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.

A walk through the mendips

By Helen Roberts

A few weeks ago our family, had a great day out walking on the Mendip Hills. We set off in autumn sunshine, through pretty deciduous woodland, to an Iron Age hill fort called Dolebury Warren – an upland area of calcareous grassland. Having lived on the edge of the Mendips during my childhood, I am always keen to show my children where I used to explore as a youngster.
Part of Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England, seen from a
light aircraft. Photo by Adrian Pingstone (1975).
The Mendips are a range of mainly carboniferous limestone hills comprised of at least four convex fold structures formed between 363 and 325 million years ago, during the end of the Carboniferous Period. Weathering of the limestone has resulted in features including gorges, dry valleys, screes and swallets (sink-holes) and incorporates the famous Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe, each with extensive cave systems. The area also has interesting landscape characteristics like limestone pavements and other karst structures.
The geology of the Mendips makes for interesting ecological communities and consists of large areas of open calcareous grassland with many rare flowering plants. For instance, Dolebury Warren owned by the National Trust and managed by Avon Wildlife Trust, sits within the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its important limestone flower communities. These flower communities attract up to 70% of all British butterfly species. Dolebury Warren has a gradation of communities from species rich calcareous grassland, through acid grassland to limestone heathland, with large areas of mixed scrub.
Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus).
Photo by Paul Harvey, via Wikimedia Commons
The charity Plantlife has identified the Mendips as an Important Plant Area (IPA), which is an area of landscape that has very high botanical importance. Some plant species found on the Mendips are found nowhere else. Due to factors such as over grazing, poor land management, scrub encroachment and agricultural intensification, these plants are declining in numbers and some are threatened with extinction. The University of Bristol Botanic Gardenhas a local flora and rare native plant collection, which includes a sub-collection from the Mendip Hills, Limestone Cliffs and Coastal Islands. The collection was developed to help grow and interpret some of the rare and threatened plant species found in these habitats. The collection represents an important habitat and phytogeographic display and is helping meet the objectives of the ‘Global Strategy forPlant Conservation.

Rare plants of the Mendips 


One of the Mendip plants in the Botanic Garden’s collection is the Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus). This is a very pretty scented pink flower that grows in a few places on the Mendips but mostly at the original site of Cheddar Gorge. This plant was originally discovered about 300 years ago and is considered the pride of Somerset and was voted the County Flower. It grows best in rock crevices, high on the limestone crags of the Gorge, and can be seen in June and July using binoculars to search patches of colour visible on the cliffs, just above the road.
Also growing at the Gardens is the interestingly named Starved Sedge (Carex depauperata). This is an exceptionally endangered plant that is only found in one local area – in the woods and on a hedge bank near the small town of Axbridge. This is one of only two sites in the whole of the UK. Fifteen years ago, Starved Sedge had declined to such an extent that the
re was only one plant in the whole of Britain. As appearances go, it’s not much to look at. It’s a tussocky plant with trailing leaves and gigantic seeds and can easily be mistaken for some common woodland grasses. A reintroduction programme has improved the status of this plant by using cuttings and seed collecting to re-establish it at other sites in the UK.
The University Botanic Garden are also helping to preserve another plant at high risk of extinction and classed as nationally rare, known as Somerset Hair-grass (Koeleria vallesiana). Again, this is a fairly innocuous grass restricted to the Mendip Hills with very slow spreading habit. The Bristol Botanic Garden’s specimens were collected from Brean Down, which is the most westerly part of the Mendip Hills, as well as the interesting tiny islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm.
Brean Down is an outstanding example of calcareous grassland and supports endemic plant communities that provide for many important insect communities. Other important plant species growing at Brean Down and now growing at Bristol Botanic Gardens include the White Rockrose (Helianthemum appenninum). This is an attractive white flowered perennial sub shrub, which frequently grows on southern slopes. White Rockrose, Somerset Hair-grass and Dwarf Sedge (Carex humilis) are all particularly at risk due to scrub colonization. This highlights the importance of grazing to maintain grassland habitats. The National Trust introduced grazing by long horned White Park Cattle and British WhiteCattle (feral goats are already on Brean Down) to help keep the grass short and scrub species controlled. 
The rarity of the plants found on the Mendip Hills highlights how important collections, such as those held at the University Botanic Garden, are for ensuring the survival of plants teetering on the brink of extinction. Equivalent to a botanical savings account, these collections help ensure that if plant species are lost, they can be reintroduced back into the wild.