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Showing posts from 2014

Branching out on your choice of Christmas tree

By Helen RobertsNothing quite captures the Christmas mood more than seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Whether you choose to adorn one yourself or not, the Christmas tree is decorated and celebrated in many different countries and different nations have their own favourite species. 

I am particularly picky about the species of tree our family have and the overall shape of the tree. This fussiness stems from spending time living in Canada; high standards were set when our first Christmas tree was a wonderfully large and fragrant Balsam Fir(Abies balsamea), with its dark green, long lasting foliage. This tree is a very popular species used in North America for Christmas, and on our return to England I tried to find a nursery to buy a Balsam Fir for Christmas without luck. I did some research and eventually found a similar species, but also found out some interesting information about our celebrated Christmas tree.
Where does the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?
Most …

Botanic gardens: places of research, education and beauty

By Nicola Temple There are an estimated 3,400 botanic gardens around the world, many of which are associated with universities or other research institutions. This association with research institutions can give the impression that these gardens, Bristol’s own Botanic Garden included, are primarily research oriented and not particularly appealing to the public – nothing could be further from the truth.

In the last two years that I've been blogging for the Botanic Garden, I have taken myself to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Isles of Scilly, El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden in Mexico and the University of Alberta’s Devonian Botanic Garden. I've been keen to see how they differ from my local Botanic Garden that I've come to love. These gardens have been different in their sizes and plant collections and clearly differ in their annual budgets, but they have all been united in their commitment to educate and they have all been beautiful places to…

African keyhole gardens open the door for school gardening

By Helen RobertsBack in June, my son’s primary school, located in a small village on the edge of the Mendip Hills, built something called a keyhole garden in their grounds. Having no idea what a keyhole garden was, I thought I would offer up my services as a parent volunteer for the garden day.

The idea of keyhole gardens originated in Africa out of necessity. They enable families to produce food on dry, exposed and rocky soils - essentially land that is infertile. The gardens are shaped like a keyhole and act like an organic recycling tank using food and garden waste as fuel to grow vegetables.

The garden day at my son’s school was organised and facilitated by a charity organisation called Send a Cow. This charity helps families and communities in Africa by providing farmers with the skills and tools they need to farm using sustainable and organic methods. Farmers on the programme are given the gift of livestock, seeds and other assets and every farmer makes a pledge to pass on the gif…

Green roofs part II: lofty havens for wildlife

By Helen RobertsThe green roof industry has been aided over the past few years by an unlikely character. The black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), a robin-sized bird of strange habits, has not only helped draw attention to the green roof industry, it has advanced development of green roof design.
The black redstart is unusual in its call, looks and ecological preferences. Its song starts with a hurried warble followed by a sound similar to that of scrunching of a bag of marbles. Males have a fiery red tail and the species has a propensity to hang out in industrial places.
Within the urban environment, brownfield sites can be rich in biodiversity and can be lost when they are developed. The story of the black redstart is inextricably linked to that of humans and urban centres. Black redstart population numbers have fluctuated in the urban environment due to human activity, and this is where the story of the black redstart has impacted the green roof industry in a positive way.
During …

Botanists disperse some 'big data'

Recently, Botanists at Trinity College Dublin launched a database with information that documents significant ‘life events’ for nearly 600 plant species across the globe. The database is the result of contributions from individuals working across five different continents, who compiled information on plant life histories for a near 50-year span, and is an example of big data.
What is ‘big data’? In academic circles, the buzz-term across all disciplines seems to be ‘big data’, and it means exactly what it sounds like – a whole lot of information. More formally, of course, big data refers to data sets that are so large and complex that traditional methods of processing the information contained within them simply aren't adequate. Big data draw upon many sources of information and represent a body of work that far exceeds what a single researcher, or indeed an entire research group, could gather in their careers.
While there are many challenges of working with big data – storing it…

Beans and bacteria – a complex story of communication

The symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria has been known for well over a century. The intimate details of this relationship, however, are only recently being revealed. It is a very active area of research as understanding this symbiotic relationship could lead to strategies that help reduce the environmental impacts of food production. 
Special soil bacteria – known as rhizobia – reside within the nodules of legumes, such as peas, lentils, beans, alfalfa and clover, which are found along the roots of these plants. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, which the plant is able to use – a process known as nitrogen “fixing”.
This allows legumes to grow well in nitrogen-poor soils. This nitrogen is taken up in the plant material, which can then be worked back into the soil as a natural fertiliser for subsequent crops. While this all might sound very straight forward – there are details about this relationship that remain unclear. How do …

Fruit: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Helen Roberts

Autumn is my favourite season. I love the colours, cooling temperatures and crispness of the air in the morning. One of the things I like most, however, is harvesting autumn fruit to use in cooking, baking and jams. So far, this autumn I have picked bucketfuls of blackberries, autumn raspberries, damsons, plums, apples, pears, quince, crabapples, rosehips and sloes.
It has been a wonderful harvest and my cupboards, freezer and larder are full of these delicious fruits as cakes, jams, jellies, butters or just shoved in the freezer to be used in the depths of winter. These are all fairly common and useful autumn fruits to most of us in the UK, but as I was poking about in my garden the other day I noticed quite an unusual fruit growing.
The fruit belongs to Akebia quinata, commonly known as chocolate vine - a vigorous climber that is growing really well in my garden. I have two plants growing up a north facing wall and a west-facing wall respectively and they are more or…

Raising the 'green' roof

By Helen Roberts
We currently have a real shortage of housing in the UK and the estate agency Savills has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 160,000 homes in the next five years unless local authorities act. With this in mind, I started thinking of the building industry and how sustain­­able building design has become increasingly important over the last few decades. Not only does the industry consider the sustainability of the materials themselves, but designs aim to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and minimize waste during and after the life of the building, while creating a healthy and comfortable environment for the occupants.

Within the field of sustainable building design is the subject of green roofs. This is an area of design that holds great interest to me, as I am a landscape architect with previous training in plant sciences. Green roofs play a pivotal role in urban environments by reducing rainwater runoff, reducing energy consumption for heating and …

Children take a 'walk through time' at the Bristol Botanic Garden

It’s 1 pm, the sun is shining and the volunteer guides are starting to gather near the welcome lodge in anticipation of 60 Year 4 children arriving at the Botanic Garden for a tour. It’s my son’s school, Horfield CEVC Primary School, and so I've decided to come along for the tour and get a glimpse into how the Garden is viewed through the eyes of eight and nine year olds.
Anne is one of the volunteer guides at the garden and she and I get chatting while we await the children’s arrival. She was a teacher for 40 years – teaching at GCSE and A levels. She laughs as she tells me she was a bit nervous she would find touring younger children challenging when she started giving these school tours at the Garden. She soon found, however, that though it was different from teaching upper level students, it was also just good fun.
“I’m not responsible for making sure they learn the curriculum, I’m here to entertain them with interesting stories about the plants we have here in the garden – …