Preserving a royal garden in a changing climate

Our gardeners are planning for fluctuating weather patterns, new plant pests and diseases, all while preserving the historic gardens and keeping them looking visitor-ready all year round.

By Historic Royal Palaces

Pond Gardens, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

During the past 500 years, the gardens at Hampton Court Palace have weathered royal redesigns, modern reconstructions, the great storm of 1987 and the devastating effects of Dutch Elm disease, as well as an ever-increasing number of visitors and public events.

However, unpredictable weather conditions and emerging pests present further challenges to the task of preserving our gardens for generations to come.

Gardener in the long borders (2017) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Continuing gardening traditions in unpredictable times

It's a hard task for our gardeners to balance history with the efficient maintenance of over 60 acres of gardens, and this becomes even more challenging during unpredictable weather patterns that might cause periods of drought and floods.

The Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2016) by Andrew ButlerHistoric Royal Palaces

For example, the reconstructed baroque Privy Garden, commissioned by William III in the 18th century, presents some unique challenges.

View of gardener in Privy Garden (2017) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

While modern gardening methods use mulch and ground cover plants to suppress weeds and save on watering, the beds in the Privy Garden are mounded with bare soil between the plants.

This is more historically accurate, but it also allows water to run off the beds, leaches nutrients and allows weeds to find a place.

However, maintaining the baroque ideal is the goal here, and the pay-off for the gardeners' hard work is a stunning reconstruction of William III's Privy Garden, which once impressed the upper circles of Stuart society.

Plan view of Palace Gardens, John Rocque (fl. 1738) Cartographer, 1736, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace, Aerial Vue, 2017, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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View of gardeners in Greenhouse (2017) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

As well as preserving our gardens according to their original styles, our gardeners strive to protect more traditional garden practices. For example, we continue to use colourful summer bedding displays where many parks have favoured more drought-tolerant grasses and perennials.

Pond Gardens, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Colourful displays can still be seen in the Great Fountain Garden and Pond Gardens. The thousands of bedding plants required to fill our beds are grown on site from tiny plug plants in our nurseries.

Swan at Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Stephen WarrenHistoric Royal Palaces

One of the natural advantages of the palace's history and location is the range of water features such as the Long Water, Longford River and other ponds and waterways that help in times of drought. 

The Sunken Garden, Kensington Palace (2011) by Robin ForsterHistoric Royal Palaces

Careful management of these areas, including restoration of ditches and reedbeds, supports the flow of water around the site and provides valuable wildlife habitats.

Gardener in the Glasshouse Nursery, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Controlling new pests

Use of pesticides is limited in our gardens, so our gardens team use other organisms to control the spread of pests in the nursery greenhouses. 

Natural predators such as Australian ladybirds, Leptomastix dactylopii wasps and lacewings are used to control mealybugs, which are one of the most prolific enemies of glasshouse plants.

Gardener in the Glasshouse Nursery, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

However, some pests may present insurmountable challenges in preserving gardening practices for the future. While box topiary is a key feature in many historical gardens, the increase in box blight and box caterpillar moth has decimated a lot of topiary in the UK.

Our gardens team are having to consider options for a future when using box might not be viable.

Dahlia 'Bishop of York' in the Kitchen Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Future-proofing wildlife habitats

Looking at long-term strategies to preserve and regenerate wildlife habitats is just as important as managing seasonal displays and fixes, and moving forward is about making small changes.

Butterfly in the Kitchen Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Our gardens team is currently cultivating a wildflower meadow in the orchard between the Pond Gardens. The new meadows around the old fruit trees will provide a natural haven between the formal gardens, and also have the added benefit of being low-maintenance. 

This is just one of many positive changes we're making in the gardens for biodiversity.

Gardener in the Pond Gardens, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Looking to the future

As the saying goes, 'a good garden never stands still'. So even with 500 years of history to care for, the many landscapes of Hampton Court Palace will continue to evolve.​

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Find out more and visit the gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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