salvias and busy lizzies. I took the job because I needed some cash but I thought, ‘I like this and I really quite enjoy it.’ I used to go home with my arms covered in little cuts from potting up roses but it was good fun.

I went to horticultural college at sixteen and worked at Merrist Wood for three years doing a diploma while living in halls. It was just so much fun and, for a year out, I worked on a nursery in Littlehampton. Then I did a degree in Horticulture at Writtle College and that broadened my horizons in terms of the scientific side. My background is in the production and propagation of plants.

It was then I started working in gardens, working for landscape companies doing domestic gardens, and got accepted for the Kew Diploma. That opened my eyes further to the botanical side of it all, which was a life-changing experience for me. I worked at Great Dixter, Powis Castle and for Beth Chatto, expanding my ideas of what a garden could be. Before that I was only working with seedlings, I never saw plants in flower!

I stayed at Kew Gardens for eight years before I got the job here at Fulham Palace Gardens. The walled garden was used to grow municipal wallflowers for the borough when I arrived. My brief was to bring the place back to life with a vegetable garden, involve the community and create a visitor attraction. The nineteenth century glasshouses had just been rebuilt and they dug out the moat. The wisteria was here and some old fruit trees, but otherwise it was quite empty.

Debs Goodenough, Head Gardener at Highgrove, came to give me advice and I remember walking round with her asking her, ‘Got any ideas?’ She had done a similar project at Osborne House.

We have a Tudor wall but the garden was laid out by Bishop Terrick in 1767 and planted by Bishop Longford in the eighteen-thirties. He put in the knot garden with box hedges, so I replanted that first. It means that when people walk through the gate, they immediately see flowers.

An archaeological investigation revealed that there were cross paths which we have reinstated. We did a big community archaeological dig, looking for garden archaeology revealing signs of how it might have been and we found these diagonal bed shapes, which inspired the layout for the vegetable garden we have today. But because there are no surviving plans I had free rein to do what I wanted, so it only has a loose relationship to an eighteenth century garden.

I was keen to plant around the existing trees and we also found old tree pits lined with clay to retain the moisture – it is so well drained here next to the Thames – so I decided to plant an orchard too. There is a record of there having been a plum orchard here. This garden is an ancient scheduled monument which brings some restrictions where we can plant trees. I have added espalier fruit trees – pears, quinces, apples, peaches, cherries and plums – and herbaceous borders along the walls, including the pollinators border which I only planted last year.

This garden has multiple roles. It is for education and I have three apprentices who each have a flower bed to grow their crop. They have to nurture and know it intimately, deciding when to water and when to thin it out. We also teach volunteers to grow vegetables and I do an introduction to vegetable growing for the general public too. The garden has a display value, people come to see the flowers and we sell our produce which is an important source of income.

We plant flowers among the vegetables so that beds are not bare but these companion plants are selected to repel parasites. We plant French marigolds throughout because they have an oily fragrance which repels aphids and black fly. The calendula are also the host of a beneficial insect which predates on pests. We grow organically here without using pesticides. Our worst pests are the squirrels who eat all the apples and the parakeets who are such lazy eaters, they just take one bite out of each apple. We even have a rabbit that lives in the churchyard who gnaws the newly-planted trees. I have only seen the one and I am still trying to find his burrow.

We sell all our vegetables and flowers but do I get a bit funny about the cabbages and lilies because I think they are so beautiful growing in the ground. We count ourselves really lucky to have this walled garden of thirteen acres for gardening in the middle of London.”

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read about my first visit

At Fulham Palace

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    June 25, 2023

    Phew! Beautiful gardens.

  2. June 25, 2023

    A wonderful garden place that would inspire me as much as Sissinghurst did in its time!

    Love & Peace

  3. June 25, 2023

    What a marvelous, enchanted and enchanting garden. Absolutely beautiful.

  4. June 25, 2023

    A lovely garden. I am jealous

  5. John permalink
    June 25, 2023

    Driving from Bethnal Green?!

  6. July 1, 2023

    Thank you for such a lovely post. Years ago I used to work for the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham and used to chase up outstanding invoices of people who had had their wedding at Fulham Palace but I never managed to visit it myself!

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