The return of an old friend

After winter, the ground slowly wakes up in increments; snowdrops and hellebores in January, crocus in February. By March we’re looking up at magnolias and cherries, down at daffodils and forward to longer days and warmer temperatures. The old spring favourites quicken our heartbeat, but I’m going to talk about an understated gem at the Botanic Garden. This is a plant that I look forward to seeing every year; you could easily walk its path without noticing, as it produces flower low to the ground while everyone is looking elsewhere. One of those plants that when you’ve seen it one year you look out for it again, until it becomes like greeting an old friend who always seems happy to see you.   (more…)

March of the Magnolias

Magnolia campbellii subsp.mollicomata ‘Lanarth’.

There’s nothing like watching nature mark off the times of the year, like familiar landmarks of a train journey to a favourite place, we know we’re moving away from winter when we see magnolias flower. The last time they flowered we couldn’t have known the year we had in store until they bloomed again, but here we are a year later and there they are with a comforting familiarity that the seasons bring, but for magnolias, they’ve seen it all before. (more…)

Saving our nation’s lost landscapes

By Helen Roberts

Historic gardens are an integral part of our cultural link with landscapes; a place where we can connect with nature. They represent a form of artistic expression and illustrate snapshots of past ages, cultures and societies. For that reason alone these garden masterpieces deserve recognition and preservation. 
Often the final level of protection for many of these gardens falls to English Heritage, a registered charity, independent of government since April 2015, which essentially acts as guardians for the upkeep of some 400 historic sites. English Heritage is often seen as the last resort of protection for these sites, some of which are so special that the government has stepped in to look after them and rescue them for the nation. 
Late last year the Friends’ Lecture was given by Christopher Wedell, a former trainee of The University of Bristol Botanic Garden (21 years ago) and now senior gardens advisor to English Heritage. 
Bridge in Sheffield Park Garden.
Photo credit: ReflectedSerendipity
courtesy Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Christopher’s horticultural career began early; as a teenager he already expressed a keen interest in the outdoors. A stint of work at Sheffield Park in Sussex fuelled his passion for horticulture and historic landscapes and led to a degree in Horticulture at Writtle College with a final year dissertation on historic gardens. After his work at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden and Tylney Hall, Christopher obtained his Kew Diploma in Horticulture and then spent 18 months working in the famous Palm House. From Kew he went to Wisley where he eventually became superintendent under curator. When a 6-month contract offered itself at English Heritage he applied and 7 years later he is looking after 23 historic and contemporary gardens ranging from Elizabethan to contemporary in design.  
Christopher spoke in detail about the gardens under the care of English Heritage, the complexities of restoration and the many challenges the team faces when completing historic garden works. 

The importance of authenticity

The restoration of historic gardens is a difficult task in itself when there is a lack of historical information in the form of maps, descriptions and documents. Often gardens are multi-layered over time, making it difficult to know at what particular point in time to restore the garden to. 
Belsay Hall, a thirteenth century site located just north of Newcastle has magnificent Grade I listed gardens and were primarily the work of Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867). He was influenced by the Picturesque movement, which sought to create landscapes less conventionally beautiful and more naturalistic in design. The restoration of the unique Quarry Garden, a dramatic place with a special microclimate with many exotic trees and shrubs, presented English Heritage with a challenge of maintaining the correct authenticity. To achieve this, the team used a number of photographs collected over the decades to aid in the restoration process.
“Photographic and historical documents are very important in the restoration process,” explained Christopher, “and it is vital that as much historical information is collated as possible, thereby restoring the landscape at the most significant point in historical time”. 
Osborne House from the road to Swiss Cottage.
Photo credit: By Loz Pycock from London, UK
[CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes, as gardens change over time, plants become over-mature and cease to provide the effect for which they were first planted. English Heritage faces a number of challenges with such restoration projects because people often develop strong attachment to these mature trees. One such example includes Sovereign Avenue at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – the private home of Queen Victoria. The avenue was planted in 1851-1854 with two lines of alternating deciduous and coniferous trees. Over time (as expected), these trees matured, but eventually became too large and made the avenue dark and oppressive. This was not the intention of the design when planted by Prince Albert. English Heritage then faced the challenge of how to visually present this avenue with the possibility of replanting every 50 years to maintain authenticity. 

Maintaining the fabric of the garden

The fabric of a historic garden represents the context in which a garden is situated. Gardens do not simply exist as islands on their own but connect and integrate with surrounding landscapes to create cohesion and robustness, both of which are sought after qualities in designed landscapes. Often it is difficult to maintain connectedness in historic landscapes due to the simple issue of land ownership. 
One such English Heritage example is that of Audley End House, a Jacobean Mansion landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and set within the rolling cou
ntryside of Essex. English Heritage has in their care the mansion and grounds itself, but also a tower located outside of the boundary of the mansion grounds some distance away and the land in between is not under English Heritage ownership. Here, English Heritage faces the difficulty of maintaining a connected landscape, as the sites are geographically distant from one another, but sit within the same landscape. Belsay Hall also faces similar challenges as the existing car park is set within the historical landscape fabric, which disrupts the harmony of the site. 

The visitor experience

It can be difficult to maintain a good visitor experience all year round in many of the English Heritage gardens. Many of the gardens are very seasonal in nature as bedding schemes took precedence over year-round interest. At Kenilworth Castle (just north of Warwick) an Elizabethan garden was created by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in order to seduce Queen Elizabeth I when she was staying at the property for a mere 19 days. This garden was restored in May 2009 using advances in garden archaeology and the survival of a fascinating eyewitness description from 1575. When the garden was originally designed for a short spell of interest, English Heritage now faces the difficult task of creating a garden that is attractive to visitors throughout the year. 
To attract visitors to the gardens, many English Heritage sites hold contemporary art exhibitions, such as the one held at Belsay Hall called ‘Extraordinary Measures’ with many of the installations located in the grounds of the Hall. 
Other attractions to entice families have recently been sensitively incorporated into some historic landscapes. An imaginative wooden play structure for children has proved very popular at Witley Court near Bromsgrove with a tree house in the form of a seed pod, outdoor musical instruments and wobbly bridges, scramble nets and slides. The opening of the beach at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight has been well received with people enjoying swimming, paddling, building sandcastles and looking inside a bathing machine. With the opening of access to the beach though, English Heritage was then faced with the challenge of incorporating essential utilities, such as power and water, into a historic landscape. Other interesting plans for enhancing the visitor experience described by Christopher included the potential restoration of the unique hard tennis court at Down House, home of Charles Darwin, which would provide a great play facility for adults and children alike when visiting this historically significant place. 
“It’s really important that sites do not simply stagnate in terms of a design sense and that the gardens are able to evolve and be used imaginatively,” explained Christopher. 
Many sites have successfully integrated contemporary spaces into the gardens adding a new vitality to these historic places. A new contemporary garden was added in 2000 to the kitchen garden of Osborne House by designer Rupert Golby as part of the contemporary heritage garden project. It includes many plants with names associated with Albert and Victoria. 

The future

Christopher’s message was clear throughout the talk. These gardens need to be brought to life for current and future visitors and be places that continually thrive for decades and centuries hereinafter. 
Christopher emphasised that, “English Heritage is playing a vitally important role in looking after these sites; we are the landscape custodians helping to safeguard some of England’s most treasured historic gardens.”
The next Friends’ Lecture will be given by Nick Wray, Curator, University of Bristol Botanic Garden on 21 January 2016, Frank Theatre, Wills Physics Laboratory from 7:30pm – 9:00pm. Nick will be speaking about the ballast seed garden project. Friends are free with presentation of membership card; non-Friends will be asked for a donation (suggested £5).

Bristol is buzzing, how the city is helping pollinators

By Helen Roberts

There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently on the plight of our pollinators. They are now less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. A number of threats are responsible, including habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use.
A swathe of flowers for pollinators bring a
lot of cheeriness on a grey autumn day on
Horfield Common, Bristol.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
There is not one smoking gun among these threats, but rather the combination that has endangered some species in the UK. Loss of wild flower rich habitat (due to intensive agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation) escalates the effect of disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use. Without food or shelter, pollinators are more vulnerable.

 Whilst visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden this autumn, I noticed the abundance of pollinators busily visiting many different flowers from the orchid look-a-like flower of Impatiens tinctoria to the swathes of Rudbeckia sp. and Verbena bonariensis. This year saw the 6th year of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden hosting the Bee and Pollination Festival in September. The Community Ecology Group from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences was exhibiting and promoting their research as well as the exciting Get Bristol Buzzing initiative.
To find out more about pollinator research at the University, I met up with Dr Katherine Baldock, a Natural Environment Research Council Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the School of Biological Sciences and the Cabot Institute, to discuss the group’s work.
“Most people know that pollinators are important, but quite often don’t know what to do to help them, “ explained Katherine. “And this is where our research at the University comes into play”.
The aim of Katherine’s fellowship is to improve the value of the UK’s urban areas for pollinators by working with various stakeholders, such as city councils, conservation practitioners and the landscape industry. 

Translating science into solutions

NERC KE Fellow Dr Katherine Baldock.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Up until 2014, Katherine worked on the Urban PollinatorsProject, which is researching insect pollinators and the plants they forage on in urban habitats.
Building upon research from this project and her current Fellowship, Katherine and her Bristol colleagues have contributed to the development of  a Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy(2015-2020). The University research group has teamed up with Bristol CityCouncil, the Avon Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth Bristol, Buglife, SouthGloucestershire Council and the University of the West of England to implement this with the aim of protecting existing habitat and increasing pollinator habitat in the Greater Bristol area.
The group is also raising awareness of the importance of pollinators to a wide-ranging audience within the city and further afield. This is the first local pollinator strategy within the UK and follows closely in the wake of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ National Pollinator Strategy launched in 2014. It will help to promote aspects of the national strategy relevant to urban areas and hopefully set a precedent for the development of other local pollinator strategies throughout the UK.
The local pollinator strategy outlines actions that will help fulfill the strategy aims, including:
·         formation of a Local Pollinator Forum intended to share knowledge and best practice,
·         establishment of a joined-up approach to pollinator conservation by linking projects through the Get Bristol Buzzing initiative,

·         working with the public in local areas to explain actions they can take as individuals.

“Urban green spaces are important corridors for wildlife and help to provide linkages across the country”, explained Katherine. I envisaged a series of insect aerial motorways linking the whole of the UK, invisible threads connecting countryside, urban fringe and city centres.

The bee link-up

The Get Bristol Buzzing initiative is doing just that, as one of its strategic aims with the local pollinator strategy for 2016-2020, is to “Map pollinator habitat and identify target sites that allow habitat networks and stepping stones to be created to enable pollinators to move through urban areas”.
Katherine talked about how engaging the public at ground level was really important to Get Bristol Buzzing. The initiative is the pollinator component of My Wild City, a project whose vision is for people in Bristol to help transform spaces into a city-wide nature reserve. A number of interactive maps have been created that allow people to add what they have been doing in their area to help wildlife. The Get Buzzing initiative will feed into these maps.
Kath said, “The fact that you can add yourselves onto a map makes the Get Buzzing Initiative really visually appealing to people and much more personal.”

So, what can you do at home to help urban pollinators?

·         Plant for pollinators. Think about what plants you have in your garden. Could you change the planting or improve on it to make it more attractive to pollinators? Think about growing species that have nectar and pollen rich flowers and let your lawn grow longer to allow plants to flower.
·         Avoid pesticides. Most gardeners like their plants to remain pest free but avoid the temptation to use pesticides and accept the fact that you will lose some plants to pests. Instead try to encourage wildlife that will devour those pests or cultivate plants that will deter pests. 
·         Provide habitat. As pollinators need a home, you can always make your own nest boxes if you want to give your pollinating visitors a helping hand by drilling holes in a log or by bundling up lengths of hollow sticks such as bamboo. Visit the Botanic Garden’s bee hotel for inspiration!
“Setting aside a wild bit of garden can help pollinators by providing food, but provides nesting sites too”, remarked Katherine.

Additional information:

·         The Urban Pollinators Project was recently listed as one of the top 10 ground-breaking research projects in the Daily Telegraph. Read more.

·         Results from this research have recently been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B with more publications in press. A list of publications can be found here.

·         You can read more about Dr Katherine Baldock and the Urban Pollinators Project on page 7 of the 2015 edition of the Cabot Institute’s magazine.