If you wander around the centre of Hyde Park you might occasionally catch a whiff of chips and the ocean as if you’re visiting the seaside — an unexpected side effect of an organic nursery in the centre of the park.

This is the huge Royal Parks plant nursery, where over a quarter of a million plants are grown every year. The nursery has also seen a lot of changes in recent years, including bringing the staffing in-house, moving to organic horticulture, and opening the nursery to apprentices and volunteers.

It’s the switch to organics that causes the occasional smells—as they use seaweed-derived fertiliser for the plants and waste cooking oils for the heating—so there is sometimes an odd combination of chips and the ocean.

The nursery is needed because the Royal Parks are so large that the quantity of plants they would need to make the parks look gloriously colourful every spring and summer would be a challenge if they relied on outside suppliers, and growing their own means they have a lot more control over the end results. But just as importantly, it’s also a way of training people in horticulture all the way from seedlings to trees.

So hidden away in the centre of Hyde Park are long rows of glasshouses filled with plants that will soon delight visitors to the Royal Parks for the rest of this year.

The glasshouses, a recent £5 million replacement for the 1960s buildings on the site, have roofs that automatically open and close depending on the weather outside and the growing conditions inside. Row upon row of plants sit on movable racks, giving easy access to the staff and volunteers who prepare them for the gardens.

Here are the vast quantities of pelargoniums needed for the displays outside Buckingham Palace this summer, growing at different heights to give depth to the displays. Rob Dowling, Royal Parks nursery manager also explained they’re very pleased to have found a variety whose red flowers match the colour of The King’s Guard’s tunics at Buckingham Palace.

A lot of the work in the nursery involves getting all the plants to a point where they’re ready to flower but aren’t quite doing so just yet. That calls for a lot of pruning to keep the plants focused on leaves and stems, and even occasionally snipping off the errant flowers that do appear, to the understandable disappointment of occasional volunteers sent to do that particular task.

But all that work ensures the flower beds around the parks look their best and most floral at the correct time.

I was surprised to learn that many of the displays are annual plants that are replaced each year, often using cuttings from the previous year’s displays. In one glasshouse, they kept 100 plants from the previous year, and that’s enough to grow thousands more for this year.

It was a previous King Charles whose gardens first cultivated pineapples in the UK, and here in the glasshouses of his successor’s namesake, they’re growing them again. For the plant experts amongst you, a visit to the Royal Parks may prove increasingly exciting as well, as they’re also starting to cultivate rarer varieties of plants, often from national collections that wouldn’t usually be seen in London.

That variety is also good for the staff and volunteers, as there’s always something new to care for. When the nursery was brought in-house, while they had apprentices, it was only a couple of years ago that, as a charity, they wondered if volunteers would want to help out.

Now they have loads — from horticultural students wanting some hands-on experience to the retired who love plants — and maybe the heated greenhouses in the winter months. One volunteer came from all the way Mexico. He was visiting his daughter in London for a few months and, being at a bit of a loss while she was at work, spent two happy months in the nursery instead.

Another change in recent years is the move away from chemical pesticides and use of a range of organic pest controls instead, from tiny parasictic flies that are released to feed on the unwanted bugs, organic sprays and even some experiments with carniverous plants. Which, judging by how one plant with sticky leafs was covered in black bugs, is probably working.

However, the biggest surprise was to learn about the aubergines.

Dotted around the place are sacrificial aubergine plants in pots, and it turns out that many of the bugs that would eat their bedding plants really like aubergine leaves — so the aubergines act like “bug sponges” and when they’re covered in bugs are taken outside and shaken to get rid of the unwanted visitors.

Unlike many commercial nurseries, they don’t aim for total clearance, as after all, their beneficial bugs want something to eat as well. Instead, they go for managed control, which minimises the damage to plants without aiming for full sterilisation.

The organic approach also extends to the soils, as they’ve moved away from using peak to using a mix they perfected themselves which is ideal for the Royal Parks soil conditions. Although it’s getting easier to drop peat, it’s still a challenge in some places, and their seedling starter packs have to be imported from Denmark as no one sells peat-free equivalents in the UK.

The plant feed is also organic and unexpected — it’s made from seaweed and the boiler fuel was recently switched from diesel to biofuel made from waste cooking oils.

Hence, the nursery smells oddly at times like the seaside.

Going green isn’t cheap, though. The government has repeatedly rejected calls to lower the tax on hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) even though its CO2 emissions are far lower than those of the fossil fuels it could replace.

Something I had never given a second (or first) thought to is the issue of black plastic plant pots. If you’ve noticed garden centres using colourful plant pots, there’s a reason—and it’s all down to recycling.

Recycling centres struggle to identify black plastic as the materials sensing lasers don’t reflect off black — hence the switch to colourful pots, and plastics in general. As the nursery resues most of its plastic pots until they’re pretty much falling apart, they’re slowly switching to brown pots, and have found a plastics recycling company that Henry Ford would have been proud of — they want black and only black.

All this goes towards ensuring they can grow hundreds of thousands of plants every year in an environmentally friendly manner.

Not all the plants get used — as they always grow more than they expect to need just in case of losses, and if there is a surplus, they’re given away to local charities.

So, if you wander around the Royal Parks this summer, think about the nursery in Hyde Park that makes all the displays possible.


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Thank you

  1. NG says:

    Thank you

  2. Marian says:

    Who knew ! That’s fascinating and the next fine day guess where I will be.

  3. Keith says:

    Great piece of reporting. Thank you Ian.

  4. Kip says:

    Great article; really fact-packed.

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