The Temperate House is the world’s largest surviving Victorian glasshouse! This substantial glasshouse is sited at the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, which itself is a National Treasure and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Temperate House is a Grade I Listed Building. When this glasshouse’s refurbishment programme commenced work in 2013, the Temperate House was in a dilapidated condition, at this time the Temperate House was on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register.
As part of the ambitious project, which started in 2012 to repair and restore the Temperate House, this entire glasshouse has now undergone an extensive refurbishment programme. In order to carry out the necessary remedial works, the Temperate House was clad in approximately 180km of birdcage scaffolding and encased in a protective tent-like structure. The frame of the glasshouse was then sandblasted, all of the glass was removed and 150,000 panes of glass were replaced. Following these works, the entire structure was then repainted with 5,280 litres of paint! As a result of these substantial remedial works, the Temperate House now enjoys fully operational ventilation, new soil, and a new heating system. Finally, in May 2018, after a closure of just over 5 years, we can celebrate the reopening of the Temperate House. Visitors can finally experience the same delight that the Victorians would have felt in 1899, when they saw this magnificent glasshouse as a newly opened, beautifully finished product. We are fortunate that the Temperate House will now hold a greater collection of rare, interesting and exciting plant species than ever before!
It is easy for us to underestimate the effort and dedication that the specialists and experts at Kew, along with the architects, engineers, carpenters, glaziers, plumbers, and lead specialists have poured into the refurbishment of the Temperate House. This is Kew’s most extensive restoration project to date, 69,151 individual elements were removed from the Temperate House, each part was carefully cleaned, repaired, or replaced, before being reinstalled as part of the rebirth of the Temperate House. 116 decorative urns were carefully removed by crane and restored. There are a team of dedicated, heroic individuals who have worked behind the scenes in all manner of guises to safeguard the survival and ensure the future longevity of the Temperate House and the critically endangered, rare plants that this glasshouse has now become home to. Kew estimate that 400 people have contributed to the Temperate House project in one way or another, including skilled craftsmen and apprentices, who were trained as part of the project. A number of talented horticulturists at Kew have worked together on the Temperate House project, for some, it has been an all-consuming labour of love, which has taken over their lives.
Horticulturist Scott Taylor has worked at Kew for the past 13 years. Scott started as a Diploma student, he then worked his way up through the ranks, first as a Team Leader, now as the Temperate House Supervisor. Scott has been working on the Temperate House restoration for the past 6 years, but this figure itself is somewhat misleading, as in actual, real time, the intensity and activity that Scott has channelled into this project is much greater than you might expect. Scott has devoted a sixth of his life to working on the Temperate House project, Scott stopped counting the hours of overtime he devoted to the venture after reaching 500 hours, which, I get the impression was quite some time ago now.
Scott has faced a great many challenges over the past six years. As the remedial works on the Temperate House commenced, the bare bones of the structure of this Victorian glasshouse were revealed for the first time, finally allowing the condition of the Temperate House to be examined and appraised in the necessary detail to fully survey the glasshouse’s structure. It soon became evident that this glasshouse was in a far poorer condition than had previously been thought, corrosion, rot, and decay had spread through the structure. Consequently, the Temperate House required a more substantial renovation programme than had at first been planned, meaning that the structural work required considerably longer than planned to complete, leaving the Temperate House Supervisor, Scott Taylor, with less time to plant up this vast plant cathedral, and even longer to juggle the plants and glasshouse space he had available prior to planting!
Scott coordinated the horticulturists and the team of contractors that worked on the Temperate House, overseeing a dozen or more tradespeople each day, thereby ensuring that the order of works were thoughtfully scheduled to maximise each contributor’s time on site, and minimise their impact on the other tradespeople working at the same time. Careful and strategic planning allowed the electricians, the plumbers, the hard landscapers, lead specialists, carpenters, engineers, and the other skilled professionals and apprentices who have contributed towards this project to work alongside each other, without anyone encroaching in on, or restricting each other, must have taken a considerable amount of dextrous planning and juggling.
There are other considerations that have made the restoration of the Temperate House more laborious than you might expect. For one, the doors of the Temperate House are smaller than you might think, meaning that removing the soil, a large job in itself, is immediately made more onerous and time consuming. The plants that were removed and re-installed also had to all go in and out through these same standard sized doors!
I was keen to meet Scott Taylor, the Temperate House Supervisor, at Kew, to find out more about Scott’s work during this fascinating project!
Pumpkin Beth: I’d love to know more about the work involved in restoring the Temperate House, but I am also so excited to hear about the plants! Will regular Kew visitors recognise the Temperate House’s layout?
Scott Taylor: The house is still geographically laid out, so we’ve got Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the Himalayas, the Americas, and the Island Flora. So, quite a lot of different geographical areas are represented inside the Temperate House.
PB: So, how many plant species do you hold inside the Temperate House now?
ST: We’ve now got about 1500 species, so it’s a lot of plants! Our biggest tree is 7.5m (24.5ft) tall, which is quite a big tree – especially when you’ve got to get it through a door that’s a regular size!
PB: Are there any new plant species that you didn’t have in the Temperate House before?
ST: We have about 1,500 species of plants, which is about 500 new species. Some are replacements for things that we’d lost and we needed to get back, and some are entirely new species that we’ve never grown before! The Millennium Seed Bank have been fabulous, although they have worked me out of a trip around the world to go seed collecting!
The Millennium Seed Bank have been really absolutely astounding as a resource – not just for the diversity of plants they hold seed for, but also for the information attached to each seed collection, because every seed that they’ve catalogued has got a geographical location, a description of the environment where the seed was collected from, for example, ‘a sunny gorge’ or ‘a windswept area’, which is really useful for us, because then we can say, “OK, it needs to go in the sun.” or, “It needs to go in the shade.”, or, “near water”, or “It needs to be dry”. This is really invaluable information.
Also, a lot of our partners behind the scenes have been really great – they’ve said, “We’ve got this interesting plant, it’s not really a good fit for the area we have here, so why don’t you take it for the Temperate House?” Or, “This plant’s not quite hardy, but it’s not tender enough to go in the Palm House, so why don’t you take it and give it a try in the Temperate House?” So we’ve had a really good collaborative effort. In total I’ve had about 70 different horticulturists working on this project, including full-time staff, students, work experience, apprentices, etc. etc.
PB: That’s so lovely Scott. Teamwork is a wonderful thing to be part of! I understand that the Temperate House’s frame has been sandblasted and repainted, all of the glazing has been replaced, is there anything special about the glass? Is it super self-cleaning glass?
ST: I’m afraid not. What is quite neat, is that the glass has what they call a ‘beaver-tail’. So, the glass, instead of being flat at the bottom, it’s got a rounded bottom, supposedly that channels the water down the middle of the pane of glass, so it doesn’t run down the sides and won’t wear the rubber seals that hold the glass in place out.
What’s been great for us is that we have an entirely new heating system, we have all new soil – 1,300 cubic meters of soil, which is a lot of lorries coming in!
The ventilation system has been improved, so now the windows which were boarded shut prior to the restoration will now be open again. Before the refurbishment, as the condition of the Temperate House got worse and worse, and the windows rotted off, they had to be boarded shut to stop the glass falling out. So, we now have nice clean glass, a better heating system, better soil, a better irrigation system, so all of that is going to mean better growing conditions for the plants. A lot of the plants have been rejuvenated – so we used to have lots of big trees; we took cuttings, planted seeds, and we grew all of these things. We’ve lost a lot of the size of the plants we had, we’ve lost the big guys, but the plants we have, they’re all smaller, they’re fresh and new, so they should grow up again quite quickly.
PB: Fabulous, how marvellous!
ST: We’ve also hired a contractor to put the soil in, build our water features.
PB: Fantastic! Who was the contractor that built the water features for you?
ST: We used Miles Water Engineering. They’ve been really good, actually. Their work on the water features has been really good, as that’s what they do, they tend to build reservoirs, dykes, and canals etc., so our little water features have been a synch for them! Miles are a family-run business, the father is the Company Director, and the son is the Managing Director. The guy that they’ve got working for us, Dave Walters, their Site Manager has been really good.
PB: Thinking back to the start of the Temperate House’s refurbishment, ages ago now! Where did you start?
ST: I moved over to the Temperate House, from the Palm House in 2012. First, we assessed the plant collection, read up about the plants, checked the database to see if we had the plants doubled up anywhere, if we had any spare, etc. Then we decided what we wanted to do with each plant – do they stay in, are they going to be dug up, or propagated, etc. etc. That took around 18 months to prepare and propagate the plants. In the summer of 2014 we handed the keys over to the builders, we then moved into the nurseries. At this time, when we started we had two greenhouses, by the time we’d finished in 2017, we had seven greenhouses! It took some juggling, I begged, borrowed, and stole! “Please, I need a bit of area here, and there too!” The sheer number of plants that we needed to grow to fill the Temperate House was so large, and the size of the plants we had by then were larger. We’d taken a cutting in 2012 that was a foot high, but by 2017 these cuttings had grown into 3-4m (10-16ft) tall trees, which was really good going! Rebecca Hilgenhoff and Andrew Luke were our two main propagators, they were amazing! They’ve done such a fabulous job; they must have struck thousands of cuttings and grown thousands of seeds!
So that was kind of the ‘Nursery Phase’, and then from about September 2017 we started moving everything back inside the Temperate House. The North End was first to be planted, then the South End, and then finally the centre block.
PB: It’s a love affair, isn’t it?
ST: Definitely – and I think you need to love it, it’s not just one of those 9-5 jobs that you can switch off from. I wake up in the middle of the night, I have a notepad by my bed to collect my thoughts and inspiration.
PB: So, what’s your favourite plant that you’ve moved?
ST: It’s got to be the Jubaea Chilensis. If you remember, before we closed the Temperate House we had a huge Jubaea Chilensis, it was about 19m (62ft) tall, and reached right up into the roof! That was arguably my favourite plant, but it was by then too big for the Temperate House. I thought about what we could do – could we move it? We couldn’t extend the house, so we wondered if we could dig it deeper, but we wouldn’t have gained that much height. This Jubaea chilensis specimen was 160 years old, the plant started in the Palm House in the 1840s, and was moved into the Temperate house in 1863. It was heart breaking when we removed it, but having had it for so long, we’ve got countless seeds, and countless generations of its progeny, so I’ve replaced it with two plants, their trunks are only a foot high now, but with the leaves on top they’re quite big. I have lost big plants, but I have consoled myself that I’m putting in new plants that will be big things in future. If somebody hadn’t planted that Jubaea Chilensis 100 years ago, we wouldn’t have been enjoying it a 100 years later.
PB: Exactly – in 100 years’ time somebody will be saying, “This is another of the plants that Scott Taylor planted!”
If you’d like to contribute to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew to help fund Kew’s work in plant conservation and plant science at Kew gardens and across the world, please click here.
Other articles that may interest you…………
To read about Nick Johnson’s career at Kew and at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in the Caymen Islands, please click here.
To read about the life of horticulturist, author, journalist, broadcaster and nature lover, John Negus, please click here.
For information on some wonderful places to see bluebells in Surrey, Hampshire, and West Sussex, please click here.
To read about the largest orchid in the world, the Queen of Orchids and its flowering at Kew, please click here.
For information about gardens to visit in Surrey, Hampshire, and West Sussex, please click here.
To see more of my photographs taken at the opening of the Temperate House, please click here.