Science and horticulture come together in Edible Science, Kew’s sustainable new kitchen garden

Release date: 20 September 2022

  • Edible Science: Kew’s Kitchen Garden re-opens with a new design focused on sustainability
  • Science and horticulture come together in this productive living laboratory
  • Winter vegetables are being grown for the first time in decades at Kew Gardens
  • Kew’s Kitchen Garden will be home to the first dedicated fungi garden at Kew Gardens

Biodiversity loss, food security, climate change and the cost of living are the defining issues of our time, and following an extensive nine-month refurbishment project, Edible Science: Kew’s Kitchen Garden has re-opened with solutions to these at its core.

What we grow and how we grow it have enormous impacts on the environment, and by working towards more sustainable production processes, Kew aims to inspire visitors to make easy changes that can have a big impact. Created on the site of the original Georgian kitchen garden which supplied produce to King George III’s estate, this is now one of the first kitchen gardens open to the public to have a sustainable focus.

A no-dig approach has been implemented throughout the kitchen garden to ensure good soil health. By adding compost to the top of the bed each season weeds are suppressed, soil structure is maintained, and beneficial soil organisms are supported. In turn, biodiversity and crop growth is encouraged. Carbon storage is an added benefit, with no-dig cultivation conserving the carbon that is ordinarily released from the soil through digging.

New no-mow paths bring the twin benefits of improving accessibility and removing reliance on fossil-fuel-intensive mowing. Created using Cedec, a sustainable, porous material, these paths will enable the kitchen garden to remain open in the winter months and allow winter vegetables to be grown in this space for the first time in decades. Elsewhere in the kitchen garden, drip irrigation is used to ensure water efficiency, and a new shelter will be planted with an edible green roof this autumn, featuring alpine strawberries, thyme and nasturtiums. Square-foot gardening, a technique which demonstrates how effective small urban kitchen gardens can be, is also on display. A growing body of research emphasises the importance of greening cities in order to improve biodiversity and cool urban spaces, and this innovative technique demonstrates what is possible for outdoor areas of all shapes and sizes.

The science behind the garden

Plants hold the secrets to unlock future food, fuel and medicines, and this living productive laboratory showcases the ways in which understanding the science and wild species of cultivated crops can inform best growing practices across the country. Kew’s horticultural and scientific expertise is also brought to the fore in dedicated research areas including an Ethiopian bed which looks at improving crop efficiency, and legume production informed by ongoing Kew research. These sit alongside beds dedicated to growing innovative climate resistant crops and novel companion planting choices. Kew’s first dedicated growing space for fungi will also be created this September, producing edible mushrooms whilst also educating visitors about the beneficial interactions between plants and mycorrhizal fungi.

Hélèna Dove, Botanical Horticulturist, RBG Kew says, ‘The veggies you grow yourself always taste extra delicious, and here at Kew we’re dedicated to researching and showcasing how you can get the very best out of your plot in a sustainable way. This is more important than ever as the price of food increases globally. Edible Science: Kew’s Kitchen Garden will be ever changing, always offering something new to see, and I hope visitors walk away feeling inspired.’

The redesign of the kitchen garden ties into Kew’s 10-year sustainability strategy, which includes a commitment to join the Race to Zero carbon and become Climate Positive by 2030.

Edible Science: Kew’s Kitchen Garden re-opened to the public in July 2022 with its first harvest due in autumn 2022. Find out more about the innovative work taking place in this historic garden here.

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Kew research into the future of the bean family
Many of our favourite beans, such as haricot and navy beans, are susceptible to high night-time temperatures and are therefore facing uncertain futures in the face of rising temperatures and more unpredictable, extreme weather. Kew’s scientists are now looking at the 19,000 species within the legume family to identify traits that could ‘future-proof’ them against climate change. The experts are also looking to improve soybean sustainability through enhanced traceability, to stop its associated with habitat destruction and deforestation. The research involves:

  • Developing new, climate-resistant beans by harnessing natural variations in drought resistance
  • Studies into drought tolerance and nitrogen fixation with partners in Mexico through Newton Fund, Newton Prize and Global Challenges Research Fund (CGRF) collaborations
  • Investigating the diversity of Mexican crops – an agrobiodiversity hotspot – to identify traits and varieties better suited for growing in the future
  • A Defra-funded project with the World Forest ID to investigate soy traceability in the supply chain

Find out more:

Research into agricultural practices in Ethiopia
The Ethiopian bed in Kew’s Kitchen Garden offers a glimpse into the incredible agrobiodiversity of Ethiopia – the cradle of many crops with regional and global importance, such as teff, enset, and coffee. Kew scientists are working with colleagues and farmers in Ethiopia to map out the nation’s biodiversity, and though past efforts have focused on the diversity of Ethiopia’s wild plants, researchers are now keen to learn more about its agricultural diversity. In doing so, they want to find out why Ethiopia is such an agrobiodiversity hotspot, but not Tanzania, or Eritrea, or France? The research involves:

  • An NERC funded study looking at the origins of enset domestication, combining archaeology and genomics
  • Philanthropy funding in support of finding incentive mechanism to support farmers in conserving agrobiodiversity as a global good
  • Defra funded project looking at how ‘protected areas’ can be identified for agrobiodiversity and how the concept can be adapted to support farmers

Find out more:

Notes to Editors 

About Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew Gardens’ 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support RBG Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.

About Kew Science

Kew Science is the driving force behind RBG Kew’s mission to understand and protect plants and fungi, for the well-being of people and the future of all life on Earth. Over 300 Kew scientists work with partners in more than 100 countries worldwide to halt biodiversity loss, uncover secrets of the natural world, and to conserve and restore the extraordinary diversity of plants and fungi. Kew’s Science Strategy 2021–2025 lays out five scientific priorities to aid these goals: research into the protection of biodiversity through Ecosystem Stewardship, understanding the variety and evolution of traits in plants and fungi through Trait Diversity and Function; digitising and sharing tools to analyse Kew’s scientific collections through Digital Revolution; using new technologies to speed up the naming and characterisation of plants through Accelerated Taxonomy; and cultivating new scientific and commercial partnerships in the UK and globally through Enhanced Partnerships. One of Kew’s greatest international collaborations is the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, which has to date stored more than 2.4 billion seeds of over 40,000 wild species of plants across the globe. In 2020, Kew scientists estimated in the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report that 2 in 5 plants globally are threatened with extinction.