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Thirsty for water

Written by senior gardener Franziska

The lawns are yellow and the dusty dry soil gets blown all over, covering us in a protective layer of sticky sunscreen, sweat and dirt. Welcome to Fulham Palace’s reality of gardening in summer 2022! Even our Palace cats Pamunkey and Edmund are sparingly making their appearance, mostly for breakfast and dinnertime and in between it is napping in the shade. Mousing is for cooler temperatures.

This summer, the UK has experienced extended heatwaves and last month the Met Office has issued the first ever warning for exceptional heat with temperatures over 40°C. Not only humans and cats are suffering under these strenuous weather conditions (not even mentioning when we work in the glasshouse that can heat up to over 50°C) but the plants!

How do we cope with these challenges here at Fulham Palace gardens and grounds?

This summer will only be the start of prolonged periods of extreme weather.  We will need to get used to high temperatures, even in a country that I always thought of being rainy and cloudy rather than sunny. We have now developed strategies and guidelines to tackle the challenges that drought and heat put on us.

For us at Fulham Palace, this currently means watering wisely when looking after grounds and gardens. We have identified the priority targets and therefore manage to use water responsibly and sparingly. Main priorities are young trees, newly planted beds, important plants of our botanical plant collection (such as Bishop Compton specimen trees) and last but not least, the vegetable garden. Our barrow keeps on supplying the community with organically grown vegetables and fruit.

Every day during the hot period, a couple of us gardeners and apprentices come in very early in the mornings to finish watering before it is too hot. This helps to prevent the loss of water via evaporation. The water we use is recycled rainwater which is collected from the roof of the vinery and bothies and stored into an underground rain tank, although understandably this is running rather low at the moment.

We are also using a bowser to transport water to otherwise inaccessible areas where no tap is nearby, allowing us to use water in a targeted way. Target watering means less sprinkler use but more hand watering, directly wetting the roots of a plant rather than the whole area surrounding it.

A good amount of our planting is already is drought resistant; it shows now how valuable the forward-thinking planning of our head gardener was, following advice from Dr Mark Spencer. Just this spring we have planted a new drought tolerant bed in front of the Palace including plants such as Eryngium, Origanum, Stipa and Salvias. That kind of planting will be the future for withstanding the pressures of a warmer climate.

Going forward
  • We will continue to plant drought resistant species and plant the right plants in the right place. This will mean experimenting and learning from previous planting. We will learn what does perform well once it is established without any additional watering.
  • Mulching and adding organic matter like green manures to the soil will help to keep the soil not only healthy but also covered, which stops it from drying out. We will have to consider to apply mulch more than once a year. We do have ample compost as we have a great composting system including recycling the café’s food waste, vegware plates and coffee cups.

And the gardeners’ secret recipe to keep cool? We place a jug of mint tea made from freshly picked leaves in the fridge; this cools us down wonderfully during the hot days. Mint and other tasty produce can be found on our sales barrow every day!