A glimpse of our glorious grounds – an update

25th November 2020

Although it is sadly not currently possible to welcome visitors to our grounds and garden, the cancellation of our usual events programme has brought some benefits. Here Grounds & Gardens Manager Ric Glenn gives you a glimpse behind our gates and updates you on the work his team has been doing during lockdown. When restrictions ease, guests can look forward to seeing some new delights, as well as the many beautiful familiar features of this tranquil oasis in the heart of London. 

The trials and triumphs of autumn 

“The grounds and gardens are looking glorious. On fine, still days the glimpses of sunlight through the autumn colour have been stunning. We have a large Gingko biloba – sometimes called the Fossil Tree or Temple Tree – which has been in glorious, golden leaf and a particularly beautiful Norwegian Maple. Another star of the season is a Chinese ornamental grass called Miscanthus sinensis. It’s a joy to see its feathery flowers waving in the wind near the Infirmary.

The glorious golden Gingko biloba

The glorious golden Gingko biloba

The autumn brings challenges as well as beauty. We’ve had an unusually windy year and at the moment it’s very leafy. Around 200 of our 450 trees are London plane trees, which are notorious for dropping early in the year, with leaf fall lingering until winter. The leaves are large and don’t rot down quickly – one minute they’ll be hidden discreetly under a shrub and the next they’ll be in the middle of the path causing problems! 

Another issue with plane trees is a fungal disease called massaria. It can cause twigs, branches or even large boughs to drop – and the problem is you can only see it if you get above the branch. We send up experienced climbers at least once a year – it’s my biggest spend of the year, but it’s important because otherwise we’re running a great risk. 

An unusual year for gardeners 

It’s been an interesting year for gardeners. In addition to being the windiest year I’ve ever experienced, we had an extremely dry spring and summer. As a result, there was almost an extra dormant season and things that wouldn’t normally flower in autumn are blooming now. 

Some trees lost most of their leaves in mid summer and began growing new ones when it started raining at the end of the summer. 

The dryness posed a problem in some parts of the grounds, but the Chelsea Pensioners’ allotments – where water is easily accessed – have flourished. The Pensioners were drawn outside by the sunshine and we’ve had lots of compliments about how well the allotments are tended and how much they’ve benefited our veterans during lockdown. 

Some of them are down here every single day – rain, hail or shine – enjoying the interaction as well as the gardening. This year their allotments have yielded an incredible tomato crop and I can see roses blooming outside my office as I write. We recently completed our end-of-season tidy-up – the allotments become quieter as the days get darker – but some stalwart Pensioners are still growing swedes and other winter crops. 

A time for rest and renewal 

The cancellation of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the other events we would have hosted here has had a considerable impact. Not only has it been a great disappointment to many people, it has deprived the Royal Hospital of considerable income 

From my perspective, it’s meant around 22 extra acres to manage with fewer people! One of my gardeners returned to her family in Spain because of Covid and another valued member of the team was working on research projects from home and monitoring our plot at Brookwood Cemetery as he couldn’t travel here safely. I’m extremely proud of how this small but committed team has kept the grounds presentable and safe during this difficult time. 

It’s not all negative news either. Events cause compaction and disruption from a horticultural perspective and the grounds have benefited from a rest. We’ve also made delightful discoveries, like a beautiful Ornithogalum – known as Star of Bethlehem – which we didn’t know was there, as it would normally be buried beneath the structures of the Flower Show.

These quieter months have provided a wonderful opportunity to make improvements in Ranelagh Gardens. The biggest one was clearing an informal storage yard for the Flower Show that had grown up in an important horticultural area in the north of the gardens. Everything is now confined to a designated yard elsewhere, revealing an enchanted woodland area with views down to the willow tree that marks the underground course of the river Westbourne. I plan to prune some shrubs here to create beautiful little views, enticing people strolling through to other areas.

Woodland Views

Woodland Views

Although the team’s increased workload meant we couldn’t plant as much as we might have otherwise done, we have bought time until we can by sowing seeds for springtime. There’s an area in the far south of Ranelagh Gardens where we’ve sown a diverse meadow of native flowers. This has been done with biodiversity, sustainability and wildlife in mind and will include a bank of poppies, beloved by Pensioners and pollinators alike. We can also look forward to the 8,000 or so snowdrops which we planted in the north of the gardens soon after I started here. Although there were quite a number in the south of the garden, there were barely any in this area. Eventually our aim is that they will link right through Ranelagh Gardens to form a carpet of delicate white flowers in early spring. 

Looking forward to festivities and flower gardens 

I very much hope that we will soon be able to welcome visitors here again. In the meantime, we shall be busy clearing leaves, mowing grass – which grows all year round these days – and preparing for Christmas. 

As always, each of the Hospital’s courts will feature a decorated tree from Windsor Great Park and I’ve already amassed a collection of pinecones which we’ll use along with traditional foliage to decorate wreaths to adorn our doors. 

Looking further ahead, it’s hoped that the Chelsea Flower Show will return next year, albeit slightly different to ensure it’s safe for visitors. We’re also delighted that the Army Medical Corps has donated a show garden that would have featured this year to the Royal Hospital. It will now be recreated in Salisbury Court, incorporating favourite existing features, like the fountain, and bringing pleasure to the frailer Pensioners living in the Infirmary. 

It has been a strange year for us all, but there is hope on the horizon and all of us on the grounds team look forward to sharing the beauty of our gardens with friends and visitors in the coming months.”

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