Tuesday, 19 November 2013

HLF Skills for the Future traineeship

Tim Dobson is our latest trainee to have completed a placement at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum.  Here are his reflections on his time with us...

For the last six months, the HLF Skills for the Future program has brought me to the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum.  This placement was divided evenly between the two sites, and I spent May to July at the Garden, and August to October at the Arboretum.

With little previous experience of teaching in an outdoor environment, it has been a wonderful and refreshing (often due to the rain!) experience.  Wellies and waterproofs at the ready, I have worked closely with the Education Team.  I have been involved in teaching many school sessions at both sites, including making art using the natural autumn colours of the fallen leaves at the Arboretum with Key Stage 2 groups (aged 7 – 11 years), and finding naughty Peter Rabbit amongst the rhubarb with Reception classes (aged 4 – 5 years) at the Garden.


Tim at the Cowley Road Carnival with pupils from Bayard's Hill Primary School

We’ve planned and delivered what feels like an infinite number of family friendly activity days from making “greenhouses” out of sandwich bags in the Conservatory that protected us from the howling wind and rain of late spring to an Alice in Wonderland themed picnic in the beautiful hot July sun!


Making habitat puppets at a family friendly event


Storytelling at the Garden's first Under 5's event

These are just a few example of what I’ve been doing over the last six months, and sadly my time here is up.  As luck would have it, I spent my placement here in the best months of the year.  I started at the Garden in time for the spring blooms, and finished at the Arboretum amidst its remarkable autumn colours.  The Ashmolean now calls, which will be my new home for my third and final placement.

I will miss both sites and the staff a great deal.  However, the good news is that I will be returning very soon!  I’ve been working on a project for GCSE art students, to help them with their exam preparation, and will be using the collections of the Ashmolean, Garden and Arboretum.  I think the contrast between the Ashmolean’s historical art collection from ancient Greece to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Garden and Arboretum’s natural collection is unique.  It also gives me a great excuse to continue working outside… rain, wind or snow!


Friday, 16 August 2013

Bordering on the Sublime

With the exception of hairy bittercress, seeds take time to grow into plants. To wait several years for a plant to grow to flowering stage is relatively short, considering the decades that one must wait to see many trees even enter their adolescence. Many gardeners who know the excitement of growing from seed will also recognise the impatience and uncertainty that accompanies the early stages... When you have sown a quarter of an acre of seed in a public garden, that uncertainty could turn to outright terror!

Professor James Hitchmough sowing the Merton Borders in March 2012
Sown in the autumn of 2011 and spring of 2012, the Merton Borders have been designed by Professor James Hitchmough of the University of Sheffield. James has established several other plantings using these techniques, notably at the Olympic Park. In preparation for our project we made a visit to RHS Wisley in the summer of 2011. Here we saw a beautiful planting that had been sown three years before. We knew it could work. Nevertheless, we were watching for the first signs of life with a mixture of excitement and trepidation!

An Eremurus shoot emerges through the jute netting
Weather conditions in 2012 seemed to be conspiring against us. The first emergence of many seedlings coincided with unseasonably hot and dry conditions. The free-draining layer of sand in which the seedlings were sown had to be kept moist. A summer of heavy rain followed and by autumn the river Cherwell had escaped its banks and the greater part of the border was under water.


This water didn't quite have time to drain away before it froze. We wondered if young plants would survive all this!


There certainly had been some damage and in the spring we noticed that several species which had germinated well had been severely reduced. But this is no ordinary planting! The mix of seed contains about 100 taxa. This diverse population will find its own balance in response to the conditions of the site. Where some plants struggle, others will thrive.

The borders were showing some promise in the spring of this year. When James Hitchmough visited in early May some species already needed pre-emptive thinning. Some species were already in flower. But the borders were still looking rather sparse.

Professor Hitchmough and the Merton Borders in May 2013

The transformation over the following months has been extraordinary. Basking in the summer warmth, these delicate seedlings have erupted into an ever-changing mass of colour and life. Clouds of golden Stipa gigantea float over dense stands of electric blue Eryngium planum 'Blaukappe'. Countless bumblebees buzz through brightly coloured stands of Penstemon spp. Echinacea paradoxa and Silphium laciniatum scatter sparks of yellow across the border. Peacock and Comma butterflies have joined our human visitors in showing their appreciation. It has been worth the wait and the Merton Borders still have many surprises in store!








More information on the Merton Borders can be found on our website.








Thursday, 25 April 2013

Floriferousness

Magnolia stellata

"It's so.... floriferous!" We agree whole-heartedly with this opinion, expressed by one of our visitors on seeing Magnolia stellata in its full glory. As the flowers of the magnificent Magnolia denudata by the Danby Arch fade, M. stellata and the 93 year old M. x soulangeana come into their own. In the sunshine they are both looking stunning. But they are not alone in their floriferousness. An extravagance of jolly tulips are open across the herbaceous border.

Tulips!




Saturday, 6 April 2013

Devil's Tongue Appears in Fernery

While the temperature outside is still struggling to keep up with the calendar, strange blooms are appearing in the humid heart of the glasshouses. Accompanied by an extraordinary stench, Amorphophallus rivieri has produced an inflorescence.

Konjac lurking in the fernery

Also known as konjac and devil's tongue, A. rivieri has been cultivated for centuries in China and Japan. Traditionally the tubers are used to make flour for noodles or are cooked as a vegetable. More recently they have been cultivated for the extraction of mannose, which is used as an ingredient in diabetic foods. It is closely related to the Titan Arum which caused a sensation after its discovery by Beccari in 1878 and produces an odour described by writer Deni Bown as "floral tear gas". Luckily for us, Amorphophallus rivieri is slightly less potent!

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Stakes are High

Birch shoots from Harcourt Arboretum ready to be used for staking

Many of the plants we grow at the Botanic Garden need a bit of support through the growing season. In fact we need to stake over one hundred plants in such a way that they will stand up to the howling winds and lashing rain of a typical english summer. To do this, we begin early and let many of the plants grow up through their supports. This week Clare Kelly shared the secrets of successful staking with two enthusiastic groups as part of our Public Education Programme

Botanical Horticulturist Clare Kelly demonstrates the art of staking

Shoots of Birch and Hazel are grown in managed coppice at Harcourt Arboretum and are cut in the winter for use at the garden. Birch shoots are woven into domes over the dormant plants. The results are invariably beautiful. The Hazel is used on the vegetable plots for pea sticks and bean poles.

Staking Euphorbia sikkimensis in the sun!



Saturday, 2 March 2013

Pruning In and Out of Doors

Spring is on the way! Really! At the Botanic Garden we have been taking advantage of the last remnants of winter to plant several more apple trees in the lower garden. The two specimens of the apple 'Winter King' complete the orchard planting of over forty trees that we began two winters ago.  Last week we were joined by Chris Lanczak, Orchard Manager of Waterperry Gardens, for advice and practical demonstration of pruning fruit trees. Chris emphasises the importance of good pruning in the first few years to build the basic framework of a tree that may well live for a century.

Chris Lanczak showing OBG staff how to prune apples
We have also been pruning in the Arid House. The inflorescence spike of Agave sisalina finally reached the glass at the highest point of the glasshouse giving the team no option but to cut it back before it broke through! It will be interesting to see what it does next.

Pruning Agave with a saw on a very long pole

It is Fairtrade Fortnight at the moment, a perfect opportunity to visit the Palm House and meet the plants that provide us with commodities such as coffee, sugar, pineapples, cotton, cocoa, vanilla, groundnuts, macadamia nuts, bananas, oranges, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, papaya.....






Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Sisal and Snowdrops

Agave sisalina plantation in Java
(Tropenmuseum of KIT, NL)
Our Agave sisalina has become a media star. At the weekend the Oxford Mail produced a short article entitled, 'Garden's Rare Cactus Shrugs Off the Snow'. Protected from the elements in the Arid House, the Agave is flowering for the first, and last time. Agave plants are monocarpic- once they have flowered they die. As you might expect, this once-in-a-lifetime gesture is a dramatic one. The inflorescence spike, or 'mast', can grow to six metres and resembles a giant asparagus spear. This provides a clue to its true identity for, despite an association with arid areas, Agave is not a cactus. It is a member of the large Asparagaceae family and numbers Chlorophytum (the Spider Plant), Yucca and Hosta among its closest relations. Fortunately this Agave, grown commercially for sisal fibre, is not rare. Brazil alone produces over 100,000 tonnes of sisal fibre every year. The inflorescence spike has already achieved an impressive size and may not have enough room to flower, but it already makes one of the more unusual floral displays on offer in wintry Oxford.

Agave sisalina plantation in Oxford
Outside, rare plants are shrugging off the snow. Snowdrops of many different kinds are appearing in different parts of the garden and in the following weeks will be joined by other early flowering spring bulbs such as Eranthis and Narcissus. The most well-known snowdrops are from the species Galanthus nivalis which is native to many parts of Europe but, surprisingly, not to the British Isles. It may have been introduced as late as the 16th Century and 'wild' populations are, in fact, naturalised. In Europe a combination of habitat loss and over-collecting for trade has led to a declining wild population. In Bulgaria it has Critically Endangered status. 

Galanthus nivalis 
Cultivated snowdrops, which are propagated and sold without threatening wild populations, come in over 500 varieties. Some of these can be seen at the Botanic Garden providing a subtle and rather more familiar contrast to the giant in the Arid House.