A view towards Arthur's Seat across the lawn in the Holyrood Palace garden

Behind the walls of The Palace of Holyroodhouse sits a 6-acre garden cared for by a team of Historic Environment Scotland gardeners.

It’s a beautiful mixed garden with areas of woodland beds, formal bedding, long rockery inspired borders and a substantial range of heated glasshouses.

I took over as Head Gardener at Holyrood Palace last September. I’d already been at the palace for three years and served my apprenticeship with HES at Dirleton Castle, so had a fair idea of the undertaking ahead of me. However, so far, my first year in charge has been anything from usual!

A gardener in HES branded clothing poses with a rake

Kenny at work at Holyrood Palace

A garden on hold

Traditionally, the gardeners at Holyrood schedule our year around two annual events at the Palace. For these, we provide large decorative displays of flowering plants on top of preparing the garden.

Firstly, in May we have the week of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As part of that, Holyrood Palace serves as the official residence of the Lord High Commissioner, who acts as Her Majesty’s representative as Head of the Church. Secondly, we have the Royal Week at the end of June going into July. This is when the annual garden party takes place.

It’s not surprising however that this year, with the ongoing pandemic, that these visits have been cancelled. Further to this, the team of gardeners have been asked to stay home until further notice.

An aerial photo of Holyrood Palace, Holyrood Park and the city of Edinburgh taken by drone.

The garden at Holyrood Palace is an oasis of calm tucked between Holyrood Park and the city

Unexpected benefits

As anyone with a garden knows, there is never a time of year when there is nothing to do. A blessing and a curse some might say!

As far as I know, this might be the first time in living memory that no work has occurred in the garden. To put this in perspective, we normally even have someone working Christmas Day looking after our tender glasshouse plant stock!

We know that during this pandemic we will lose a lot of plants under our care. It’s an unavoidable, but also a necessary side effect of protecting staff. As a team though we are looking to this as a positive.

A gardener works with a leaf blower in the shadow of Holyrood Abbey

Arthur’s Seat and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey give remarkable backdrops to the garden

One unexpected benefit from this period of isolation is that we are able to reflect on our work and what we would like to accomplish in the coming years without any outstanding tasks occupying our time.

We have the opportunity of a somewhat blank (but overgrown!) canvas when we get back, and look forward to the opportunities that this presents.

Before we look towards the future, I thought it might be of interest to look at an average year in the life of the garden.

A year in the life

Marquees set up in Holyrood Palace ahead

Marquees ready to host an event in the gardens

If our season finishes with the Garden Party at the beginning of July, then it starts again almost straight away. Sure, the pressure of events are off us, but this is peak growing weather! The garden needs constant care to keep it at a high level of visual appeal.

As bizarre as it may sound, we actually start thinking about our winter/into spring bedding scheme in the middle of summer. We try and grow as much as we can from seed. In the last few years, this scheme has consisted of a mixture of wallflower (Erysimum) and Myosotis, with Tulips (Single Late or Cottage types) interspersed throughout.

It’s always the aim that this bedding will last until after the Lord High Commissioners visit. But the plants sometimes disagree with us!

A springtime flower bed featuring blue, red and yellow flowers

The rest of the year is really focused on maintenance and improvements. This is the time we can make large structural changes to the garden and have maximum time for them to settle before any visits the following year.

Preparing (and begging!)

As mentioned earlier the Lord High Commissioner visit is in May. We’ll start sowing seed and taking cuttings in the late Autumn into Winter.

Our problem for this first visit is the available light during the day. Even with heated glasshouses, everything just takes that little bit longer to grow to where we would like it.

A gardener working in a greenhouse at Holyrood Palace

An example of this problem would be in the growing of decorative sweet peas. We grow them in 10 litre pots with 6-foot cane supports and want them to be in peak flowering just as the visit falls upon us. You can imagine the careful feeding, encouraging (and to a degree begging) that carries on in the weeks preceding the visit!

Unfortunately, even if we follow the timings exactly from the year before, one cold snap or cloudy week can really have a severe impact on the results!

New Year, new tasks

Going into the New Year the pattern remains similar. There is constant work in the glasshouses: sowing seeds, taking cuttings (both for decorations and to infill into the garden) and potting up anything that needs it. Not to mention constant vigilance for any pests or diseases that want to derail the master-plan!

A general view of colourful flowers in the gardens at Holyrood Park

In the garden, we will be looking to strip anything remaining that needs to come out and prepare the beds and borders for the year. We like improve the soil by mulching heavily with our own leaf mould.

This not only gives the plants a great feed but also dramatically reduces the amount of weeds coming up. This reduces the labour we have to devote to the less-glamorous task of weeding!

Spring-ing into action

As Spring approaches, we start to ramp up. We’ll have hanging baskets and troughs planted. The glasshouses and yard will be full to the rafters with a beautiful array of stock ready or nearly ready for display and to be put into the garden.

Baskets of the flowers in the piazza area of Holyrood Palace

We use potted Japanese Acers as a central focus in our decorations. You might have spotted them in large ceramic pots around the Palace’s piazza or on the Great Stairs.

It takes constant care to keep this all looking good. When the weather stays nice, we could be watering multiple times a day. Elsewhere the team will be hard at work crafting beautiful borders or staying on top of the vast lawns.

A view of Arthur's Seat from the lush green lawn of the Holyrood Palace gardens

Lawns are kept to a low height, with attractive shadow cutting highlighting the team’s mowing skills

For this task, we operate a range of machines, from small electric strimmers all the way up to 36” heavy cylinder mowers. There’s honestly no need for the gym when you work in a large garden!

Our home grown summer bedding of pink Argyranthemum interspersed with dark purple and black ‘Splendid Noir’ Dahlias replaces our now fading Spring scheme. Then before you know it the visits are upon us again…

A summertime bed of pink flowers

Party time!

The visits themselves are over as quick as a flash. We’ll put out our displays, and for these couple of weeks Holyrood Palace genuinely couldn’t look any better. It’s a real privilege to be able to be part of the team making the place so attractive.

Those of you who have attended the garden party will know how nice it is to walk around the borders. That’s provided you’ve not had one of the ‘damper’ parties of late!

A border of flowers in the Holyrood Palace garden

Then it all begins again. You get a few months to just enjoy the garden, but the work never really stops – and we wouldn’t want it to! We believe we truly have one of the most enjoyable roles within HES and can’t wait to get back into the garden.

So when Holyrood Palace re-opens, have a look out for the HES gardeners. We’d be more than happy to pause and chat about the work we do.

Want more green-fingered goodness? Elsewhere on the blog you can uncover some of Scotland’s garden secrets or explore the gardens at Dirleton Castle.  


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About Author

Kenny Steven

Kenny works as Head Gardener and Works Manager of the Holyrood Park and Gardens Team within the Conservation Directorate of HES