The Kew Experience
In July I had the opportunity to work in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for two weeks on a work placement. I was lucky enough to work in the famous Palmhouse and Waterlily House, I had such an amazing time and met loads of talented people who were keen to share their knowledge with me and made me feel so welcome – I really felt like one of the Kew Krew!
There are two permanent members of staff in the Palmhouse, the other workers are a mixture of Kew’s own trainees, apprentices and diploma students, and anyone doing volunteering like me. I knew one of the trainees already, Louisa came down to Eden to do a work placement in the spring so it was great to catch up with her again.
Her one year traineeship finished at the beginning of August and I was delighted to hear she has a new job already lined up, as a Temperate Propagator in Kew’s Tropical Nursery – congratulations Louisa!
I met several diploma students who were a great bunch, and told me all about the wonders of the diploma course – they said it was incredible but intense, you literally live, eat, sleep and breathe plants 24/7 for three years. I’m not put off by it though, it still sounds like heaven to me!
The head of the Palmhouse, Wes, is a brilliant chap, his knowledge is just crazy, I don’t know how he knows so much about everything. I tried to be a sponge for two weeks and just absorb as much as possible! It was quite scary working there at first, because I was given the same responsibilities as if I was one of Kew’s own students, not just a volunteer.
For the first week I was in charge of the South end of the Palmhouse, which is full of plants from Africa, including cycads! One of them was the oldest pot plant ever, a cycad which is over 200 years old – every day was nerve-wracking just in case I damaged it in some way! For the second week I was responsible of the Waterlily House which was brilliant, it’s such a beautiful place to be, especially first thing in the morning when no one else is around.
The morning was spent on daily duties in our own areas which we did by ourselves, such as watering and general tidying, like leaf picking, pruning, etc. I was cautious at first, I didn’t want to accidentally kill a rare plant by cutting it back too brutally or over/under watering it! By the third or fourth day I had settled in, and by the end of the two weeks I truly felt at home in the Palmhouse, with both the plants and the people.
The weather was baking hot whilst I was there, the fact I was in London made it even worse – the hottest day was 36 degrees, dropping to a sweltering 28 at night. One day it was the same temperature in the Palmhouse as it was outside, which was unbelievable considering it is kept super hot to accommodate all the tropical plants.
It was much cooler than the Rainforest Biome at Eden though, it can get up to 48 degrees in there in summer and the hottest it got in the Palmhouse while I was there was only 35. The rest of the team were flagging and downing energy drinks whereas I felt pretty energetic on just water!!
The plants grow much more rapidly in the heat so it is essential to keep on top of the pruning otherwise the whole place would end up like a jungle. We went round the beds in the Palmhouse in turn and spent time cutting back and thinning out plants, as well as weeding and consolidating new plants as necessary.
One job which was not exciting, but essential, was putting out labels, so the public knew which plant was which. I still enjoyed doing it because it meant I got to learn and get to grips with as many plant names as possible whilst I was there. Cleaning the signs was a favourite job to do on a Friday!
Working in the Waterlily House was a definite highlight for me, I love the plants in there and the layout of the glasshouse as well. It’s a popular attraction for visitors too, we spent about two days a week tidying the beds around the pond and weeding the pond and feeding the water lilies and other aquatic plants.
It’s a bit like being in a fish bowl whilst I was in the pond, people would stand there and take photos and ask endless questions about what we were doing, so it was lovely going in there and working on a quiet day – it was tempting to get rid of the waders and have a swim!
On my penultimate day I had a tour of the Tropical Nursery which was awesome, especially as it’s not open to the general public – Louisa showed me round which was apt, seeing as that’s where she’ll soon be working! There are loads of different zones in the nursery, separate sections for certain types of plants such as carnivorous, hardy tropical, cacti and succulents, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, aquatic, temperate, etc. There is a horticulturist in each zone who specialise in those kinds of plants, the knowledge of the nursery team is phenomenal. I can only aspire to be that good one day!
I had one full weekend in London, one day I went sight-seeing and the other I spent looking round Kew – yes, a whole day spent in the gardens! I managed to see all the parts I hadn’t seen previously, such as Kew Palace and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, the Bamboo Garden and Minka House, an area full of rhododendrons, magnolias and azaleas (I was told in spring it looks stunning), Sackeler Crossing, the Pinetum, the Rock Garden, Japanese Gateway, Mediterranean Garden, the Pagoda, Secluded Garden, Duke’s Garden, as well as the indoor attractions which were the Temperate House, Davies Alpine House, Princess of Wales Conservatory, and the Palmhouse and Waterlily House of course!
My favourite areas outside were definitely the Mediterranean Garden and the Duke’s Garden, purely because at this time of year they look exquisite. In the Med Garden it was just like Eden’s Mediterranean Biome, but outdoors!
They had cork oak trees (Quercus suber), stones pines, olive trees (Olea europaea), with classic bulbs and shrubs planted underneath, not to mention herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage.
Sackler Crossing was an unusual part of Kew, I stumbled across it by chance but I was glad I did! It’s a long pond with a bridge across one end of it, with a vista at one side that looks straight down at the Palmhouse. It’s a really tranquil area, I ate my lunch along the water’s edge and just watched the world go by.
The Palmhouse and Waterlily House were obviously my favourite glasshouses(!) but the Princess of Wales Conservatory and Davies Alpine House came close behind. The Temperate House is a great place too, but Kew are in the middle of a big restoration project on it at the moment which will take years to complete.
The whole house is being re done, so all the plants are being moved out bit by bit and kept in the Tropical Nursery until the work is complete. It was sparse when I went in there but usually it is as breath-taking as the Palmhouse – it will be again once the restoration work is done.
The POW (aka the Princess of Wales Conservatory!) looks wonderful at any time of year, the mangroves and carnivorous parts of it are my favourites, and the orchids too of course. I could have lived in there to be honest!
The Alpine House is surrounded by the Rock Garden which was full of a variety of Mediterranean plants growing amongst the crags of the rocks. The geraniums and irises looked particularly lovely, and the delicate looking alpine plants in the glasshouse had the most gorgeous flowers.
There were plenty of waterlilies (Nymphaea) and the giant waterlily Victoria cruziana in bloom whilst I was there in the Waterlily House, they’re what makes it so striking even though it’s the smallest glasshouse at Kew.
The Palmhouse has sections which are Africa, America and Australasia, full of plants native to that region of the world. I recognised many from the Rainforest at Eden, which was lucky for me – at least I knew what most of the plants were, there’s nothing worse than having a person ask you what something is when you don’t know the answer!
There were a few tropical flowers in bloom such as eye-catching orchids and heliconias, I took over 300 photos of Kew so the ones you see in this post are the edited highlights. It was so hard picking out my favourite shots!
My time at Kew was everything I expected it to be and more, I made new friends who I will keep in touch with and caught up with old ones too! Being able to work in one of the most famous botanical gardens in the world is an invaluable experience which will benefit my future career for sure. I still hope I get the opportunity to go back there to work and study properly, one day – watch out Kew, I’ll be back. . . !
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