Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A bit of botanising #1

Ventnor Botanic Garden, Isle of Wight

How many Botanic Gardens do you think there are in the UK?

And how many of those can you name?

The first question is a bit vexed: it depends, you see, if you count pinetums and arboreta, and gardens with botanical add-ons like herbaria. But let's leave all those out and just concentrate on the gardens with 'Botanic' in the name. There are around 25 of them.

Now - how many of you can name all 25?

Well, most of you will have Kew on the list, and probably the Edinburgh Botanics (three gardens, really, though we'll count them as one) and the National Botanic Garden of Wales. A few might have remembered Ness over in Liverpool; and the Oxford and Cambridge Botanic Gardens.

That’s six.

But give yourself a pat on the back if Paignton Botanic Gardens was in there; or the St Andrews Botanic Garden in Fife, or either of Manchester's two Botanic Gardens, or Birmingham's for that matter.

The fact is that the vast majority of our botanical treasures are kept in small, obscure collections. Many are attached to and funded by universities: we all know the precarious financial states many of our universities are in, but worse, the future of the study of botany at university is in doubt too. Only Bristol and Reading Universities offer an undergraduate degree in pure botany – even though it’s the one degree these days which all but guarantees you’ll get a job on graduation.

We’ve never needed botanists more, what with biofuels, food security and the loss of more medicinal plants than we will ever know existed. And if the student botanists go, so do the botanic gardens. The Firs Botanical Grounds – a series of experimental gardens and glasshouses bequeathed to the University of Manchester in 1922 - is already on its way; its gates closed, almost without comment, this summer.

There’s another layer of botanic garden which is funded largely by local councils. It’s a bit of an anomaly in this day and age to have gardens kept mainly for the study of plants and paid for from the public purse, and it’s about to become a thing of the past, too, as botanic gardens are – perhaps rightly – seen as an extravagance at a time of five-figure budget cuts. They tend to get mixed up with parks, even though there’s a world of difference between the two and botanic gardens are far more expensive due to actually having plants in them (and usually ones requiring costly specialists to tend them). So they’re a soft target.

St Andrews Botanic Garden, Fife, Wavertree Botanic Park and Gardens in Liverpool and Southport Botanic Gardens on Merseyside, the Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden in Manchester, and my favourite Botanic Gardens of all, the Ventnor Botanic Gardens on the Isle of Wight. All council funded; and more than one, as a result, now fighting for their increasingly unlikely futures.

You could be callous about whether we actually need 25 botanic gardens, I suppose; it is quite a lot for one small and rather overcrowded island off the coast of Europe, after all. As gardeners, we tend not to like botanic gardens that much: too much science, not enough prettiness.

But as gardeners we also adore plants. And whatever you think of them as gardens, botanic gardens hold some of the most extraordinary plants you can imagine.

There are botanically important collections: Ventnor Botanic Gardens has the country's leading collections of southern hemisphere plants. And historically important individuals: there's a Chusan palm planted by Queen Victoria at Ventnor, and what, I wonder, has happened to the 80-year-old cactus in residence at the Firs Botanic Grounds?

In the headlong rush to save money it’s sometimes forgotten that botanic gardens are also living museums: the plants they contain are woven into our gardening history. We’ll all be the poorer if they’re consigned to the ‘surplus to requirements’ box in Town Hall treasuries.

Monday, August 15, 2011

August flowers

Just as an interlude my witterings about the Isle of Wight (for yes, dear reader: there is more to come): a little pictorial heaven from my back garden (and the side one, and the veggie one too).

I usually feel really grumpy about the garden in August. It's such an in-between time: so not-quite-summer and not-quite-autumn. You're expecting billowing borders of beauty and bounty: what you get is a rag-tag slump of tired flowers and tireder foliage.

The rudbeckia you forgot to stake are lurching over the path, and the paeonies are a bilious shade of blotchy purple as the leaves die back in that ugly way they have (and half of them have been bludgeoned into the ground by over-enthusiastic dogs anyway). The bindweed is making its presence felt; none of the trees are flowering or doing interesting things with their leaves and you can't see the bark yet so you can't even enjoy that. And it's raining.

It's not the best time. Yet - as so often - when you're forced to go out there and look, not for the faults but for the nice bits, you are surprised and not a little delighted to find there's more than you thought there was to gladden the eye and lighten the heart. For once I managed to plant some dahlias this year; the rudbeckia are fabulously rugged in smouldering bronze, when you overlook their drunken posture; and the cosmos are flowering on, and on, and on.

Here's my little selection of previously unremarked treasures for this month: and I shall try to be less late-summer gloomy in future.

Thanks as always to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

OOTS: Bowed, battered, and very nearly beaten

This is, or rather was, one of the more dramatic publicly-maintained council-funded plantings I know: the Victorian cascades at the foot of the hill in Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight.

(The other one is the rock garden at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, but I keep forgetting my camera on trips to the beach so you'll have to wait for that one).

I expect my timing is all out, but I wanted to take a snap of this one as a contribution to Out on the Streets (OOTS), the regular slot on public planting hosted by Veg Plotting, and since I've just come back from my hols on the Isle of Wight and wanted to go on about it a bit, it couldn't wait.

Anyway: the Isle of Wight, of course, enjoys a mild microclimate which makes it very nearly subtropical in terms of plant life. Echiums, aeoniums and even cacti thrive outdoors here; public planting displays are as likely to include agaves and aloes as ageratum and antirrhinums.

However, the IoW County Council has also been taking a hatchet to its budget: £32 million saved over four years, out of a total budget which was only about £200m in the first place. Around £15 million in cuts have already been identified; libraries, regional theatres, tourist information centres, sports facilities and public toilets are toppling like ninepins.

Parks departments are soft targets in such slash-and-burn strategies: £450,000 is coming out of the parks budget on the Island between now and 2013. Quite apart from Ventnor Botanic Garden, which has had its entire funding removed (of which more later) the holes are beginning to show in the Island's previously perfectly-manicured parks, once the pride of an area which depends heavily on tourism to keep itself solvent.

Unfortunately the budget cuts also coincided with the one of the worst winters in living memory. Even the Island, usually pretty much frost-free, had the deepest snowfall for decades. Not ideal for subtropical planting, and as you can see from the picture much of it was lost.

There's no money to replace it with either more exotics, or even run-of-the-mill bedding: so we're left looking at bare soil, right into July and peak tourist season.

I've been going to the Island every year for over a decade, and I've always looked forward to visiting this bit of Ventnor. I remember the area simply dazzling with colour: vivid orange marigolds and scarlet salvias jostling up against alyssum and magenta aubretia tumbling over the rocks. It wasn't tasteful, but my goodness, it was jolly, and never failed to put a smile on my face.

It's so sad to see it like this: still trying, just, but such a pale imitation of what it once was. So is this what we've got to look forward to, then? Scraggy bare bits interspersed with brave little patches of yellow daisies or pink geraniums?

Quite apart from cringing to think what the tourists will make of it - so much for Britain plc, then - this is not a country I want to live in. It's depressing, poor, uninspiring, defeated. You can blame whoever you like for the current crisis: but this can't, possibly, be the right way to take us forward.

Parks departments may be viewed as the poor relation as far as many local councils are concerned, but you underestimate the work they do at your peril. They're responsible for the public face we turn to the world: reduce them to a starved, beaten down skeleton, and you do it to all of us, too.
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