Growing orchids, growing future horticulturists

By Helen Roberts

Zoe Parfitt is no stranger to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden. When she was just 16 years old, Zoe did a work experience with the Garden. Now, she is the Botanic Garden’s first full time trainee entirely sponsored by the Friends through their Education and Training Fund. I recently caught up with Zoe in the glasshouses to discuss her work at the Botanic Garden, her future career plans and her long-standing interest in orchids.
Zoe in Rwanda.
Zoe is a graduate of Writhlington School and was involved with the School’s Orchid Project from the moment she got there at age 11 –  in fact, she still has close links with the project. During her time with the Orchid Project, Zoe not only learned a vast amount about orchids, she had opportunities to travel and share her knowledge in different countries, including South Africa, India (Sikkim) and Rwanda. Whilst in Rwanda, Zoe visited local schools to teach orchid conservation and propagation methods.
I asked Zoe if she could show me some of the orchids on display in the glasshouses – including some that were propagated at Writhlington School.
‘I grow a lot of orchids at home,’ explained Zoe. ‘Some of which I have had a long time and are quite rare. In fact, for my interview at the Botanic Garden I took one of my favourite orchids, as I wanted to talk about it. It’s Stelis aprica, an epiphytic orchid that is quite rare with tiny flowers that are no more than 4mm in length, which are probably pollinated by gnats.’
At the Botanic Garden, Zoe looks after the orchids – watering, feeding, repotting, pollinating (which is done with a matchstick) and nurturing sick orchids back to health. She showed me several different species in the ‘orchid hospital’ that are currently being treated for lime scale insects.
‘This is Rhynchostylisgigantea,‘ said Zoe, ‘which I have treated by brushing on its leaves a dilute solution of methylated spirits to kill the lime scale insects. Orchids can be prone to both lime scale insects and red spider mites in the glasshouse environment. They can also be susceptible to fungal infections. It’s important when you water Cymbidium species, for example, that you water directly into the pot and not onto the plant to reduce the risk of fungal infection. Although not all orchids I have seen in the wild are a picture of health. In Sikkim, we saw orchids being eaten by slugs!’

Tips for growing orchids at home 

Zoe gave me some useful advice regarding my own orchids at home. They like to be constricted in their pots and should never be over potted. Zoe is involved in potting up any orchids and for this the media used is cork bark, sphagnum and for those that need it more moist, some perlite. It is important that orchids are fed regularly too and in the glasshouses Zoe feeds the orchids once a week in the summer and twice a week in the winter.
Bifrenaria harrisoniae by Orchi.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Zoe is currently looking after, re-potting and sorting the Bifrenaria harrisoniae, a species endemic to Brazil, display at the Garden. This species can grow as an epiphyte (living harmlessly on another plant) or as a lithophyte (living in or on rocks), and has showy flowers that are pollinated by bees and bumblebees. She hopes to propagate from a seedpod Epidendrum nocturnum, a beautiful orchid that is only fragrant in the evening and hence is pollinated by moths. Growing terrestrial orchids from seed is difficult and it can take up to 2 years for the plants to be transplanted from the micro propagation jars into growing media.
‘Orchids are amazing plants, it’s a wonder they survive,’ explained Zoe. ‘In the seed pods there are about 2.6 million seeds, yet only 10 will survive in the wild. They rely on mycorrhizae to help them and each species will have its own particular kind.’

Looking forward

As well as the orchid duties that Zoe is responsible for, she also helps out in other parts of the garden on different projects. On the day I visited, she was helping a team get all the planting ready for transport down to the ballast seed garden barge to be planted the following day. Zoe explained that she is gaining invaluable horticultural experience at the Garden, diversifying her knowledge beyond orchid biology and horticulture.
‘I am really enjoying working here. The learning and skills gained have been so helpful. I finish my traineeship in November this year and hope to go onto a career in orchid horticulture. I also want to gain my RHS level 3 award in Horticulture.’
In terms of her future career, Zoe is optimistic about her prospects in the orchid industry.
‘I have been in touch with a number of different orchid growers. One in Jersey, the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, and the other is Motes Orchids based in Florida. I hope to secure work at these well-known orchid nurseries. In the next few years I would love to do more orchid hunting, but this time in Central America with the long term career goal to eventually set up and teach projects in orchid conservation.’
Zoe currently writes a number of orchid articles for various publications and these include The Cheltenham & District Orchid Society and Orchid Review. She has also spoken at and attended the World Orchid Congress (funded by The Cheltenham & District Orchid Society) in South Africa and attended the European Orchid Congress in London and taken part in many different orchid
and flower shows including Hampton Court Flower Show where MontyDon interviewed her.

A snapshot of autumn

By Helen Roberts

With autumn having finally kicked in, what better way to spend a sunny Sunday than drinking in the colours of the Botanic Garden and tapping into our creative juices. A few weeks ago, Nicola and I did just this, enjoying the Botanic Gardens’ September colours whilst also taking part in the watercolour course “A Snapshot of Autumn”. It was five hours of uninterrupted, child-free, creative learning for two enthusiastic mums!
‘I straightaway learnt apples are difficult to paint…’ –
watercolour by Helen Roberts.
Annie Morris, an experienced botanical artist and member of The Society of Botanical Artists and Society of Floral Painters, taught 17 of us on the day. The course doesn’t require any previous experience, which was good as Nicola and I are both beginners in watercolours. Though neither of us have ever attended a course, both of us (I think) are confident putting pencil or brush to paper in other media.
Annie started with demonstrations on drawing and basic watercolour techniques. We crowded around her as she worked confidently and swiftly, first drawing the outline of the leaves in front of her, then applying her washes of colour. Annie had brought in a considerable assortment of cuttings as inspirational material; there were lovely sprigs of rowan with bright red berries, clusters of acorns and branches of apples and sloes to choose from as our subject matter. Nicola grabbed an oak cluster and I chose an apple branch and we both steered clear of the rowan sprigs, fearing the complication of all the pointy leaflets.
The majority of people on the course were not new to watercolours and had attended some of Annie’s courses before; some are currently enrolled in the traditional botanical art course being run on Monday afternoons at the Botanic Gardens. Most people just wanted to improve on their technique and enjoy a day of uninterrupted painting.
Nicola’s oak sprig.
After selecting our foliage of choice, we diligently set to work sketching. Annie had endless tips – for instance; how to place the plant in a way so it sits in a natural position rather than like some specimen sprawled on a table.  When we were satisfied we had captured the essence of our cutting in pencil, we then took the plunge with the watercolours. I learnt straight away, as I took the paintbrush in my hand, that watercolour painting is very difficult; Annie made it all look so easy with her demonstrations. You can’t muck about with the paints, you have to think about light and dark before putting brush to paper. You almost paint in the negative, if that makes any sense, thinking about where you don’t want to apply paint rather than where you do. Once you’ve added colour you cannot take it away easily and you don’t use white paint in watercolours to add light.
Straight away I struggled with mixing my colours and my initial apple leaves were an insipid green. Nicola, on the other hand, was struggling with having to work quickly and with small bits at a time to avoid hard edges when the paint dries too quickly. Before we broke for lunch, Annie pulled us back to her desk to demonstrate how to add the finer detail – with a few strokes she was bringing her samples to life and giving them depth.
We spent lunch in the garden, soaking up the sun’s rays. We sat with a woman who had travelled from Monmouth and had done a lot of calligraphy, but not watercolour. She and her husband are members of the Botanic Garden and she thought the watercolour course was a wonderful excuse to visit the Garden.

Helen’s apple branch – the product of five delightful
hours spent painting.
We returned to our work to add leaf veins, holes, fruit, nut and stem details. I straightaway learnt apples are difficult to paint and was muttering a bit about my choice of fruit. Nicola was stumped with adding detail to the acorn cup. However, after 5 hours we had produced something pretty acceptable. The final demonstration from Annie was a number of useful techniques, such as how to paint a water drop on a leaf – the result was truly amazing, so lifelike!
We all had a very inspiring day and I was pleased with my final painting. My 5-year old son wants to frame it! Both Nicola and I are going to be investing in some good quality brushes and enrol on Annie’s course in the winter. In the meantime, we’ll be looking to the beautiful colours on display this autumn to get inspired and do some more painting!

RHS Courses: Getting practical in the garden

It’s Saturday morning at 9:30 and as I walk into the classroom there are fifteen small plates filled with different types of seeds lined up around a table. Along one of the walls, flowering plants are lined up as well. I recognise a few of the flowering plants but even then I wouldn’t know the Latin names and I recognise even fewer of the seeds. I’m incredibly glad that I’m not taking the test.
I’ve come to sit in on the RHS Level 3 course ‘Certificate in Practical Horticulture’ that is currently running at the Botanic Garden. The course has been running every Saturday from 10am until 4:30pm since the 18th of May and it will continue until the end of August.
The course is taught by a number of tutors who teach for a block of seven weeks or so and it covers core units that include collecting and testing soil samples, collecting, preparing and propagating from seed, and identifying a range of common garden plants, diseases and disorders. The course is a balance of theory and practical and so students get to practice all the skills they learn in the classroom. Today, the students will be doing some seed and plant identification and then will be going outside to do some pruning.

Life experience brings added value to RHS courses

The teacher today is Chrissy Ching, a freelance horticulturalist who has been teaching RHS courses for over six years. When Chrissy isn’t teaching and running her business, she’s also being a student herself. She’s an MSc student at the University of Bath in Conservation of Historic Gardens and Cultural Landscapes, so she’s sympathetic to the demands on adult students.
No pictures of the RHS course, but I made a quick visit to
the glasshouse to see the lotus in bloom…beautiful!
Chrissy’s first involvement with RHS courses was as a student. She was an accountant when she first started taking RHS courses. “I thought I was doing it for interest originally,” said Chrissy. However, it eventually led to a complete career change.  Many of the students taking the RHS courses are also career changers and so this added dimension of life experience that Chrissy brings to the course is added value for many of the students.
But, it’s not only Chrissy that brings life experience to the course. The students themselves come from diverse backgrounds, whether in horticulture or not, and add to the learning experience also.
“I think the students learn as much from each other as they do from me,” said Chrissy.

Teaching RHS courses at the Botanic Garden

This is Chrissy’s first time teaching an RHS course here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden though she has taught classes a the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and numerous college and city gardens. She sees this as a wonderful opportunity for the students.
“This is a living, breathing garden with a rich diversity of plants,” said Chrissy. “This gives the students a great way to study plants and especially taxonomy.”
Of course, she also points out that because the Garden is open to the public, it also has to look attractive. Therefore, it isn’t always ideal to have unskilled students practicing horticultural skills such as pruning. Luckily, Chrissy is there to help guide the process.


Motivated by tests and inspired by previous generations

As I’m there early, I take the opportunity to speak to some of the students before the class starts. Emma is the first student to arrive. She’s a young woman with a background in graphic design. She decided to take the course for interest as she secured an allotment about six months ago and wanted to learn more about gardening. She also thought it might provide some accreditation should she wish to shift careers, ideally combining her background in graphic design with a love of gardening to eventually get into garden design. 
This is the first RHS course Emma has taken. She was allowed to enter level 3 due to her academic background, however she admits that it’s been quite demanding at times.
“I wanted to take the course as I knew the challenge of tests would motivate me and stimulate my mind,” said Emma, “and it has. There’s been more theory to the course than I thought there would be and learning all the Latin names has definitely been tricky.”
Emma was inspired to take the RHS courses by her granddad who also did RHS courses and made a career in horticulture.

Enriching an existing career 

I slide over to talk to Darren as I’ve asked Nick, the curator of the Botanic Garden, to point out someone who’s here that works in the industry.  Darren is originally from Perth, Australia and has been in the UK for around nine years. For the past nine months he’s been working for a landscape gardening company and prior to that he worked for a gardening centre.

This is Darren’s 3rd RHS course and he started taking them because he was getting lots of questions from customers at work and he wanted to have the right answers. He’s here to enrich and further his existing career. That being said, so far, Darren has footed the bill for the courses himself, not to mention the significant time commitment that’s required.
However, for Darren, the courses are well worth it. He’s been impressed by the enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge from the tutors as well as the other participants in the class.
“It’s good to have a group of people who are like-minded,” he said, “to talk about the things that you’re interested in.”
Mimosa is also in bloom in the glasshouse
right now – they’re like a little fireworks display!

Well-worth the commitment

Unfortunately I’m forced to leave the course less than an hour in. I have my five year old with me as it’s school holidays and his patience for horticulture is fairly minimal. However, what strikes me most as we jump on our bikes to spend the r
est of this beautiful Saturday seeking out Gromit statues around the city, is the commitment these students have.
Most of these people have jobs, yet for nearly four months they have committed one day of their weekend to this course. Whether motivated by improved career options or by an interest in gardening, for them, this course is worth the commitment. For me as an outside observer, this speaks volumes.

If you are interested in learning more about the RHS courses taught at the Botanic Garden, please visit the website for more information.