The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Wake up time for a romantic walled garden
Lucy Hart is the green-fingered force behind the walled garden at Fulham Palace. She takes The Gentle Author on a tour through history
One of my favourite gardens in London is at Fulham Palace. So it was a great delight to meet the horticultural talent behind this wondrous creation, the head gardener Lucy Hart.
Leading a team of three apprentices, a senior gardener and 60 local volunteers, Hart 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. In summer, I defy anyone not to be seduced by Hart’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.
For me, this is a walled garden of romance, recalling The Secret Garden or Tom’s Midnight Garden, with a fine parterre, an ancient wisteria and magnificent glasshouses, all within the embrace of crumbling walls lined with deep herbaceous borders.
“We have a Tudor wall but the kitchen garden was laid out by Bishop Terrick in 1767 and planted by Bishop Longford in the 1830s,” Hart explains. “He put in the parterre with box hedges, so I replanted that first when I arrived ten years ago. It means that when people walk through the gate, they immediately see flowers.”
Of her own horticultural origins, Hart says: “Eight years at Kew Gardens gave me the knowledge, but I have grown plants from seed since the age of 13 when I was a Saturday kid at my local nursery. I only took the job at the nursery because I needed some cash but then I thought, I like this and I really quite enjoy it, even if I used to go home with my arms covered in little cuts from potting up roses.”
While Hart’s irresistible enthusiasm has driven the project forward at Fulham, it is her breadth of knowledge that has directed it to maturity. “I worked at Great Dixter, Powis Castle and for Beth Chatto, which expanded my ideas of what a garden could be,” she says. “Debs Goodenough, the head gardener at Highgrove, came to give me advice and I remember walking round with her and asking, ‘Got any ideas?’ She had done a similar project at Osborne House.”
When Hart arrived in November 2011, the walled garden at Fulham Palace was used merely to grow municipal wallflowers, but she saw the potential and cultivating it was a challenge she embraced. “My brief was to bring the place back to life with a vegetable garden, to involve the community and create a visitor attraction,” Hart recalls. “The 19th-century glasshouses had just been rebuilt and they had dug out the moat. The wisteria was here and some old fruit trees, otherwise it was quite empty.”
One of the most appealing qualities of Hart’s garden is how it has been grafted seamlessly into place, complementing the historical location so effortlessly that it is now difficult to imagine how it could ever have been other than it is. “We did a big community 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,” Hart says. “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 18thcentury garden.”
In fact, Hart’s triangular vegetable beds are a key element in the success of the garden because they offer a seductive labyrinth of paths to the visitor, in which you are surrounded by diverse foliage and exposed to the fragrances of flowers and vegetables on all sides.
By contrast, the west side of the walled garden is Hart’s newly planted orchard, again drawing upon historical precedent. “I was keen to plant around the existing trees and, in our archaeological dig, we found old tree pits lined with clay to retain the moisture – it is well drained here next to the Thames – so I decided to plant an orchard,” Hart tells me. “This garden is an Ancient Scheduled Monument, which brings restrictions where we can put trees, so I
added espalier fruit trees – pears, quinces, apples, peaches, cherries and plums – and herbaceous borders along the walls, including the pollinators’ border which I planted two years ago.”
The sympathetic balance of nature and nurture is a defining quality of any successful garden. Hart’s walled garden achieves this in an especially charismatic way, by adopting formal structures while also leaving the plants to be just enough overgrown. Your attention is drawn to the beauty of the planting and individual plants, while ensuring they are not sublimated to any rigidity of design. At Fulham, you never feel as though you are in a municipal garden or even a public one, and it conjures a relaxed domestic atmosphere that is transporting.
“We have been open through most of the lockdown and it has been wonderful to see people coming to enjoy the garden, they obviously draw so much from it in these strange times,” Hart says. “The garden has multiple roles. As well as people coming to see the flowers, we sell our produce, which is an important source of income. It is also for education and my three apprentices 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 teach volunteers to grow vegetables and I run classes for the public too.”
Any gardener would be inspired by Lucy’s combination planting, which is both of aesthetic and practical value. “We plant flowers among the vegetables so that beds are not bare, but we select these companion plants to repel parasites,” she tells me. “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 preys on pests. This is how we are able to grow organically here without using pesticides.”
The team sell all their vegetables and flowers from a barrow in the garden, Hart says, confessing: “I get a bit funny about parting with the cabbages and lilies because I think they are so beautiful growing in the ground.
“We count ourselves really lucky to have these 13 acres for gardening in the middle of London.”
The Gentle Author writes about London at spitalfieldslife.com