The Hard Work Behind The Scenes In The Gardens Of Chiswick House

An interview with the head gardener Geraldine King prior to the Camellia Show

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Lady Of The Camellias

Chiswick House and Gardens Trust

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Geraldine King is a busy woman. Now nine months into her job as Head Gardener (her official title is Garden Estate Manager), at Chiswick House and Gardens, she is putting the finishing touches (along with a team of volunteers) to the upcoming Camellia Show which runs from February 28 - March 29th.

There are a number of 'firsts' to this year's to the Show which will add to the challenge of showcasing what is believed to be the world's oldest collection of camellias under glass. The admission charge has been dropped which may lose income for the CHGT from what is usually an annual money-spinner, but Geraldine hopes that it means the Show will have wider accessibility and visitors are encouraged to give a donation.

Geraldine King

New for this year, the shop will be selling a small selection of plants propagated from 12 heritage varieties in the rare Chiswick House Camellia collection - for the first time the plants have been propagated on site, in the newly-renovated Melon House.

"An 1820 Corallina camellia would have cost about £3/3 shillings in 1825 - to translate that into today's money it would be something in the order of £1,925 - of course we won't be selling our plants at anything like that price- maybe more in the order of £40 or thereabouts. But people will be able to get something really special here this year", says Geraldine. You can watch an interview with Geraldine about how the rare blooms were introduced by the sixth Duke of Devonshire, by Bridget Osborne of The Chiswick Calendar



Previously Head Gardener for eleven years at West Ham Park in east London and prior to that at Hyde Park, Geraldine says working in Chiswick in the midst of the wonderful architecture and the historical gardens of William Kent is a dream job for anyone passionate about history and gardens.

The friendship between Lord Burlington and designer William Kent during the 1730s resulted in an opening up and unifying the setting of the House within the gardens which is what gives Chiswick its uniqueness.

However, working as Head Gardener also presents many challenges and despite the restoration of CHG, there are many areas for improvement and potential projects. These future plans include introducing a 'meadow' area, upgrading the children's playground, and even hosting a Gifford's Circus for two weeks in June in the Walled Garden. Geraldine does not have a large staff- there is one gardener, one trainee and three contract workers for a 63 acre estate. And while the Gardens have beautiful trees, maintenance is a huge job. A recent tree survey has identified over £180,000 worth of tree works, of which half needs to be done over the next three years.

Chiswick House and Gardens

They simply could not continue without the help of local volunteers and the fundraising efforts of the Friends of Chiswick House and Gardens, she says. These last weeks volunteers have been brushing the leaves of the camellia plants to rid them of any potential bugs. Fundraising efforts by the Friends have meant The Melon House has been restored, a woodchipping machine has been purchased, and misting and heating equipment has been bought which will be used in the Kitchen Garden to produce earlier and higher yields of produce and a greater variety of vegetables to sell to the public.

Students from the Charity Roots and Shoots have created a wonderful plant display in the Conservatory. The Trust hopes that it will be the first of other collaborations with the students.  Roots and Shoots is a London based charity that trains young people to fulfil their potential through their environmental education programmes.

Chiswick House and Gardens

Geraldine has always been passionate about working outdoors. Her parents were Irish, and summer holidays were spent on family farms in Kerry and Louth. When she finished school she became a parks apprentice with the local Council in Luton, and has never looked back. She is currently a judge on London in Bloom, and chairman of the London Gardens Network. Commuting from her home in Essex to Chiswick gives her plenty of time to think about her upcoming projects. During her weekends she tries to get some home gardening done and is an avid football fan.

What has she discovered during her time in Chiswick?

"I'm very impressed with the dogwalkers who are very good at picking up the dog foul and also with the lack of litter in general."

At this time of year, many people enjoy the wildlife in Chiswick House but I asked Geraldine about the recent problems with swans and whether or not people should bring food for the ducks.

"The main problem with feeding the swans is when they eat mouldy bread it gives them a disease which can affect their feathers. We would ideally like people to feed the birds the correct food which they can get from pet shops etc -if they bought a bag and kept it in the car for using when they come to visit, that would be ideal."

And as for the renewed interest in gardening that has been encouraged by television shows, Geraldine has advice for the novice.

"Do something little and often. I'm a judge at county shows and I'm amazed at the interest there is in growing vegetables and flowers . If you live in the city and don't have a garden, there's still quite a lot you can grow even on a windowsill with a container. But the worst thing is to be over-ambitious and then stop because you've taken on too much.

"And if you can't garden, then come and visit parks like ours in Chiswick".

Anne Flaherty

The Chiswick House Camellia collection is believed to be the oldest collection under glass in the Western world. It includes rare and historically important examples of plants, many descended from the original planting in 1828. Among them is the unique Middlemist’s Red, originally brought to Britain from China in 1804 by Londoner John Middlemist, a nurseryman from Shepherds Bush. It is one of only two in the world known to exist – the other being on the other side of the globe in Waitangi in New Zealand.

New for this year, the shop will be selling a small selection of plants propagated from 12 heritage varieties in the rare Chiswick House Camellia collection. There will also be other Camellia plants and Camellia inspired merchandise including a limited edition print by Sir Peter Blake, who lives in Chiswick, as well as a tote bag designed by the well-known local designer, Marthe Armitage.

The 2015 show also includes an exhibition on the history of Chiswick’s Conservatory.

Dates: 28th February to 29th March, 2015
Conservatory opening hours: Daily 10:00am – 4pm (Closed Mondays)
Admission: Free
Chiswick House: Special Camellia Show weekend openings Saturday and Sunday 10am – 4pm

February 26, 2015