How to grow the tastiest runner beans, with tips from the head gardener at Fulham Palace
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, 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 asking her, ‘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 18th-century 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.”
Fulham Palace House & Garden, Bishop’s Avenue, London SW6 6EA. Visit fulhampalace.org. Gardens open dawn until dusk; walled garden open 10:15am – 3:45pm; produce barrow open Tues-Sat, 11am – 3pm. The museum and historic rooms are currently closed.
How to grow runner beans
April is the time to plant runner beans. It is a splendid way to introduce children to the wonders of horticulture and, even if you do not have a garden, you can grow a wigwam of beans in a pot on your sill or balcony.
Who can resist the beauty of their delicate tendrils and scarlet flowers with a promise of runner beans to come? “My children eat them raw, straight from the plant,” Hart says. “They never make it as far as the kitchen!”
Sow your beans in small pots about 4cm deep in peat-free compost.
You can put two beans in each pot and then remove the weaker one after germination.
Place your pots on a window sill inside where they will get natural light, regularly checking they do not dry out
Plant your bean plants outside in early June, when there is no longer any risk of frost. Initially guide them up a tall cane or stake, but once established they will happily climb up by themselves. Keep the plants watered throughout the summer.
From July, you can pick your beans and eat them raw, sliced in salads, or steamed with hot meals. The flowers are also edible and are very pretty in a salad.
History of Fulham Palace
Fulham Palace presents a classically proportioned façade across an expanse of lawn bordered by tall old trees. If you walk across the grass and round the back, you discover an imposing Tudor gateway with big wooden doors, leading to a courtyard with a fountain dancing and a grand entrance through which Elizabeth I once walked. It is only a short walk from the Tube but already you are in another world.
For more than 1,000 years the Bishops of London lived here, until it was given to the public in 1975. When Bishop Waldhere (693-c.705) acquired Fulham Manor around the year 700, it was only the most recent dwelling on a site beside the Thames that had been in constant habitation since Neolithic times. By 1392, a document recorded a great ditch enclosing the 36 acres of Britain’s biggest medieval moated dwelling.
Among the incumbents were a number of botanically inclined bishops whose legacy lives on in the grounds, in trees and glasshouses where exotic fruits were grown for presentation to the monarch. In the 16th century, Bishop Grindal (1559-1570) sent grapes each year to Elizabeth I. “The vines at Fulham were of that goodness and perfection beyond others,” wrote John Strype, a historian of London.
As head of the Church in the American Colonies, Bishop Henry Compton (1675-1753), sent missionaries to collect plants. In his tenure he cultivated a greater variety of trees and shrubs than had been seen in any garden in England, including the first magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, in Europe.
The Green Meet, Sunday May 2, 11am-4pm at Fulham Palace Garden
Lucy Hart’s Wisteria Lecture, Tuesday May 20, 2-3pm on Zoom. For further information, visit fulhampalace.org
Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.