Why Garden?

By Helen Roberts

Monty Don’s visit in July to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden did not disappoint. He delivered two lectures entitled ‘Why Garden’, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with lunch and a tour of the garden in between. The subject of why to garden is vast and could be approached from a multitude of angles . However, Monty used his personal experiences in working his garden of Longmeadow to discuss how gardening can bring both restoration of the mind and body to people, as well as a reconnection to the landscape.
                                                      
Monty first began gardening because of his mother, but back then it was a chore to be got through, simply a means to an end. She would frequently use the phrase, “…and what are you doing this afternoon?”, which meant “you had better get on with the gardening!” By the age of 17, Monty had a rudimentary knowledge of gardening and was looking after a half-acre vegetable garden.
His first realisation that gardening was what he wanted to do was when he was back home from school and he was sowing carrots in the garden. He described to the audience that in that moment he felt singular happiness. He felt deeply rested and contented.

Connecting to nature 

I could relate to Monty’s words as I feel the same whenever I am in my garden. I feel peaceful and relaxed even if what I am doing could be physically exerting, like digging. I sense a reconnection with the garden and the landscape around me (farming is in my blood so I guess that connection is somehow re-established when I garden).
When I return home from a trip away, those first glimpses from the Mendips across Somerset stir a deep sense of belonging to this landscape.  Hardy’s description of the Vale of Blackmoor in Tess of the D’urbervilles(although relating to country south of where I live) perfectly describes to me the colours and textures of where I live at the foot of the Mendips, the same vivid blue and soft haze with its intricate network of fields. His description describes to me the landscape of home and attachment.
“..the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine.”
Panorama of the mendips taken from Durston Drove above Wells.
Photo credit Stewart Black, [via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0]
In today’s society, people are losing their connections to nature and to the non-urban landscape – particularly children. The NationalTrust produced a report on the topic of Nature Deficit Disorder in children and how to address it. Richard Louv also discusses this in great detail in his book, Last Child in the Woods.
There is a real and absolute need to reconnect with our natural world – not only to save it, but to save ourselves. Studies published in 2014, in the journal Environment and Behaviour, showed that our emotional connections with nature influence choices of living sustainably, but also showed there was a connection between exposure to nature and our own happiness.

Finding refuge in the garden – physically and mentally

For Monty, gardening has always been a reconnection to the landscape, to restore balance and order in his (by his own admission) sometimes disordered and chaotic mind. He shared with the audience that after suffering from depression in the 1980s, returning to the garden brought about his recovery and the restoration of his mind. His garden was his refuge.
“In this age of anxiety gardens are a refuge,” Monty explained, “a safe haven from the stresses of everyday life. A garden never lies; you can trust it and it will respond to you. They are ever present and throughout the course of the seasons it will always return, offering both familiarity and stability.”
Not everyone has their own personal garden. The University of Bristol Botanic Garden offers a place for people to reconnect with the natural world and to learn about local plants as well as more exotic ones. It is a plant-packed green sanctuary in the heart of Bristol. The gardens themselves open our minds to the huge diversity and importance of plants. And they are in a constant state of flux, changing over time, as gardens and landscapes tend to do.
Monty spoke about learning from other gardens to gain ideas and inspiration and soak up knowledge from those who work there. I frequently explore different gardens and I take my children with me. They are not bored by plants and gardens. They run around and explore. They discover and forage. They are connecting to the plants and animals – whether it’s watching water boatmen in a pond or looking at the rocks and crevices in a wall.
I was visiting a garden the other day, and I was watching my 4-year old as he walked along a flower border gently touching and feeling different plants, such as the beautiful flowers of the paper-thin Papaver rhoeas and the fluffy fox-like tails of Hordeum jubatum. I bought seed after that visit because I wanted to recreate that sense for my children in my own garden.
Monty said, “when you garden you are building the story of your life.” The Botanic Garden is doing just that. It is evolving and as it changes the imprints of those who have been involved are left behind. Creating a rich and dynamic place to explore, learn and reconnect with the natural world.

The fascination of plants

By Helen Roberts

For the past three years, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden has hosted Fascination of Plants Day. The event is part of a much larger initiative launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO). The goal of the day is to get people interested in plants and share the significance of plant science in both the social and environmental arenas.

In 2013, the inaugural year of the event, a total of 689 institutions in 54 countries opened their doors to the public and talked about the wonder of plants. The activities carried out by each institution were extremely varied, but they were united in their celebration of plants. Here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, there was a focus on plant classification. In Russia, huge numbers of people attended guided tours on Siberian flora. In Nigeria, focus groups discussed possible partnerships between farmers, processors and scientists. In Norway, workshops were held for children to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens.

This year, Fascination of Plants Day was held on Sunday, 17th May. Students at the University of Bristol were in the garden discussing plant classification and research in the plants sciences. I met two final-year undergraduate students, Joshua Valverde and Will Perry, who were on hand discussing different topics within the plant sciences and fielding questions from the public.

What’s in a name?

Many queries related to binomial nomenclature or plant naming. In biology, the name of a plant (and indeed all living things) is divided into two parts; the first name – the genus –  defines a group that comes from a common ancestor and have some common features and the second part – the species – groups together organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Together, the genus and species forms the Latin name. Poster information compiled by Joshua explained the history of plant classification.

Joshua explained how plant classification changed over the centuries.

“To begin with, Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, was one of the first to document and characterise plants by their morphological features. After that, plants were classified according to their medicinal use. And then long and unwieldy Latin names were used based on the morphology of the particular plant. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that Carl Linnaeus introduced the binominal system.”

Of course, taxonomists don’t always agree on which groupings some species belong to, nor on where groups should be placed in the broader contexts of plant evolution. Classification of plants originally relied on finding similarities in form and structure (morphology) between plants. “This was subject to error though because unrelated species may evolve similar structures as a result of living in similar habitats or in response to some other adaptive need. This is called convergent evolution,” explained Joshua.

However, molecular methods have helped resolve some of these disputes.

Gnetum gnemon, a member of the order Gnetales.
Photo courtesy of gbohne on Flickr CC.

“Morphological data suggested that the order Gnetales [what we now consider a group of ‘advanced’ conifers] was the closest living relative to the first flowering plant,” explained Joshua. “After molecular analyses of various genes, however, it is now thought that Amborella trichopoda [a shrub native to New Caledonia] is the closest living relative to the first flowering plant. Water lilies also seem to be quite an ancient lineage.”

Will informed me that visitors were particularly interested in how DNA sequencing over the last decade has advanced our understanding of the evolution of plants. He explained that a lot of this work has been carried out by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) – an informal group of systematic botanists from around the world who are trying to reach a consensus on the taxonomic groupings of flowering plants. In fact, one of the phylogenetic trees produced by the APG is displayed on a visitor information board in the Botanic Garden.

The roots of a prestigious society

Additional information on plant classification included details about the Linnean Society of London. This society was founded in 1778 and named after the famous Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The aims of the society are to “inspire and inform the public in all areas of natural history through its broad range of events and publications”.

The society maintains the vast animal and plant collections of Carl Linnaeus (the Linnean Herbarium holds some 14,300 specimens alone), looks after his personal library as well as having its own extensive research library. The society has a hugely prestigious past and it was at a society meeting in 1858 that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented papers relating to the theory of evolution by natural selection! The society today continues to report on scientific advances and holds a number of events (including a student lecture series) throughout the year ranging from the genetic diversity of farmed animals to the future of plant conservation.

Opportunities for hands-on learning

Daisy pollen in oil under a light microscope. Image courtesy
of  microscopy-uk.org.uk/

For those members of the general public that enjoy hands-on learning, the Botanic Garden had some dissecting and light microscopes available to look at
various plant structures. Under one microscope there was some daisy pollen, which I heard one member of the general public describe as resembling “those spiky looking naval mines”.

Fascination of Plants Day is held each May, so be sure to join us in the Garden for this worthwhile event next year! And don’t forget to come down to the Festival of Nature this weekend (13th-14th June) learn about pitcher plant research, soil and so much more!

Children take a 'walk through time' at the Bristol Botanic Garden

It’s 1 pm, the sun is shining and the volunteer guides are starting to gather near the welcome lodge in anticipation of 60 Year 4 children arriving at the Botanic Garden for a tour. It’s my son’s school, Horfield CEVC Primary School, and so I’ve decided to come along for the tour and get a glimpse into how the Garden is viewed through the eyes of eight and nine year olds.
Anne is one of the volunteer guides at the garden and she and I get chatting while we await the children’s arrival. She was a teacher for 40 years – teaching at GCSE and A levels. She laughs as she tells me she was a bit nervous she would find touring younger children challenging when she started giving these school tours at the Garden. She soon found, however, that though it was different from teaching upper level students, it was also just good fun.
Volunteer guide Tony gives a talk to Year 4 students
from Horfield CEVC Primary School prior to their tour.
“I’m not responsible for making sure they learn the curriculum, I’m here to entertain them with interesting stories about the plants we have here in the garden – to get them excited and inspired by what they see,” Anne says from a shady bench.
The guides have come prepared; they know the Horfield children have been learning about Egypt and different habitat types. As well as discussing the logistics of touring sixty children around the garden in small groups, they check in with each other about plants that might be important to point out that will link to the topics and themes they’ve been learning in the classroom.
Then the coach arrives.

A tour through the glasshouses

Before the children break into small groups to go around the garden, volunteer guide Tony gives a very brief talk about what plants need to survive. The children enthusiastically put up their hands in response to Tony’s question of what plants need to grow. Horfield Primary is lucky enough to have a garden and most of the children will have grown plants in the classroom at some stage (my son brought a runner bean home from school a few weeks back that’s doing splendidly). So, although photosynthesis hasn’t been taught by Year 4, there are other opportunities where the children are learning the basic needs and processes of plant growth.
Students have a look in the pitcher plants in the sub-tropical
zone of the glasshouses.
Baking sun and a tight schedule keeps the introductory talk brief and I follow Anne’s small group down into the glasshouses. She points out the Deadly Nightshade along the way and talks about the large black poisonous berries – a good wow factor for the kids right off the start!
In the sub-tropical zone, the children talk about the challenges of plants growing in a rainforest beneath a heavily shaded canopy and some of the adaptations they’ve made to get alternate sources of food. They have a look into the pitcher plants to see whether any wayward insects have fallen into the plant’s pitcher-shaped trap. As Anne walks by the lichen, she talks about how lightning changes the nitrogen in the air into a form that’s easier for plants to use – lichens need a continual supply of nitrogen to survive. Lightning helps feed plants? This has the children’s attention.
Having a look at the giant lily pads in the pond in the
tropical zone of the glasshouses.
In the tropical zone the giant lily pads (Victoria) impress the children immediately. Then Anne points out the papyrus that’s growing at the corner of the pond and the children quickly make the link between this plant and the papyrus paper that they’ve been learning about in their Egyptian studies. As I switch between the different groups I hear one of the other guides tell a story from Egyptian Mythology about how the Scorpion-godess, Selkis, protects the child Horus by hiding him in a papyrus thicket.
The lotus plants (Nelumbo nucifera) are also linked to Egypt as there is a Nymphaea lotus that grows in the Nile. Anne encourages the children to splash some of the pond water onto the leaves of the lotus plant and I watch as two girls are astonished at how the leaves repel the water.
Water beads off the leaf of the lotus plant.
Some of the other highlights in the tropical zone were the cocoa plant, vanilla and cotton. The Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus) is also pointed out for its utility in treating leukaemia.
As the children stand beside the cacti in the glasshouses, they are told that some of these plants will go 10 years without ever experiencing rainfall – longer than these children have been alive. Anne and the other guides talk about all the adaptations these plants have made to go for long periods without water.
Students are given an opportunity to experience what
happens to Mim
osa plants when you touch their leaves.

Time travel through the evolutionary dell

I leave the heat of the glasshouses to join Tony’s group as they begin their walk through the evolutionary dell. Tony is telling the children about horsetails (no friend of the gardener) and pointing out the nodes of the plants. He tells them that 350 million years ago this little snippet of a plant would have been the size of a tree! The kids crane their necks up imagining and as we walk toward the tree ferns one of the girls says “It feels like time travelling!”
Tony takes the children on a walk through time in
the evolutionary dell.
Indeed it is like time travelling in the dell. In the 100 m span of the dell, we travel 200 million years from the horsetails (350 mya) to the first flowering plants (150 mya), such as the magnolia that’s on the left as you leave the dell. Surrounded by ferns, moss, horsetails, Wollemia and other conifers, the guides tell the children about how plants reproduced before the evolution of flowers and pollinators.

It’s never long enough

Somehow an hour seemed to fly by and before long the guides were rushing through the last few displays before sending the children off on their coach. As I had the opportunity to hop between the different groups I got the great sense that each group would have left the garden with a different experience as each guide has their own style and favourite stories associated with the garden. It’s never possible to see everything, but hopefully that means some of the children will encourage their parents and guardians to bring them back for another visit!
Tony holds up a horsetail and talks about plant nodes.

Linking to the curriculum

Mrs Amy Parkin, one of the Year 4 teachers at Horfield Primary, was kind enough to speak with me the next day after the tour about how tours such as this link with the classroom curriculum. This is the first time Horfield Primary has done the tour at the Botanic Garden and it was prompted by Curator Nick Wray giving a talk earlier this year to the Key Stage 2 children.
“We had two weeks where we talked about prehistoric Bristol, dinosaurs and fossils,” said Mrs Parkin. “Each class did a science trail with various outside activities and we also had speakers come in to talk to the children. Nick spoke about what plants would have been around 160 million years ago and he brought in some different species to show the children.”
As well as learning about Egypt, the Year 4 children have also covered the topic of habitats under their science curriculum and there are also cross-curricular links with their geography topic of water.
“The tour at the Botanic Garden helped extend the children’s knowledge on habitats,” said Mrs Parkin. “We focused on animals in different habitats in the classroom and in the tour we saw how plants adapt to different habitats as well.”
This tour will also give the Year 4 students a taste of what lies ahead as they will have plants as a topic in Year 5.

Talking with the students after the tour

After the tour I had a chance to speak with Megan and Henry about what they thought of the Botanic Garden. Megan said “I really liked the giant lily pads, especially since a small child could sit on one!”, while Henry really liked the giant lemon that was in the glasshouse.
When I asked Megan and Henry what the most interesting thing they learned was, Megan said she couldn’t believe that some plants can live for 10 years without water. Henry, on the other hand, learned something new about pollination, “There are lots of different bugs that pollinate plants – blowflies and beetles – and birds too!”
The Botanic Garden will run about 15 school tours during the months of June and July, with the help of their dedicated volunteer guides. These tours are in keeping with the Garden’s mission to promote education and awareness as well as to encourage and foster interest in plants within the Bristol community. In fact, the garden would like to run more school tours, so if you are involved with a local school and are interested in a trip to the Botanic Garden, please contact them via:   www.bristol.ac.uk/botanic-garden

The 2014 Easter Art and Sculpture Exhibition at the Botanic Garden

This is the second year in a row my family has worked off some Easter chocolate by biking to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden for the Easter Art and Sculpture Event. Unlike last year, however, when we were bundled against the cold, this year we basked in glorious sunshine. We’ve been so impressed with the quality of the art that this will be an annual event for my family…whatever the weather!
The Garden’s annual sculpture event was combined with the Friends of the Botanic Garden’s annual art exhibition, for the first time this year. This gave visitors a visual feast of outstanding artwork set in the backdrop of the garden in its full spring glory.

Over 2,800 visitors came to the gardens over the 4-day event. Events such as this, as well as the Bee and Pollination Festival, are important for the Botanic Garden as they reach beyond those interested in gardens – drawing in new audiences. This event brought in a range of West Country artists working in diverse mediums, from watercolours to ceramics and stained glass to metalwork – there was something for everyone.

Stainless steel sculpture of water lilies by artist Ian Marlow
Ian Marlow’s lilies were on display in the University
of Bristol Botanic Garden pond during the
Easter Art and Sculpture Exhibition.

A taste of some of the artists and artwork on display

One of the first pieces to catch my eye as I entered the gates of the garden was, of all places, in the pond. Stainless steel lilies, created by of Ian Marlow (www.marlowsculpture.co.uk), shone in the sunlight – a stark contrast to the dark water. Ian was also the creator of Sir Gromit ofBristol, which was certainly one of my son’s favourite stops along last year’s Gromit Unleashed trail.  

Willa Ashworth’s working display of one of lovely
metal open fire-pits offered warmth as well as
the promise of a sausage and hot cuppa.

Willa Ashworth (http://willaashworth.co.uk/) was there again this year, with a number of new pieces. I went home last year with one of her beautiful garden wind chimes and I still adore it! This year, she had one of her open fire-pits set up with sausages cooking on a grill and a kettle bubbling away. Her working display created a multi-sensory experience – the smell and sounds of sizzling food, the warmth and glow of fire, the beauty of the fire-pit itself. I watched as people gazed at the fire, no doubt envisioning (as I was) the lovely little set-up in their own backyard. Willa’s functional metalwork sculptures are inspired by her love of gardening and one of her pieces is now permanently displayed next to the lake in the Botanic Garden.

Karen Edwards (www.karenedwardsceramics.co.uk) was another return artist this year, displaying her nature-inspired ceramics. Each of Karen’s pieces are hand-built and unique. I was particularly attracted to her planters, which appealed to my functional side. The organic textures in the ceramics not only drew my eye, but beckoned me to reach out and touch them.

Karen explained how she created the lovely textures in one of her pieces:

One of Karen Edwards’ nature-inspired ceramics with
imprints of ammonites and bark.

“The doors of my studio are clad with unstripped half logs,” explained Karen. “I pressed some clay onto one area, then made that into a cylinder that I biscuit fired to use as a small hand roller. I then pressed in some shell and ammonite textures. The textures are highlighted with metal oxide wash and slip (liquid clay).”

One of Jude Goss’s stained glass pieces hanging in the
Chinese herb garden.

The Chinese herb garden once again hosted the stained glass art, including that of Jude Goss (www.lucianstainedglass.com). My six year old was thrilled to once again see Sam Bailey’s (www.theartistblacksmith.co.uk) metal dinosaur sculpture in the Evolution of Land Plants Display (nicknamed the grotto).

Stonecarver Tom Clark (www.clarkstonecarver.co.uk) had handed his chisel over to a pair of children when I got around to his display. The youngsters seemed to be having a brilliant time chipping away at the block of stone. Tom served an apprenticeship at Chichester Cathedral and has since worked on many large and interesting restoration projects including WestminsterAbbey and The National Gallery.

While I was circulating through the outside gardens, my husband managed to get into the glasshouses where he was captivated by the stainless steel pieces created by Julian P. Warren (www.metalgnu.com).

My son, Morgan, was equally enthusiastic about Julian’s work and he told me all about it on the bike ride home, with the unbridled enthusiasm that comes with being six.  “There was this amazing dragonfly mum…and a bird of paradise with those little sticky-up feathers on his head and everything!”

Sadly, I didn’t get to all the exhibits as I was keen on joining a tour set up by Andy and
Nick for a number of bloggers (more on that below). I missed the botanical artists displayed in the Linnaeus Study room entirely! However, I have listed all the artists with links to their websites at the bottom of this post as they all made incredible contributions to the weekend event.

Oh…and I also got to hear about some delicious carrot cake on my bike ride home. Another thing I missed out on…the delightful refreshments being served on the newly finished west patio of The Holmes.

It wouldn’t happen were it not for the volunteers

As with any event of this magnitude, there is a whole lot of work that happens behind the scenes. With the Garden’s small staff, it is thanks to the many volunteers that it all comes together, and they are the first to admit it.

“It’s all those people out there that are welcoming people as they enter, giving tours, serving cake and refreshments and helping direct people around the garden that make this work,” said Nick Wray, the Garden’s Curator. “Without these volunteers, we simply couldn’t host important events like this.”

A personal tour for local bloggers

As part of the Garden’s plan to increase its digital presence and reach out to wider audiences, Andy and Nick hosted a tour of the garden for a number of local bloggers during the event.  Helen and I, both bloggers for the Garden, tagged along too!

We started in the meeting room with delicious cakes and a cuppa, while Nick gave everyone a briefing on the history of the garden, its core collections and more generally the role of botanic gardens. After lots of healthy discussion about the Botanic Garden and the role of social media in marketing, we all followed Andy into the garden where he briefed us on each of the main displays.

Fused and slumped glass artwork
Adele Christensen’s ‘Blomsters’: Fused and slumped glass
with mild steel support.

Despite having been to the garden many times before and having had lots of discussions with Andy and Nick…I still learned a great deal, and found new inspiration for blog ideas…so stay tuned!

Hopefully some of the other bloggers will have found some inspiration from the tour also – the Botanic Garden is, after all, a place for education and research, stewardship and conservation, but it is also a place of great beauty.

Artists on display were:

Susan Bracher (Email: susanbartle (at) blueyonder.co.uk)
Pamela Clogstoun
Anne Girling
Nick Hasell (Email: woodbarnfarm (at) hotmail.com)
Emma Jean Kemp (http://emmajeankemp.com/)
Florence Maggs
Betty Marten
Connie Ridge
Cynthia Skinner
Dorcas Sohn
Jac Solomons (aka J Zulka)
Sheila Southgate
Julian P. Warren (http://www.metalgnu.com/)
Frankie Wild
and

Refab Arts (http://www.bristolcreatives.co.uk/jobs/2010/05/19/reclaimed-fashion-genius-refab)