Future-proofing Chiswick House Gardens

Image above: Chiswick House head gardener Rosie Fyles with her very well behaved eight year old Black Labrador, Dillys

Interview with the new Head Gardener at Chiswick House, Rosie Fyles

“In five to ten years we won’t be planting anything beyond March” says Rosie Fyles, the new head gardener at Chiswick House.

“And it won’t be long before certain trees, such as the white stemmed birch trees which have thrived and been fashionable in southwest London over the past 30-40 years, won’t thrive without additional watering.”

The reality of climate change is much more apparent if you work on the land and Rosie, who has just taken over as head gardener at Chiswick House, is very well aware that there will have to be some changes if she is to keep the gardens flourishing.

She has managed a historic garden before, having come here from Ham House, a National Trust property. She understands the importance of protecting and defending the legacy of William Kent, who laid out the original gardens with the Duke of Burlington in the early 1700s, and wants to draw connections with some of the other gardens he designed, such as Stowe and Chatsworth. But she also realises we need to be looking at Barcelona and Sydney and considering what grows well in those climates now.

“With my garden conservation eyes on I’ve been looking at aspects of drawings and paintings, seeing how we can liberate views and re-establish planting that will be there in another 50-70 years.

“We need to retain that feeling of historic character but also future proof the Gardens.”

Image above: Flowers in the Italian Garden at Chiswick House

Figs and Kiwi fruit

Planting with climate change in mind means no more apples and pears on southwest-facing walls where the fruit will burn:

“It means planting more citrus, nectarines, peaches, possibly apricots, figs and kiwi fruit.

“I ask the volunteers when they go on holiday to Spain or wherever, to look at the trees and notice what thrives there.”

A lot of roses will thrive but there will be some, she says, bred for very specific characteristics, which might not.

The gardening calendar is also changing, she says. Because of the dry springs we’ve been getting, soon it will not be sensible to plant beyond March.

“A lot of traditional gardeners prefer to plant trees in October because the ground is at its optimal temperature and the trees will have the longest lead time possible until they are stressed by lack of water.”

Her intention is to plant as little as possible that will need watering.

Chiswick House conservatory has a water harvesting system, she tells me, a way of capturing the run-off and collecting it into an underground tank to be used for watering the kitchen garden.
They are working on quantifying how much water they use.

“Any gardening site or project must now involve how to harvest water.”

She is also looking to mitigate the effects of air pollution by encouraging plants which absorb the pollutants, such as ivy and broad leafed trees.

“Every little thing I can do to be aware and address climate change is a step forward.”

“Creating gardens can make people feel better about themselves.”

Image above: Notice explaining to the park’s users: ‘This handsome, mature cedar tree had to be felled due to serious health issues. It posed a danger to people and the landscape around it. We are thinking about interesting ways to use the massive timber inthe garden, rather than removing it completely from where it grew.’

A “flippant” decision

Rosie became a professional gardener almost by chance. Having worked for many years doing PR in international corporations, helping them improve their internal communications, she was helping a friend of her mother’s, pruning her roses in a beautiful garden by the sea and trying to explain what she did for a living, when she thought:

“Life would be so much easier if I were a gardener.”

It was a “flippant” decision she says, but one which turned out well. She studied NVQ level 2 part time, while still running her own business. This is the accepted route into gardening, she says, particularly if you are a career changer.

“I am fascinated by every aspect of plants, but especially in how they can improve people’s lives.

“Creating gardens can make people feel better about themselves.”

What she values most about taking over the running of Chiswick House Gardens is the inclusivity of working somewhere which has historic significance but which is free for the public to use.

Having worked in historic gardens where you have to be a member to share in the experience, she loves that these gardens have been through many different uses.

“It is my absolute conviction and intent to share it and make it as enjoyable as possible.”

She is impressed by the number of people who have come up to her or emailed her since she took over the job in April, to say how much the Gardens mean to them.

“One man told me he has come here to walk for 45 minutes every day for 30 years.

“It is exciting to me that people have that degree of involvement.”

Image above: Volunteers working in the Italian Garden

A shout out to any potential volunteers who have specialist knowledge

The volunteers who maintain the Gardens alongside a small professional team are what makes the high standard of their upkeep possible.

The Trust has paused recruitment temporarily while Rosie evaluates the skills they most need. She would love to hear from anyone with a specialist knowledge, either from their experience as a domestic gardener or from gardening professionally, who would like to volunteer.

“Chiswick is full of people with high levels of skill and interests which could be useful. It’s a question of how much time they have.”

The pandemic hit revenue so badly Chiswick House had to stop doing anything which did not directly bring in money. Now they are looking to reorganise the way the volunteers work.

“I’m looking to develop a large and diverse group of volunteers so volunteer groups can be self-led and we can give more value to those who want to get stuck in and be here a lot.

“One of the things I most like is the ability to learn from and engage with people who have a deeper knowledge of the place.

“There’s an energy about the place” she says. “I hope people feel there’s a sense of energy and purpose to what’s going on here.”

Image above: Volunteers working in the Kitchen Garden

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Three Gold awards for Chiswick House Gardens in London in Bloom, October 2021

See also: Three hundred years of Chiswick House Gardens

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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