Q&A with Nick Stewart, Head Gardener, Lambeth Palace (2022)

What was your journey into horticulture?

After completing my degree, my first proper horticultural experience was gained working in the historic Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona, which convinced me I wanted gardening to be my future. It also began my life-long fascination with Mediterranean planting.  The way plants such as olive trees, rosemary, lavender, santolina and phlomis flow in free form patterns is something close to my heart - staying away from the more rigid planting blocks and lines we often see.

What were the highlights of your role at Lambeth Palace?

So many highlights, but above all, I think the company and friendship of the other gardeners was the most significant part of my seven years there.  We had a team of 20 dedicated volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, and the time spent with them was amazing, as well as the time spent working with the two full timers, Alice and Cheyenne, both brilliant gardeners.

Were there any planting areas you developed that you think worked particularly well? 

In the time I was there, we did a great deal of planting, especially of herbs and herbaceous perennials, including an ambitious area we called “The Glades” with broad sweeps of late-flowering perennials.  From late spring to the end of autumn, these are full of colour and alive with pollinators, in bloom for months rather than a few weeks, threaded with various key plants such as salvia, echinacea, helenium, aster, Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’, veronica and so on.  Various more ephemeral things are allowed to come and go as they please – verbena, poppy, fennel, larkspur among others.

Now that you’ve left Lambeth Palace, what is the contribution you’re most proud of?

It has to be removing all use of chemicals from the garden just as I had done at the gardens where I worked previously: Overbecks in Devon for the National Trust and Chequers in the Chilterns, the Prime Minister’s weekend residence.  This isn’t as difficult as it seems.  If you have been using chemicals and decide to make the change, at first you may notice a few more weeds in paths and aphids on the roses.  But in my experience at least, very soon you see a rise in the numbers of wild creatures – birds, butterflies, moths, bees and ladybirds who will help you deal with the aphids.  When I was a young gardener, I did a week-long residential course at Ryton, which is where Garden Organic is now based, and I highly recommend their “expert advice” section on the website for anyone who wants to garden in a way that is more welcoming to wildlife and kinder to our natural surroundings.

Any planting suggestions for readers?

Explore the kinds of plants you like and that are suited to your garden situation.  And enjoy them!  There’s no need to follow trends or feel some plants are wrong because they’re not fashionable.  I also think it’s vital to learn as much as you can about the plants you’re planting, get to know them really well.  Among the questions I ask myself are: what situation does this plant need regarding light and soil?  How will it combine with other plants?  Does it offer forage and habitat for wildlife?

What is next for you?

Nowadays I’m a freelancer at several sites locally in south London.  My first book, The Thousand Year Old Garden: Inside the Secret Garden at Lambeth Palace, was published by The History Press in June 2023.  I’m currently working on a second book.