Four months without you.


By Andy Winfield

It’s been four months without you, the visitors, students, University staff and members of the Garden; four months maintaining a Garden without volunteers, just each other and wildlife for company. Without doubt we’ve all missed you. Missed when the sun shines and people are walking around, some pointing some ambling with their hands behind their backs (also my own chosen method of garden viewing), some sitting with eyes closed feeling the warmth and listening to the chatter of birds around them.  On days like this we feel a sense of Gardening for a purpose, when visitors have had an hour away from their usual existence in the company of plants, or taken away new facts and knowledge about the plant world that they’ll forget until that pub quiz, or time has run away from them and its suddenly four o’clock; these all make our work worthwhile. The Garden was built for people to view and without people here it feels a little eerie.

The twining menace, bindweed.

What have we been doing except watching weeds pop up all over the place and stopping plants from wilting away in the driest spring on record? Well we tried to get the Garden to you as best we could with a series of short videos on our social media channels, and even a live tour during a monumental thunderstorm where Curator Nick Wray and I were absolutely soaked as the drought broke over our heads. We’ve also been having zoom tea breaks with volunteers which has been great; and our Friends have been receiving weekly enews about the garden and its plant collections to see them through the gardens closure. We’ve been firefighting in the Garden, stopping the spread of weeds. There had always been a tea break discussion, “in an apocalypse, which plants would dominate the Garden?” We’re now getting a small inkling that horsetail, enchanter’s nightshade and bindweed would create their own empirical pockets, perhaps a few border skirmishes before one begins a land grab, my money would be on bindweed.  We’ve kept them in check with weeding, but they’ll never give up!

So after four months without you we’re now building up to reopening the Garden, although it’s not so simple as just flinging the gates open. The University is a large institution with many schools, laboratories and departments each with different challenges and environments; every one of these spaces must be safe for the staff and the Garden is no different. There is a certification process that each department must pass before becoming COVID secure, and for us having members of the public passing through is an additional concern.

Then there is the question of staffing.  As many of you know we rely on volunteers; we have four gardeners, two trainees, two and a half admin staff and our Curator; added to this are over fifty gardening volunteers a week, three shifts a day for Welcome Lodge volunteers seven days a week, many volunteer guides and admin volunteers. We currently have no volunteers in the Garden at all and the admin staff are working at home; many volunteers are retired and some are in the vulnerable category for COVID risk and we wouldn’t want them here in harm’s way. Opening the Garden would move gardeners away from the horticulture and Admin staff away from supporting our educational courses in order to check tickets and monitor Garden capacity. This is something we will do, but understanding our situation hopefully will help you realise the challenges we face with reopening. It’s for this reason that to begin with we won’t be opening at weekends, purely for staffing reasons. One more change will be that the Glasshouses won’t be open initially; the humidity that causes so many tiny water droplets in the air is good for the plants but also perfect for an airborne virus. This will be the case until the danger is over.

So, in short, we’ve missed you and we want you back, but it will be different this time. We’ll be open but it won’t be business as usual, but nothing has been normal this year; be patient as we look to reopen and keep an eye on our social media and website for news of the unlocking of our gates.

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