Seven weeks in horticultural heaven

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew provide such varied delights as bramble bashing and contructing orchid trees

20160108_111908My second placement was at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. My time was divided between the Arboretum and Glasshouse teams, spending four weeks in the former and three in the latter. From mid-November to mid-January I mulched, tree-planted, set up events, and studied with the thirty odd students of the Kew Diploma. Living and working with the students under the supervision of the extremely knowledgeable staff of the gardens made these seven weeks extraordinarily enlightening botanically.

The last two weeks of November I was with one of the Arboretum teams made up of four staff (all RBG trained, three Kew and one Edinburgh) as well as two first year students. For a couple of days in this team we planted a few thousand mixed tulips in a lawn near the Mediterranean garden. However, I spent the vast majority of this placement in the natural area of Kew, an area long ago deeded to the gardens by Queen Charlotte on the assumption that it would be maintained in as native a setting as possible. The forty acres or so along the Thames included an ancient oak and beech woodland with vast swaths of English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). However, brambles (Rubus spp.) also grew in these woods and if left alone would smother the diminutive bluebells every spring.

A good portion of each autumn therefore was devoted to “brambling”, or the removing of these blackberries from the colonies of bluebells. Armed with one flail mower, landscape rakes, and very thick gloves, we removed what seemed like an impossible amount of brambles in two weeks. It was amazing how much of a difference we had made so quickly on the natural area, and after my placement had finished I was quite sad that I would not be there in the spring to see the fruits of my labour.


Orchids galore

20160115_115744The beginning of the year also marked the beginning of the preparation for the annual Orchid Festival in the POW (Princess of Wales Conservatory). All of the team members, in addition to caring for their own personal sections, were busy helping build the framework for the upcoming extravaganza. For me, that meant helping to construct a new orchid tree. Many of these trees already existed in the two orchid sections in the POW (temperate and tropical) but the new one was to surpass all previous trees, arching gracefully over the path through the temperate orchid house. It was a very fun process to see through from beginning nearly to the end.

P1040983We began with cementing in the metal bars that were the bones of the tree across the path, before cutting and shaping polystyrene blocks around the frame to resemble a tree. It was not quickly done, and by the end of my two weeks we had nearly finished the bulk of the work. However, my time at Kew finished before the polystyrene was rendered and painted to resemble an actual tree, but fortunately I returned to Kew a couple of weeks later to see the finished product. When planted with epiphytic orchid species it easily passed as natural, and was worthy addition to the temperate orchid house.

While working in the different parts of Kew were very beneficial to my horticultural education, spending time with the students studying and discussing botany and horticulture (occasionally over a beer at the nearby pub 'The Botanist') was one of the best parts of my time in London. As at Wisley, the students were all very keen on their chosen disciplines and they all came from different backgrounds, from the Royal Parks system, to other gardens in England such as the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens or Cambridge Botanics, to gardens abroad in France and Italy. I think spending time with such an international group of students was as educational as spending time under the tutelage of the garden staff.

We spent every Monday attending Kew Mutual Improvement Society lectures, where either third year students would share the experiences of their travel scholarships or experienced horticulturists would talk on a variety of subjects. Every two weeks we would be given a new set of forty plants to learn, which included groups of seeds, conifers, glasshouse plants, and more.

When we weren’t studying for an upcoming test we would share what we had learned and done during our days in the garden, as we all worked in different parts of the garden every day. Sometimes we would take to the gardens at night on bicycles to see what there was to find in Kew in the dark. The students were very open to sharing their opinions on subjects horticultural and otherwise, and it made my stay at Kew that much more memorable. It was sad to leave, just as it had been at Wisley, but I knew that I had made the most of my time and came away happy with the friends and memories I’d made there.
 


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