In the second of a three-part series, James Alexander-Sinclair, garden designer and RHS Council member, examines the importance and impact of the plants we grow
"The human race can often be quite self-satisfied and swept away by its own omnipotence. This is, probably, why we are now confronted by so many environmental and climatic problems. Yet only the most arrogant among us will fail to acknowledge the truth that, without plants, not only would we be in even deeper trouble but so too would every other living creature on this green earth. Plants feed us, clothe us, shelter us, protect us, warm and enchant us every day. Even those not interested in gardens or growing are in thrall to plants. They are, in reality, the most powerful presence on the planet.
"Many plants live their lives happily without help; native trees germinate, flourish and topple a century later unnoticed by us. However, those plants we have harnessed to our will for whatever reason – fields of wheat, rows of lettuces, orchards, farms and, importantly to anybody reading this, our gardens – depend on some human intervention.
"Gardeners are generally in touch with plants more than many people and all of us are seeking knowledge and advice. For this we eagerly reach for libraries, magazines and the internet for guidance and you will soon find that, whenever
we do this, we are more than likely to end up in the hands of the RHS: for more than 200 years it has been the gentle hand on the tiller of horticulture in the UK.
"For the RHS it is the plants we gardeners grow that are a particular focus. There are many organisations across the world concerned with the preservation and exploration of wild habitats, but few who concentrate on the little wildernesses closest to many of us – our gardens. A great many at the RHS are steeped in the magic of plants: be they hands-on gardeners, those who organise its flower shows, produce The Garden magazine, keep a sharp eye on the accounts, run a Britain in Bloom group, dish out cakes in the garden cafés or help with educating our children."
New home for horticultural science
"The expertise the Society offers begins with science. It employs 24 leading scientists who know plants in far greater depth than most of us ever experience: botanists, soil scientists, entomologists, horticultural advisors and many others. The most obvious contribution to our gardens they make is in answering tens of thousands of gardening enquiries every year: the advisors are seldom stumped and, if they are, then they know where to go to find out the answer because, behind the scenes, important work is going on. For example, have you ever wondered how plants are named? Deciding on nomenclature is not a wild guess, but the result of the labours of taxonomists whose job is to explore the family trees and learn the origins of our garden plants.
"There are currently PhD research projects under way at the RHS on specialist subjects ranging from Narcissus and Rosmarinus to topics such as climate change, air quality and powdery mildew. Likewise, when it comes to peat alternatives, watching out for pests and diseases or water conservation: the RHS is deeply involved. Most gardeners do not realise that every time they buy an Award of Garden Merit plant at a garden centre they are holding in their hands something that has been poked, prodded, tested and judged by experts years before it gets to your garden. Although this work is mostly invisible, it is vital we never underestimate its importance. The public face of this will be the new RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science, which will soon begin to rise from the hilltop at Wisley. State-of-the-art laboratories will be surrounded by three new gardens because, to be honest, all this science only comes alive for most of us when it appears in our gardens."
Influence that reaches far and wide
"Let us leave the laboratories and see how this work spreads itself through the wider world. If we wander off into the RHS Gardens, the science of plants is still with us: microclimates and environments are found in all. It is a big show-and-tell bench, from which we can find inspiration for our own gardens no matter where we live: whether you have wet bits, dry bits (if you have not yet seen the Dry Garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex then you should), woody glades or hot sunny borders. There are trials fields – where particular plants are put through their paces so gardeners know which are the best Colchicum or Cornus (for example) – and Plant Heritage National Plant Collections of species as varied as heathers and gooseberries.
"The difference is that once plants have been liberated from the slightly sterile laboratory environment, they need to look their best, which is why the RHS has always used top designers and curators to help ensure plants have ideal places in which to perform. Fashion affects gardens just as it does frocks and trousers, and new places need to be found for new combinations of plants. Visitors want to be able to appreciate the gardens as beautiful, peaceful, colourful and calm places
in which to sit and wander. We want to stand in awe before swaths of spring bulbs, to bask in the brightness of summer colour and scuffle through piles of scarlet autumn leaves.
"From these big, professionally cared-for gardens it is one small step back to our own plots where all that expertise and clever science should end up. Gardening is a long trail of satisfaction: the pleasure of simple things like a well-striped lawn or a home-grown potato has sprung from the satisfaction of scientists developing a new strain of garden plant or through protecting it from an unsavoury garden pest.
"Common to all of these things are, of course, the plants themselves: everybody loves them and needs them – they make us feel good physically (there are more than 28,000 plants being used in medicine) and mentally. Even people who are unable to garden need plants. They satisfy all of our five senses and they witness every important moment in our lives. Flowers mark births, marriages and, inevitably, deaths. Vegetables, herbs and fruits feed us every day, trees give us wood and we cavort on lawns and sports pitches. The exciting thing is that we still do not know everything. Out there in the deepest rainforests and high mountain plains (and even in hedgerows and gardens) there are plants yet to be discovered. Some will change medicine and some of them will end up in our gardens, or at least the gardens of our grandchildren. "
"Plants will be here long after man has faded away and all of our concrete structures, and even our plastic bottles, have disappeared back into the earth. They are survivors: it is time we stopped taking them for granted."
James Alexander-Sinclair, Member of the RHS Council
Read the first part of James' series of articles: Growing society, changing lives
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