The Royal Parks' New ‘Super Nursery’

Steve Edwards, Head of Special Projects, talks to London Landscapes editor Susan Miles.

The Royal Parks (TRP) are renowned for their fabulous seasonal planting displays, from spring's informal swathes of narcissi and crocus and meticulously-planted carpets of tulips and wallflowers, to vibrant summer beds of salvias, dahlias, cannas and other exotics. How are these high standards of horticultural excellence achieved? And will TRP's innovative new £5 million `super nursery' in Hyde Park enable them to achieve even greater heights?

What was the catalyst that brought about the creation of the 'super nursery' project?
The old nursery in Hyde Park was built in the 1960s and was literally falling down. It was beyond repair and wasting a colossal amount of energy – so we had a choice: completely outsource or build from scratch. We decided on the latter because we were not prepared to sacrifice our own high horticultural standards. Most commercial nurseries grow a maximum of 100 varieties compared to the 2,000 plus varieties we require. For instance, when park managers design their annual bedding schemes, they currently have a selection of over 200 varieties of geraniums to choose from.
You've said that sustainability has been at the very forefront of this project. How has this been achieved?
The specification for tenders highlighted sustainability as a key feature. Sustainability is not only good for the environment but also makes sense financially. This design includes a rainwater recovery system, LED lighting, the upgrading of boilers and the main highlight – a retractable roof.
Like Wimbledon's Centre Court, the nursery has a roof that opens. Can you tell us about the technology behind this and the 'glasshouse's' climatic controls?
It will be the first major glasshouse production facility in the UK to use Deforche Cabrio technology, which means we are not dependent on the fickle British weather. The roof will help the acclimatisation of young plants, so they do not have to be moved outside for hardening – saving on labour and maximising space. The glasshouse will also be split into 13 controlled zones that will adapt the climate according to the needs of the plants.
What area will the new glasshouse cover and will it enable TRP to increase the range and volume of plants that can be grown?
The glasshouse will approximately cover the size of a football pitch at over 8,000 square metres. The new nursery will have 40% more production space than the previous nursery but will occupy almost the same footprint. We expect to be producing over a half a million plants a year under one roof.
What are the projected cost savings for the new nursery?
Over time we expect to save up to £200,000 a year from a reduction in costs associated with energy expenditure and wastage.
How does the new nursery enable the Royal Parks to maintain their high standard of horticultural excellence?
It enables us to grow the varieties of flowers we want and not have to compromise. We are also able to retain skills and knowledge in house and use this modern glasshouse as a school to train apprentices – the park mangers of tomorrow.
Many of the parks have eye-catching beds of annual planting. How are the themes and colours of the seasonal bedding scheme decided?
Each of the park managers is able to use their expertise and creativity to design their flowerbeds. They provide us with a shopping list of plants they want to grow for spring bedding in the February the year before and they are delivered in September. They give us a shopping list for summer bedding in September and this is delivered in May.
How do the seasonal plantings fit in with the particular atmosphere and distinctiveness of individual parks?
The designs generally vary each year – and we try to use a range of textures and colours to provide interest across the season. We like to experiment with plants and styles to give visitors inspiration for their own gardens. The exception is the Memorial Gardens in St James's Park, opposite Buckingham Palace. The planting schedule follows a traditional seasonal pattern that is repeated each year.
Replanting of the beds in summer requires approximately 22,500 plants, including geraniums, spider plants, salvias and weeping figs. Scarlet geraniums are used to match the tunics of The Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace. The tall geraniums in the centre of the bed are called standard geraniums and take nine months to grow 1.2m in height. These plants are sown in September of the previous year in the glasshouses at Hyde Park. In wintertime the beds are planted with about 50,000 yellow wallflowers and red tulips.
Do you have a favourite Royal Park?
That's a tough one. I started working for The Royal Parks as an apprentice 40 years ago so each park is special to me in its own right. However, to visit, my favourite is Richmond Park – it feels like rolling countryside and is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. To work in, my favourite park is Hyde Park because of the variety that comes with it. It's not just about pretty flowers – it also involves ceremonials, music concerts, sports and protests so no one day is the same.
Andrew Scattergood, Chief Executive, The Royal Parks (L) and Steve Edwards (R)
Andrew Scattergood, Chief Executive, The Royal Parks (L) and Steve Edwards (R)

CGI bird's eye view of the new nursery
CGI bird's eye view of the new nursery

A border in St James's Park
A border in St James's Park

The old nursery in Hyde Park
The old nursery in Hyde Park

All photographs by courtesy of The Royal Parks