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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

RHS Courses: Getting practical in the garden

It’s Saturday morning at 9:30 and as I walk into the classroom there are fifteen small plates filled with different types of seeds lined up around a table. Along one of the walls, flowering plants are lined up as well. I recognise a few of the flowering plants but even then I wouldn't know the Latin names and I recognise even fewer of the seeds. I’m incredibly glad that I’m not taking the test.

I've come to sit in on the RHS Level 3 course ‘Certificate in Practical Horticulture’ that is currently running at the Botanic Garden. The course has been running every Saturday from 10am until 4:30pm since the 18th of May and it will continue until the end of August.

The course is taught by a number of tutors who teach for a block of seven weeks or so and it covers core units that include collecting and testing soil samples, collecting, preparing and propagating from seed, and identifying a range of common garden plants, diseases and disorders. The course is a balance of theory and practical and so students get to practice all the skills they learn in the classroom. Today, the students will be doing some seed and plant identification and then will be going outside to do some pruning.

Life experience brings added value to RHS courses

The teacher today is Chrissy Ching, a freelance horticulturalist who has been teaching RHS courses for over six years. When Chrissy isn’t teaching and running her business, she’s also being a student herself. She’s an MSc student at the University of Bath in Conservation of Historic Gardens and Cultural Landscapes, so she’s sympathetic to the demands on adult students.

No pictures of the RHS course, but I made a quick visit to
the glasshouse to see the lotus in bloom...beautiful!
Chrissy’s first involvement with RHS courses was as a student. She was an accountant when she first started taking RHS courses. “I thought I was doing it for interest originally,” said Chrissy. However, it eventually led to a complete career change.  Many of the students taking the RHS courses are also career changers and so this added dimension of life experience that Chrissy brings to the course is added value for many of the students.

But, it’s not only Chrissy that brings life experience to the course. The students themselves come from diverse backgrounds, whether in horticulture or not, and add to the learning experience also.

“I think the students learn as much from each other as they do from me,” said Chrissy.

Teaching RHS courses at the Botanic Garden

This is Chrissy’s first time teaching an RHS course here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden though she has taught classes a the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and numerous college and city gardens. She sees this as a wonderful opportunity for the students.

“This is a living, breathing garden with a rich diversity of plants,” said Chrissy. “This gives the students a great way to study plants and especially taxonomy.”

Of course, she also points out that because the Garden is open to the public, it also has to look attractive. Therefore, it isn’t always ideal to have unskilled students practicing horticultural skills such as pruning. Luckily, Chrissy is there to help guide the process.


Motivated by tests and inspired by previous generations

As I’m there early, I take the opportunity to speak to some of the students before the class starts. Emma is the first student to arrive. She’s a young woman with a background in graphic design. She decided to take the course for interest as she secured an allotment about six months ago and wanted to learn more about gardening. She also thought it might provide some accreditation should she wish to shift careers, ideally combining her background in graphic design with a love of gardening to eventually get into garden design. 

This is the first RHS course Emma has taken. She was allowed to enter level 3 due to her academic background, however she admits that it’s been quite demanding at times.

“I wanted to take the course as I knew the challenge of tests would motivate me and stimulate my mind,” said Emma, “and it has. There’s been more theory to the course than I thought there would be and learning all the Latin names has definitely been tricky.”

Emma was inspired to take the RHS courses by her granddad who also did RHS courses and made a career in horticulture.

Enriching an existing career 

I slide over to talk to Darren as I’ve asked Nick, the curator of the Botanic Garden, to point out someone who’s here that works in the industry.  Darren is originally from Perth, Australia and has been in the UK for around nine years. For the past nine months he’s been working for a landscape gardening company and prior to that he worked for a gardening centre.

This is Darren’s 3rd RHS course and he started taking them because he was getting lots of questions from customers at work and he wanted to have the right answers. He’s here to enrich and further his existing career. That being said, so far, Darren has footed the bill for the courses himself, not to mention the significant time commitment that’s required.

However, for Darren, the courses are well worth it. He’s been impressed by the enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge from the tutors as well as the other participants in the class.

“It’s good to have a group of people who are like-minded,” he said, “to talk about the things that you’re interested in.”

Mimosa is also in bloom in the glasshouse
right now - they're like a little fireworks display!

Well-worth the commitment

Unfortunately I’m forced to leave the course less than an hour in. I have my five year old with me as it’s school holidays and his patience for horticulture is fairly minimal. However, what strikes me most as we jump on our bikes to spend the rest of this beautiful Saturday seeking out Gromit statues around the city, is the commitment these students have.

Most of these people have jobs, yet for nearly four months they have committed one day of their weekend to this course. Whether motivated by improved career options or by an interest in gardening, for them, this course is worth the commitment. For me as an outside observer, this speaks volumes.


If you are interested in learning more about the RHS courses taught at the Botanic Garden, please visit the website for more information.

Friday, 9 August 2013

There's plenty of room at the bee hotel

Andy gently pushes some moss out of the way to allow me to peer in. “See there,” he says, “they've moved some of this moss and built that wall – this is occupied”.  I’m staring into one of the rooms of the hotel trying not to invade the guests’ privacy, but also too curious to look away. The occupant seems to be out getting a meal or tucked away so as not to be seen by peeping eyes.

An occupied suite at the Botanic Garden's Bee Hotel.
We are standing in the wildlife area of the Botanic Garden, behind a city skyline of wooden planks. We are staring intently into what might at first glance look like a very artistically and precisely stacked woodpile.  However, this is indeed the Garden’s bee hotel - the sign above it even says so – and there are guests!

The Garden had quite a bit of bamboo left over from the construction of the Chinese herb garden, as well as other materials from some coppicing they had done, and what better way to use them than to create habitat to encourage native bees.


There are over 250 species of native bees and about 90% of these are solitary

Bee-opolis - a city skyline of wooden planks also serves as
potential habitat for solitary bees
Though we often think of hives humming with tens of thousands of bees, most bees in the UK actually lead a solitary lifestyle. This means that a female bee will find or make a burrow where she will rear her larvae on her own.

The nest type and habitat requirement of each species is a little different. The British Science Association created a very informative video in 2009 as part of their ‘Save Our Bees’ campaign, which talks about the habitat and nests for a variety of native bee species including leafcutter bees, masonry bees, tawny mining bees, cuckoo bumble bees  and carpenter bees.


There’s something for everyone at the bee hotel

The Bee Hotel
The bee hotel was constructed with many possible occupants in mind as well as their diverse habitat requirements.

On the ground floor of the hotel there is a section of large diameter plastic piping that has been sealed at both ends. Protruding out of the side of the pipe is a small piece of bamboo. This is ideal bumblebee habitat as the bamboo provides a narrow entrance but then opens up into the larger pipe.

There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, but only eight of these are common. Bumblebees build communal combs either underground or in long tussocky grass, with narrow entrances to discourage curious predators. This ground floor suite of the hotel fits the bill nicely.

As you move up from the ground floor you notice that a diversity of materials have been used including bricks and branches as well as bamboo.

Up closer to the penthouse suites it is mainly bamboo sections that have been stacked and the ends stuffed with moss. The one we are looking at has clear evidence that it has been occupied. Some of the moss has been moved aside and a mud wall has been constructed save for a small hole, about a ¼” in diameter, that is clearly the entrance.

The entire hotel is kept dry with a living roof with semperviren succulents and a skillfully woven willow ‘Bee Hotel’ sign to top it off.

Andy is clear that this is the Garden’s first foray into bee hotels, but this evidence that it’s being used within the first year of construction is encouraging. He is hoping that the diversity of habitats created within the hotel will attract lots of different insects, not just bees.


‘Hopefully it will encourage people to do something in their own garden’

There is global concern about the welfare of bee populations as loss of habitat and food sources, disease, and widespread use of toxic chemicals take their toll on these insects. The loss of bees has significant implications for food security as well as healthy ecosystems in general.

The staff at the Botanic Garden hope the Bee Hotel not only attracts insects, but also inspires visitors to the garden to construct habitats at home and help build resilience for our native pollinators.


Bee habitat doesn’t need to be complicated

Bamboo or branches cut into 10 inch lengths or so with 1/8-3/8” holes drilled 3-8 inches deep are ideal habitat for solitary bees. Bundle a group of these lengths together and hang them in a dry place and you’re done - simple. You can even use dried stems of raspberries, brambles and elder or other similarly sized hollow cane-like vegetation bundled together. 

The key, however, is that the material needs to be dry and it needs to stay dry. It is the wet rather than the cold of winter that can threaten these animals, so keeping the habitat dry is essential.

This is also a great project to do with children – from collecting the materials to maybe even some supervised drilling and then finally watching to see who moves in. I’m looking forward to building some habitats with my son...as well as watching the bee hotel at the Garden over the next year or so to see who has come to stay!


Photos of pollinators at work in the garden this week:







Monday, 5 August 2013

Plants that endure

by Helen Roberts

Whether perched upon a windblown cliff or nestled in a small crack deep within a canyon, some plants seem to overcome all odds of survival. These survivors, which are frequently rare, quite often grow in remote inhospitable environments, show true resilience and perseverance and are highly adapted to their specific habitats. You just have to admire them for their sheer tenacity.

However, some of these ‘bulldog’ plants aren’t the hardy-looking brutes one might expect of such survivors; sometimes they are delicate and very beautiful. Discoveries of plants such as these are occurring regularly with over 2,000 new plant species being found worldwide each year. Many are found in far flung areas of the globe, as well as on our very own doorstep here in Bristol.

A Malaysian beauty


The newly described Ridleyandra chuana with a
rare two flowers. Photo credit: L.S.L. Chua
A rare and endangered endemic plant found in the biologically diverse Pennisular Malaysia has recently been described. The beautiful plant is called Ridleyandra chuana and is only found in two small mountainous areas of forest.

The plant can be simply described as a perennial herb that is somewhat woody with a rosette of dark hairy leaves at its base. It has a long slender unbranched stem with very delicate and beautiful cone like flowers, which are white with dark maroon purple stripes.

This herb grows in very challenging habitats, such as moss covered granite rock emdedded in soil or moss covered granite boulders in extreme damp and shade on steep slopes.

The maroon/purple cone-like flower of
R. chuana. Photo credit: L.S.L. Chua.
The plant was initially discovered back in 1932 at Fraser’s Hill, Pahang, but only recently have enough data been collected to formally describe the plant. It is named after botanist and conservationist Lillian Swee Lian Chua who discovered another population whilst carrying out a biological inventory of summit flora on Gunung Ulu Kali, Pahang. Because of its limited numbers (only 130 individual plants are known to exist) it has been classed as Endangered under the IUCN criteria. Of the two locations of where it is found, one location is threatened.

"The population at Fraser's Hill falls within a Totally Protected Area and consists of about 30 plants that grow in an undisturbed site away from tourist trails and is too remote to be affected by development,” said Dr Ruth Kiew, author of the recent study describing this exquisite plant. “The other population consists of less than 100 plants at Gunung Ulu Kali, which is on private land in a hill resort that is severely threatened by road widening and associated landslips, by changes in microclimate due to edge effect as the forest becomes more and more fragmented and that is in danger of encroachment from future development. The chances of this latter population surviving is very slim. On the other hand, the rediscovery of the Fraser's Hill population after a hundred years illustrates the resilience of species to survive if the habitat remains undisturbed."

A beauty closer to home


Such rare and endangered plants that cling to life in the most inhospitable places are also found not too far from Bristol Botanic Gardens and are now being displayed at the Gardens as part of their ‘ex-situ’ conservation collections. The Avon Gorge, a Carboniferous limestone gorge cut out by the River Avon provides a sheltered microclimate of sun-baked niches for a wide variety of endemic species within ancient scrub and grassland communities. Many of these species are threatened by scrub invasion, introduced species and engineering works. Of these rare species, there are two endemic whitebeams, Sorbus bristoliensis and Sorbus wilmottiana that literally cling to life in the Gorge. 

They are being grown at the botanic gardens and also a number of newly discovered and described endemic whitebeams are currently being cultivated to add to the existing whitebeam collection. Wilmott’s Whitebeam (Sorbus wilmottiana) is listed by the charity Plantlife as one of our 10 most threatened woodland plants in the UK, which is why ex-situ populations are so important in helping to understand species and aid in the long term management and future development of the AvonGorge. The study and protection of rare plants is beneficial in the long run not only to the individual species, but also the plant communities to which they belong.