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Monday, 14 December 2015

The hows, whys and wheres of composting…

By Alida Robey


I have had some intriguing responses to my previous post on composting – most commonly “Hurry up and tell us how to do it!” ; so without further delay, I give you the why, where and (most importantly) how of composting....

Why compost?

There is so much more to composting than simply meeting our own personal needs.  For me, the global urgency is such that I would have us label all shop bought fruit and veg: WARNING: Not composting will lead to the depletion of our soils! Here's why:

Compost helps regenerate soils and improve soil structure

Current agricultural practices suck nutrient out of the soil. The resultant produce has less nutritious value than in previous generations, [1] meaning we are needing to eat more to get the same nutritional benefits. [2] Commercial fertilisers are designed to promote maximum growth, not necessarily superior nutrient content of the fruit and vegetables produced. Nor do these fertilisers benefit  soil structure and health. The fibre of compost added to soil helps improve water retention and also helps moderate temperature extremes.

It provides a slow release of nutrients (especially nitrogen)

Unlike synthetic fertilisers, compost adds a bank of biological activity to the soil, which encourages beneficial worms and helps to make significant quantities of nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) bio-available slowly over time.

Composting keeps organic waste out of the landfill

About a third of household waste is likely to be kitchen-generated organic matter. Composting it yourself reduces increases in your council tax by saving some of the huge costs of domestic waste collection transport and disposal. Also, organic matter in landfill produces methane (a greenhouse gas  that contributes to global warming) and nitrogen-rich leachate (pollutes rivers and streams).

Composting transforms plant material, food waste and other organic matter into humus or compost, which is a richly nutritious soil-like material with the added benefit of microorganisms that help plants take up  the goodness in the soil. In other words, it turns otherwise smelly, unwanted waste into something really productive and pleasant to handle.

Where to compost
A community composting bin in the Shelton Community
Garden in Shelton Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
Photo credit: Joshua Whiton via Wikimedia Commons

The traditional means of composting is a bin, a heap or an enclosure in a sunny spot in the corner of a garden.  However, you can do some very effective composting even without a garden of your own:

Community composting bins require one or two people to maintain but can receive compostable materials from a community. The compost can then be used for community gardens or by individuals in the community . They can be located in parks, communal gardens, unused corners, on the edge of school grounds and other public/semi-public spaces. 

Wormeries are a wonderful alternative for those in apartments or with limited external space.  A wormery is usually a small stack of trays, which is home to a colony of compost - eating worms (NOT earthworms) that will convert most kitchen waste into wonderfully nutritious ‘worm wee’ and worm castings that can be used to feed indoor or outdoor plants or given away to friends and neighbours to use on theirs.

How to compost

This is what I consider to be the basics.  Once you have tried some of this and found it’s not going as badly as you had imagined, then I suggest you access some of the online information that will help improve your productivity. 

What goes in?

IN: 
Veg peelings & fruit

Coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells – crushed by a crunch of your hand

Cardboard (torn up no larger than a standard envelope), tissues, loo roll tubes & waste paper – shredded or scrunched up.
Especially welcome are egg boxes (ripped up a bit) and the contents of  paper shredders

Grass-cuttings (so long as you haven’t used weed-killer) and discarded pot plant contents including old compost and dead flowers

Plant prunings – chopped up to help decomposition

Weeds -  so long as they are not in seed, otherwise you will have them sprouting merrily back in the soil.
OUT (of compost bins but IN for wormeries)
Pasta, rice, couscous
Beans, pulses, lentils, cereals
Bread, chapatis, biscuits etc
Plate scrapings
Cheese and dairy products
Meat, fish and bones
Cooked potatoes

The reason many of the items above are excluded from compost bins but not wormeries is their attraction for vermin.


OUT (of everything)
Nappies
Cat and dog poo from animals that have been wormed.


Location, location, location
A typical compost available from
local councils.

For general composting, find a warm sheltered corner preferably reasonably accessible so you are not put off taking stuff there.  Set up your means of containing your compost, a compost bin or bins is the easiest, but a boxed-in area or even just a pile will do.  Your local council may, like Bristol, sell plastic compost bins and deliver them, all for as little as £12-15. You need to bear in mind that you will need to be able to turn the contents occasionally and that worms need access from below.

The great compost bake-off

Underlying the composting process is the chemical transformation of carbon materials (shredded paper, straw, vacuum cleaner dust, leaves, egg boxes, egg shells) and nitrogen materials (grass clippings of untreated grass, weeds, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds) into a whole new product - compost.  It is a bit like baking a cake where the ingredients are deliciously transformed by mixing and baking.  We can control the conditions in our compost to encourage the materials to decompose faster and effectively (i.e. to produce a really good cake rather than a baked lump of goo).

The other factors your composting recipe needs to include are a mix of particle sizes that assist aeration and hold enough (but not too much) moisture.  As with the cake, the mixing and aerating are important success factors between it just working and it being great. If it’s getting smelly, add more carbon materials and aerate it more frequently by turning it over.

Depending on your method, the transformation process can take just a few months.


Layer dress

Start layering your contents, bearing in mind the need to mix carbon and nitrogen items (roughly 2 carbon:1 nitrogen, but adjust according to whether it seems to look and smell healthy).  And just keep adding, remembering that it will all break down a lot smaller. I prefer to have 2 or 3 bins, and empty them out completely from time to time, retrieving the made compost from the bottom and piling the rest back into one bin. This can be a lot easier than turning the contents of individual bins. You can keep one bin of nearly decomposed compost at the ready for when you want to use it in the garden.
Happy composting!

Further resources about composting:


References:

[1] World Economic Forum (14 Dec 2012) What if the World's Soil Runs Out? Time 




Monday, 7 December 2015

Bristol is buzzing, how the city is helping pollinators

By Helen Roberts


There has been a substantial amount of press coverage recently on the plight of our pollinators. They are now less abundant and widespread than they were in the 1950s. A number of threats are responsible, including habitat loss, disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use.

A swathe of flowers for pollinators bring a
lot of cheeriness on a grey autumn day on
Horfield Common, Bristol.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
There is not one smoking gun among these threats, but rather the combination that has endangered some species in the UK. Loss of wild flower rich habitat (due to intensive agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation) escalates the effect of disease, extreme weather, climate change and pesticide use. Without food or shelter, pollinators are more vulnerable.

 Whilst visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden this autumn, I noticed the abundance of pollinators busily visiting many different flowers from the orchid look-a-like flower of Impatiens tinctoria to the swathes of Rudbeckia sp. and Verbena bonariensis. This year saw the 6th year of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden hosting the Bee and Pollination Festival in September. The Community Ecology Group from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences was exhibiting and promoting their research as well as the exciting Get Bristol Buzzing initiative.

To find out more about pollinator research at the University, I met up with Dr Katherine Baldock, a Natural Environment Research Council Knowledge Exchange Fellow from the School of Biological Sciences and the Cabot Institute, to discuss the group’s work.

“Most people know that pollinators are important, but quite often don’t know what to do to help them, “ explained Katherine. “And this is where our research at the University comes into play”.

The aim of Katherine’s fellowship is to improve the value of the UK's urban areas for pollinators by working with various stakeholders, such as city councils, conservation practitioners and the landscape industry. 

Translating science into solutions
NERC KE Fellow Dr Katherine Baldock.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple.

Up until 2014, Katherine worked on the Urban PollinatorsProject, which is researching insect pollinators and the plants they forage on in urban habitats.

Building upon research from this project and her current Fellowship, Katherine and her Bristol colleagues have contributed to the development of  a Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy(2015-2020). The University research group has teamed up with Bristol CityCouncil, the Avon Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth Bristol, Buglife, SouthGloucestershire Council and the University of the West of England to implement this with the aim of protecting existing habitat and increasing pollinator habitat in the Greater Bristol area.

The group is also raising awareness of the importance of pollinators to a wide-ranging audience within the city and further afield. This is the first local pollinator strategy within the UK and follows closely in the wake of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' National Pollinator Strategy launched in 2014. It will help to promote aspects of the national strategy relevant to urban areas and hopefully set a precedent for the development of other local pollinator strategies throughout the UK.

The local pollinator strategy outlines actions that will help fulfill the strategy aims, including:
·         formation of a Local Pollinator Forum intended to share knowledge and best practice,
·         establishment of a joined-up approach to pollinator conservation by linking projects through the Get Bristol Buzzing initiative,
·         working with the public in local areas to explain actions they can take as individuals.

“Urban green spaces are important corridors for wildlife and help to provide linkages across the country”, explained Katherine. I envisaged a series of insect aerial motorways linking the whole of the UK, invisible threads connecting countryside, urban fringe and city centres.

The bee link-up

The Get Bristol Buzzing initiative is doing just that, as one of its strategic aims with the local pollinator strategy for 2016-2020, is to “Map pollinator habitat and identify target sites that allow habitat networks and stepping stones to be created to enable pollinators to move through urban areas”.

Katherine talked about how engaging the public at ground level was really important to Get Bristol Buzzing. The initiative is the pollinator component of My Wild City, a project whose vision is for people in Bristol to help transform spaces into a city-wide nature reserve. A number of interactive maps have been created that allow people to add what they have been doing in their area to help wildlife. The Get Buzzing initiative will feed into these maps.

Kath said, "The fact that you can add yourselves onto a map makes the Get Buzzing Initiative really visually appealing to people and much more personal."

So, what can you do at home to help urban pollinators?


·         Plant for pollinators. Think about what plants you have in your garden. Could you change the planting or improve on it to make it more attractive to pollinators? Think about growing species that have nectar and pollen rich flowers and let your lawn grow longer to allow plants to flower.
·         Avoid pesticides. Most gardeners like their plants to remain pest free but avoid the temptation to use pesticides and accept the fact that you will lose some plants to pests. Instead try to encourage wildlife that will devour those pests or cultivate plants that will deter pests. 
·         Provide habitat. As pollinators need a home, you can always make your own nest boxes if you want to give your pollinating visitors a helping hand by drilling holes in a log or by bundling up lengths of hollow sticks such as bamboo. Visit the Botanic Garden's bee hotel for inspiration!

"Setting aside a wild bit of garden can help pollinators by providing food, but provides nesting sites too", remarked Katherine.

Additional information:

·         The Urban Pollinators Project was recently listed as one of the top 10 ground-breaking research projects in the Daily Telegraph. Read more.

·         Results from this research have recently been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B with more publications in press. A list of publications can be found here.

·         You can read more about Dr Katherine Baldock and the Urban Pollinators Project on page 7 of the 2015 edition of the Cabot Institute's magazine.



Thursday, 3 December 2015

Undergraduates get their first glimpse at the garden

By Alida Robey

I've been promising myself a visit to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden since I arrived in Bristol four years ago. Life has intervened. Yet when the opportunity came to join the new intake of students from the University on their first practical of their 3 year undergraduate degree, I leapt at the chance. 

Once there, the thrill of the plants, garden, stories and mysteries within, were hard to resist!  I joined the briefing given by the Garden's curator, Nick Wray, as he introduced the day's second group of 70 students (over 250 students attended the practical over two days) to their PhD student demonstrators - there to inspire the undergraduates about different aspects of the gardens.  

An introduction to the day

These biology and zoology students were visiting the garden as part of their ‘Diversity of Life’ module - taking a first-hand look at some of the adaptations that have enabled plants to diversify into the more than 400,000 species that exist today. Beyond this, however, the practical offers an opportunity for the students to get to know each other and learn to work collaboratively, gain confidence in sharing knowledge,  as well as orientate themselves to this incredible resource available to them.

Nick and the demonstrators were up against time and the logistics of manoeuvring 70 students around 6 ‘work stations’. Students were split into manageable groups and two volunteer guides were brought in to assist moving the groups swiftly through the rotation of topics presented around the garden.
Off we went. As a newcomer myself, I shared the sense of wonderment and awe one student expressed as she exclaimed at how much more there was at the Garden than she had expected. She pointed out how interestingly organised the gardens were, which effectively revealed the story of plant evolution – a set-up that Nick had explained was unique to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden.

Into the glasshouses for plants that eat and are eaten

I followed a group into the glasshouses where Edith showed us the adaptations plants have evolved to cope with extreme habitats. Plants from very different families share common features that are adaptive in similar conditions. Euphorbia, for example, which grows in the deserts of Africa is so similar to the form of cacti found in the deserts of America that they are often misidentified - this is an example of convergent evolution.

The striking Haemanthus coccineus - a native of South Africa -flowers and then sets seed in autumn to coincide with the first rains, giving the seedlings a full rainy season to develop. The leaves appear well after the flowers to reduce the amount of moisture lost prior to the rains. Edith pointed out carnivorous plants that have adapted to nutrient poor habitats. She showed us a plant that produces citronella to deter insects and a species that looked half eaten to make it less attractive to herbivores.
The group was then passed along to Nick who ushered us into the tropical greenhouse to reveal further wonders, such as the orchids of Mexico that require pollination by moths to produce vanilla pods. When commercially produced in the Comoros Islands, pollination is done by hand for every flower - a task often given to children in this struggling economy. We saw the giant lily pads of Victoria cruziana. Reminiscent of triffids, Nick pointed out that in summer they have to be cut back every three days to prevent them growing out of the pond.

Nick Wray shows the students the largest seed in the world.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
Hmmm... time to escape back into the fresh air where things were growing at a more manageable pace for me, but Nick continued to show the group other commercially important plants, such as lotus, bananas and cotton. He held up a specimen of the world's largest seed - that of the sea coconut or coco de mer (Lodoicea maldivica), which can weigh up to 30 kg.

The students were then taken into an area of the glasshouses that's not open to the public and shown some very rare and unique plants, including Amborella trichopoda, which is of particular interest because molecular analyses suggest this is one of the earliest flowering plants. It is the last remaining species of a group that first appeared on Earth more than 140 million years ago, when dinosaurs still dominated the animal kingdom.  A sprawling shrub native to New Caledonia, Amborella doesn't cope with changes in humidity very well, so it is kept behind plastic to control the humidity.

Some students scribbled madly, while others just chose to listen as Nick enthusiastically explained what a unique experience this is for University of Bristol students.  'Until last year, Bristol was the only botanic garden in the UK growing this plant,' said Nick. (The University of Cambridge has recently acquired one.)

New Zealand garden – survival of the species

In the New Zealand garden, Dave showed the radical ways plants survive difficult conditions; in this case, the attentions of the now extinct Moa bird. This was graphically illustrated by Pseudopanax, which starts off its first 10 years or so as a sapling with hard, spiky, downward facing sword-like leaves. Once considerably taller - namely beyond the reach of 3m tall Moas - the trees don't invest as much energy into being unpalatable and transform into an unrecognisably different form, with soft and safely inaccessible leaves reaching to the light.

Angiosperm phylogeny explained

A group gathers around the pond to learn about angiosperm
phylogeny. Photo credit: Nicola Temple
I moved on to hear about angiosperm phylogeny; a new term for me, but more exciting and less daunting than it sounds. In the past, plants were classified into family groupings based on their physical characteristics. With the advent of DNA sequencing in the last 20 years, we can use genetic relatedness to help us understand how plants have evolved. James, our demonstrator, pointed out some of the oldest species of flowering plants, including star anise (Illicium verum). This area of the garden is organised into the two major groups of flowering plants monocotyledons (seed has single embryonic leaf) and dicotyledons (seed with two embryonic leaves). The monocots include plants such as orchids and grasses, including agriculturally important species such as rice, wheat, barley and sugar cane. The more familiar garden plants, shrubs and trees, and broad-leafed flowering plants such as magnolias, roses, geraniums, and hollyhocks are dicots.

Learning in the garden beats a textbook any day

Speaking with the students, they said they enjoyed being able to touch and feel the actual plants, make comparisons and learn within this physical context. They could see as James explained how even though Protea, lotus, Banksia and London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) looked very different, their DNA suggests they are more closely related than they appear. Genetic relatedness is traditionally illustrated using a cladogram - a branching tree with scientific names at the end of the branches, with no sense of what these species look like. What an opportunity to see what the diversity at the end of those branches can look like!

Students use pens to see how flowers are
adapted to distribute pollen on the
pollinators that visit them.
Photo credit: Nicola Temple
My time ran out before I could get as far as the sessions on pollination and plant evolution!  With my head spinning from this intensive and whistle-stop tour of some of the delights and extraordinary features of this garden, I sat on a bench in the autumn sunlight to reflect on the afternoon with fellow blogger, Nicola Temple, who had invited me take part in this day.

Like many of the students I spoke with as we went from location to location, I was delighted to have had the opportunity to understand the great thought behind the layout of the gardens.  There was far and away more here than I had bargained on.  I wanted to keep going but knew I could only take in so much on my first visit.  As we had gone around I had been surprised as an observer to note how quiet the students were, very few asking any questions.  Having stood back from it though I wonder if, like me, they were overwhelmed by the hidden depths to this exceptional garden. I'm certainly going to seek every opportunity to spend more time here, whether learning or simply enjoying the peaceful and stunning surroundings.

And I daresay I will come across many of the students from this day, pursuing their studies and enjoying the sheer delight and boundless wonderment that nature continues to shower upon us and that this garden so beautifully illustrates.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Latecomers to the summer flowering party

By Helen Roberts

It's the time of year when most people think that gardens are nearing the end of the full flush of summer blooms. Mid summer flowers may be dwindling but there are numerous late flowering species that still provide a riot of colour. I have always been interested in gardens at this time of year because we are often rewarded with a spell of bright sunny weather in autumn. I want to be outside enjoying the garden, hanging onto the summer for as long as I can before the cold deepens and the nights draw in. So planning for some autumn colour in the garden can be very rewarding.
  
With thoughts of designing my own garden for a prolonged season of flowering, an excursion to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden was due. I met up with Froggie who showed me the bounty of colour at this time of year in the gardens.

First stop was the hot borders which can be found in front of The Holmes, which were evidently at their most scorching in terms of vivid colours, with swathes of Hemerocallis, Penstemon, Helenium, Rudbeckia, Tithonia, Fuchsia and Dahlia. Froggie pointed out the lovely Verbena bonariensis, which is such a great plant for pollinators and one that self seeds profusely. Verbena adds some soft architectural form to borders and provides flowers for months on end. A plant that I was less familiar with was the rather cute and tender Cuphea cyanea or Cigar flower with red and yellow tipped flowers. There is also another variety of Cuphea called the Pink Mouse - each flower does look like a miniscule mouse!

Providing structure to the hot borders were the awesome sub tropical Abyssinian Banana (Ensete ventricosum), which were still looking amazing but will soon be lifted and taken into the greenhouses. The staff keep a close eye on the weather at this time of year, any sign of frost forecast and they must move quickly to take in the tender species.

Froggie explained, “We had some hard winters a few years back and we lost quite a lot of plants so lifting plants into the greenhouses ensures they are protected. They are our insurance against a very cold winter.”

Salvia uliginosa can be found flowering this time of year
by the Botanic Garden's main pond.
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
Many of the shrubby salvias are in this tender category. Froggie showed me Salvia confertiflora, an exotic late flowering species with beautiful fuzzy crimson inflorescences about 0.5m tall. This will be moved inside soon when the weather cools. Another that caught my eye in the pollinator beds located on one side of the main pond was Salvia uliginosa, a very tall plant with vibrant sky blue inflorescences that were buzzing with bumblebees.

I have to admit to an obsession with shrubby salvias, which started after many visits to the garden of plant guru Derry Watkins over the course of this summer. Her passion for these beautiful plants is contagious. They are an extraordinary group of plants that flower continuously from June until October and the flower colours are exquisite. The colours really pack a punch in terms of vividness. I purchased Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’, which started producing vibrant magenta flowers back in June and is still putting on a show of pink in October. I plan to take cuttings of this to provide a back up plan in case I lose my original plant (I am going to risk leaving mine out over winter).

Toad Lilies (Tricyrtis macropoda). Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
In amongst the buzzing pollinator borders were the very pretty and delicate Toad Lilies (Tricyrtis macropoda). I watched bees visiting these inflorescences and collecting nectar by robbing it through the back of the flowers. The pink flowered society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) and Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) were very subtle in hue combined with dazzling yellow Rudbeckia and deep purple drooping flowers of Agapanthus inapertus ‘Midnight Cascade’. Many of the hummingbird-pollinated plants were in flower including the pineapple relative Ochagavia litoralis and the terrestrial bromeliad Fascicularia pitcairnifolia. The latter, at present, is visually screaming, “Come pollinate me!” with the centre of the rosette turning an intense scarlet with a dense cluster of blue flowers tipped with bright yellow pollen.

Throughout the gardens, as I toured around with Froggie, there were interesting flowering species and the colours varied tremendously from vivid red and pink to deepest indigo. The flower forms were diverse too; delicate dangling umbels, ‘in your face’ discs of blooms, hooked and lipped nectar-rich inflorescences and some which were just plain weird looking. The gardens simply still looked stunning and I left knowing that it’s not yet time to put gardens to bed, there’s plenty more flowers to come.

More species that are flowering now in the garden include:
  • Abutilon sp. (Chinese lantern)
  • Agastache sp. (Giant hyssop)
  • Campsis sp. (Trumpet vine)
  • Caryopteris x clandonensis (Bluebeard)
  • Colchicum agrippinum
  • Commelina tuberosa Coelestis Group (Day flower or Sleeping Beauty)
  • Crinodendron hookerianum (Chilean lantern tree)
  • Erica tetralix (Cross-leaved heath)
  • Impatiens tinctoria
  • Lantana camara (Yellow sage)
  • Liriope muscari (Big blue lily turf)
  • Tropaeolum peregrinum (Canary creeper)
  • Verbena peruviana (Peruvian verbena)

Friday, 4 September 2015

Why doesn't everyone compost?

By Alida Robey


Composting was an inherent part of how we lived when I was growing up – nothing was wasted.  Food scraps went to the chickens, kitchen and garden waste to one of several  compost heaps and leaves were piled into a pit for future leaf-mould.

Today,  I live in a flat with a small decked courtyard. I have access to five compost bins in an area of communal gardens in Clifton (Bristol, UK); this means with almost no effort at all the only rubbish I produce is recycling and an occasional black bag of non-recycleable inorganic waste. I don't even have to keep a compost bin at home. And still each week along my road I see quantities of black bags destined for landfill spilling out onto the pavement with fruit and veg and greenery.  Given the years I have spent trying to coax friends and neighbours in different locations to compost, this scene is a heart-rending weekly reminder of my lack of success in this personal campaign!

So when I was camping a few weeks ago, and had ready access to a group of highly educated and motivated young people, I decided to get some clues as to just why, I have had such disappointing results!  Just what is it that gets in the way of perfectly sensible people doing a perfectly sensible thing, which is so crucial for soil regeneration?

The group I talked to all had higher education degrees of various disciplines; they ranged in age from 22 to 43 and three of them were parents of young children; one is a science teacher and one has a mother who is a professional gardener; one has parents who spend their weekends on the allotment.  I was hopeful of finding motivation and some enthusiasm and knowledge.  I set forth with a few simple questions to find out just what their position was on the matter of composting.

Whilst this group may not be representative of anything remotely statistically significant, it did illuminate some interesting gaps in knowledge and understanding.

Composting is critical for regenerating soil.
Photo courtesy of Joi Ito, Flickr Creative Commons

What is composting?

I thought I had better start by finding out whether we were talking the same language. It was something of a shock to find that indeed we were not! To one individual it meant putting food waste in the council bin, while others provided me with a highly scientific portrayal of the biological process with little appreciation of the practicalities and its application in the garden;  one respondent assumed compost  was useful only for growing vegetables and another that it created a ‘sludge’ to go on the garden.  They had parts of the composting story but were unable to say accurately what should/should not be included in making compost and expressed no appreciation of the need to compensate for soil depletion on a localised or a more global level. 

Where did you learn about composting?

I had spent some years in New Zealand where our local Council bombarded us with information leaflets, subsidised the purchase of composting bins and where volunteer projects seemed to be run in many junior schools. The Council itself distributed free ‘worm wee’  to employees which it had generated from wormeries fed from kitchen canteen waste.  I assumed that most children these days (whether in New Zealand or Britain), were growing up well primed by the education system to look after the planet. 

Yet, it seems as if the school system had failed to equip my group of young interviewees with the basics. While some people's composting knowledge had been passed down from relatives or acquired on the internet, many couldn't recall exactly where they had learned about composting. 'I learnt about it at school, not actively, just picked it up along the way,' said Dom.  It would seem as though composting skills are acquired rather passively.

Do you compost?

It was time to get to the heart of the matter.  Not one of them had made and used compost.  One was in the process of filling a compost bin and had not yet generated usable compost. Even use of Council –provided and collected food bins was hit and miss.

Why don’t you compost and what would it take for you to do so?

It was clear from the responses that they all felt they had to have a vegetable garden or allotment for it to be worth their while to compost.  As Helen, who does have a fair sized garden said,  ‘I’m not big into gardening.’  What took me by surprise was the response of Adam, a 43 year-old father who votes for the Green Party and is interested in global environmental issues. He saw green waste going into the landfill as ‘harmless’ – ie non-toxic, without appreciating that it should be being actively used to replenish depleted soils. He had no real sense that global issues were in any way within his scope to influence, starting  in his own back garden.

Food scraps ready for the compost. Photo courtesy of
szczel, Flickr Creative Commons.
I had expected some antipathy to ‘smelly’ processes seen by many as attracting vermin or a strange but common wariness of having to handle worms. Not so this group. They didn’t feel there was anything stopping them composting,  but had no idea why they should do so and what they might be able to use it for, let alone how they might confidently go about it.

So where did this leave me?  I have to admit I was fairly despondent thinking of this as the next generation of gardeners and in charge of our fragile planet.

It struck me that these young people, though versed in some of the technical aspects of composting, lacked any real sense of the practical processes and applications for compost. Nor did they have a sense of urgency about soil depletion and regeneration. While some of my fellow campers were able to explain the nitrogen cycle and complexities of bacterial decomposition, they couldn't, for example, tell me what to put in the compost.

We are failing to equip school leavers and tertiary graduates with the basic core skills at their easy disposal for generating our rapidly depleting soil and minimising waste, let alone motivating them to do anything about it. In a world that exudes a sense of helplessness in the face of global trends we have not succeeded in showing them even the basics of what we can all realistically and fruitfully be doing towards the health of our planet, our communities and our own households, parks and gardens. In my next post, I'll write about how and why we should be composting in our urban communities.

Alida Robey has a small gardening business in Bristol. For several years in New Zealand she worked with others to support projects to establish composting on both domestic and a ‘city-to-farm’ basis. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

We came for Shaun, we stayed for the Garden

I had water,  snacks and my 'Shaun Spotter' app primed and ready to go. Everything my son and I needed for a few hours of Shaun in the City hunting. Friends were seeking out Shauns in Bristol's City Centre while we did the Downs Trail - there would be some healthy competition on Facebook.
Our first stop was the University of Bristol Botanic Garden as I knew that Shaun had been eagerly awaited by the Garden staff and I wanted to see how things were going. We met Shaun in the Jungle near the welcome hut. Morgan (my son) dutifully posed with Shaun so I could take a couple of pictures, but then he asked (closer to begging really) if we could go into the garden and have a look in the pond. Inspired by finding a newt in there a couple of years ago, he can't resist looking in every time we go.

Morgan posing with Shaun of the Jungle at the Botanic Garden
Morgan has been coming with me to the Botanic Garden for several years now as I gain inspiration from the staff and surroundings for new blog posts. He's familiar with it and we now have a bit of a routine, with the large pond always being the number one stop. There were two species of dragonfly and little blue damselflies taking their strategic positions around the pond. The water was crystal clear allowing us to see to the bottom clear across the pond.

On our way over to the raised pond near the Mediterranean Collection, we stopped to watch the action surrounding the bee hives (Morgan choosing to stay a very respectable distance away). The second pond brought our dragonfly species count up to three and Morgan spotted a discarded exoskeleton of a dragonfly nymph floating on the surface. This prompted a discussion about metamorphosis. As our eyes tuned into the life of the pond, we spotted water boatmen - Corixa punctata (some of the biggest I've seen), larvae that I couldn't identify and whirligig beetles (Gyrinus substriatus). We watched as honey bee after honey bee came to rest on the water lilies to drink.
Who knows how long we stared into the pond. It was one of those wonderful moments of absorption - I wasn't worried about the time or what to cook for dinner or a pressing deadline I had at work. I was just there.

Shaun's popularity

Shaun of the Jungle has brought a lot of visitors to the Botanic Garden. 'We had 1,000 people on Saturday,' said Nick Wray, the Garden's Curator. 'There were 350 people on Sunday in the pouring rain.'

In fact, Shaun has proved so popular, the Botanic Garden has hired two temporary staff to direct visitors and deal with the increased traffic flow - there are only so many spaces in the car park after all.

However, unlike my pond-gazing son and I, many of these visitors stay for an average of three to five minutes - just enough time to get out of the car and snap a photo of Shaun. Nic is one of the temporary staff directing the Shaun seekers and he told me that for most visitors, finding Shaun of the Jungle is their first trip to the Botanic Garden. Though he said there have been quite a few people returning to specifically tour this new found treasure.

The artist who painted this Shaun sculpture, MartynaZoltaszek, took 30 days to paint the toucans, jaguar and other jungle life. She exhibited her work at the Botanic Garden on the 28th of July, which was certainly an additional bonus for Shaun seekers that day.

Time to move on...or not

'Time to move on,' I said. 'Can we check out the glasshouses first please mummy?' was the response I received. Our Shaun seeking time was dwindling, but who can resist the glasshouses? I told Morgan we could go, but that we wouldn't be able to see any of the other Shauns. He chose the glasshouses.

In the glasshouses the lotus plants were in full glory. We were treated to some orchids in bloom and there was yet another pond to stare into.
The pond looking vibrant in the glasshouses

Alas, our Shaun count for the day was a grand total of one. But, given the choice, Morgan wanted to stay in the garden. I suppose for the same reasons he'll walk for miles in the countryside or through a woodland, but I have to drag him along city streets to run errands; the stimuli we receive from natural versus urban environments affect us differently. Nature restores me and why would it be any different for my seven year old?

His summer to that point had been a sequence of play dates and holiday camps filled with social stimulation and activities. This is important. But so is sitting and watching larvae in a pond and bees foraging. I could have easily rushed Morgan along so we could accomplish the task we had set out to do - but for what? Helen mentioned Nature Deficit Disorder among children in her recent blog following Monty Don's lectures. That day Morgan chose nature, no doubt to fill a deficit he was feeling that day. All I had to do was let him have the choice.     

Monday, 3 August 2015

Why Garden?

By Helen Roberts

Monty Don’s visit in July to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden did not disappoint. He delivered two lectures entitled ‘Why Garden’, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with lunch and a tour of the garden in between. The subject of why to garden is vast and could be approached from a multitude of angles . However, Monty used his personal experiences in working his garden of Longmeadow to discuss how gardening can bring both restoration of the mind and body to people, as well as a reconnection to the landscape.
                                                      
Monty first began gardening because of his mother, but back then it was a chore to be got through, simply a means to an end. She would frequently use the phrase, "…and what are you doing this afternoon?", which meant "you had better get on with the gardening!" By the age of 17, Monty had a rudimentary knowledge of gardening and was looking after a half-acre vegetable garden.

His first realisation that gardening was what he wanted to do was when he was back home from school and he was sowing carrots in the garden. He described to the audience that in that moment he felt singular happiness. He felt deeply rested and contented.

Connecting to nature 

I could relate to Monty's words as I feel the same whenever I am in my garden. I feel peaceful and relaxed even if what I am doing could be physically exerting, like digging. I sense a reconnection with the garden and the landscape around me (farming is in my blood so I guess that connection is somehow re-established when I garden).

When I return home from a trip away, those first glimpses from the Mendips across Somerset stir a deep sense of belonging to this landscape.  Hardy’s description of the Vale of Blackmoor in Tess of the D’urbervilles (although relating to country south of where I live) perfectly describes to me the colours and textures of where I live at the foot of the Mendips, the same vivid blue and soft haze with its intricate network of fields. His description describes to me the landscape of home and attachment.

"..the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine."

Panorama of the mendips taken from Durston Drove above Wells.
Photo credit Stewart Black, [via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0]

In today’s society, people are losing their connections to nature and to the non-urban landscape - particularly children. The NationalTrust produced a report on the topic of Nature Deficit Disorder in children and how to address it. Richard Louv also discusses this in great detail in his book, Last Child in the Woods.

There is a real and absolute need to reconnect with our natural world - not only to save it, but to save ourselves. Studies published in 2014, in the journal Environment and Behaviour, showed that our emotional connections with nature influence choices of living sustainably, but also showed there was a connection between exposure to nature and our own happiness.

Finding refuge in the garden - physically and mentally

For Monty, gardening has always been a reconnection to the landscape, to restore balance and order in his (by his own admission) sometimes disordered and chaotic mind. He shared with the audience that after suffering from depression in the 1980s, returning to the garden brought about his recovery and the restoration of his mind. His garden was his refuge.

"In this age of anxiety gardens are a refuge," Monty explained, "a safe haven from the stresses of everyday life. A garden never lies; you can trust it and it will respond to you. They are ever present and throughout the course of the seasons it will always return, offering both familiarity and stability."

Not everyone has their own personal garden. The University of Bristol Botanic Garden offers a place for people to reconnect with the natural world and to learn about local plants as well as more exotic ones. It is a plant-packed green sanctuary in the heart of Bristol. The gardens themselves open our minds to the huge diversity and importance of plants. And they are in a constant state of flux, changing over time, as gardens and landscapes tend to do.

Monty spoke about learning from other gardens to gain ideas and inspiration and soak up knowledge from those who work there. I frequently explore different gardens and I take my children with me. They are not bored by plants and gardens. They run around and explore. They discover and forage. They are connecting to the plants and animals - whether it's watching water boatmen in a pond or looking at the rocks and crevices in a wall.

I was visiting a garden the other day, and I was watching my 4-year old as he walked along a flower border gently touching and feeling different plants, such as the beautiful flowers of the paper-thin Papaver rhoeas and the fluffy fox-like tails of Hordeum jubatum. I bought seed after that visit because I wanted to recreate that sense for my children in my own garden.

Monty said, "when you garden you are building the story of your life." The Botanic Garden is doing just that. It is evolving and as it changes the imprints of those who have been involved are left behind. Creating a rich and dynamic place to explore, learn and reconnect with the natural world.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Growing orchids, growing future horticulturists

By Helen Roberts


Zoe Parfitt is no stranger to the University of Bristol Botanic Garden. When she was just 16 years old, Zoe did a work experience with the Garden. Now, she is the Botanic Garden's first full time trainee entirely sponsored by the Friends through their Education and Training Fund. I recently caught up with Zoe in the glasshouses to discuss her work at the Botanic Garden, her future career plans and her long-standing interest in orchids.

Zoe in Rwanda.
Zoe is a graduate of Writhlington School and was involved with the School's Orchid Project from the moment she got there at age 11 -  in fact, she still has close links with the project. During her time with the Orchid Project, Zoe not only learned a vast amount about orchids, she had opportunities to travel and share her knowledge in different countries, including South Africa, India (Sikkim) and Rwanda. Whilst in Rwanda, Zoe visited local schools to teach orchid conservation and propagation methods.

I asked Zoe if she could show me some of the orchids on display in the glasshouses - including some that were propagated at Writhlington School.

'I grow a lot of orchids at home,' explained Zoe. 'Some of which I have had a long time and are quite rare. In fact, for my interview at the Botanic Garden I took one of my favourite orchids, as I wanted to talk about it. It’s Stelis aprica, an epiphytic orchid that is quite rare with tiny flowers that are no more than 4mm in length, which are probably pollinated by gnats.'

At the Botanic Garden, Zoe looks after the orchids - watering, feeding, repotting, pollinating (which is done with a matchstick) and nurturing sick orchids back to health. She showed me several different species in the 'orchid hospital' that are currently being treated for lime scale insects.

'This is Rhynchostylisgigantea,' said Zoe, 'which I have treated by brushing on its leaves a dilute solution of methylated spirits to kill the lime scale insects. Orchids can be prone to both lime scale insects and red spider mites in the glasshouse environment. They can also be susceptible to fungal infections. It’s important when you water Cymbidium species, for example, that you water directly into the pot and not onto the plant to reduce the risk of fungal infection. Although not all orchids I have seen in the wild are a picture of health. In Sikkim, we saw orchids being eaten by slugs!'

Tips for growing orchids at home 

Zoe gave me some useful advice regarding my own orchids at home. They like to be constricted in their pots and should never be over potted. Zoe is involved in potting up any orchids and for this the media used is cork bark, sphagnum and for those that need it more moist, some perlite. It is important that orchids are fed regularly too and in the glasshouses Zoe feeds the orchids once a week in the summer and twice a week in the winter.

Bifrenaria harrisoniae by Orchi.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Zoe is currently looking after, re-potting and sorting the Bifrenaria harrisoniae, a species endemic to Brazil, display at the Garden. This species can grow as an epiphyte (living harmlessly on another plant) or as a lithophyte (living in or on rocks), and has showy flowers that are pollinated by bees and bumblebees. She hopes to propagate from a seedpod Epidendrum nocturnum, a beautiful orchid that is only fragrant in the evening and hence is pollinated by moths. Growing terrestrial orchids from seed is difficult and it can take up to 2 years for the plants to be transplanted from the micro propagation jars into growing media.

'Orchids are amazing plants, it’s a wonder they survive,' explained Zoe. 'In the seed pods there are about 2.6 million seeds, yet only 10 will survive in the wild. They rely on mycorrhizae to help them and each species will have its own particular kind.'

Looking forward

As well as the orchid duties that Zoe is responsible for, she also helps out in other parts of the garden on different projects. On the day I visited, she was helping a team get all the planting ready for transport down to the ballast seed garden barge to be planted the following day. Zoe explained that she is gaining invaluable horticultural experience at the Garden, diversifying her knowledge beyond orchid biology and horticulture.

'I am really enjoying working here. The learning and skills gained have been so helpful. I finish my traineeship in November this year and hope to go onto a career in orchid horticulture. I also want to gain my RHS level 3 award in Horticulture.'

In terms of her future career, Zoe is optimistic about her prospects in the orchid industry.

'I have been in touch with a number of different orchid growers. One in Jersey, the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, and the other is Motes Orchids based in Florida. I hope to secure work at these well-known orchid nurseries. In the next few years I would love to do more orchid hunting, but this time in Central America with the long term career goal to eventually set up and teach projects in orchid conservation.'


Zoe currently writes a number of orchid articles for various publications and these include The Cheltenham & District Orchid Society and Orchid Review. She has also spoken at and attended the World Orchid Congress (funded by The Cheltenham & District Orchid Society) in South Africa and attended the European Orchid Congress in London and taken part in many different orchid and flower shows including Hampton Court Flower Show where MontyDon interviewed her.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The fascination of plants

By Helen Roberts


For the past three years, the University of Bristol Botanic Garden has hosted Fascination of Plants Day. The event is part of a much larger initiative launched under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO). The goal of the day is to get people interested in plants and share the significance of plant science in both the social and environmental arenas.

In 2013, the inaugural year of the event, a total of 689 institutions in 54 countries opened their doors to the public and talked about the wonder of plants. The activities carried out by each institution were extremely varied, but they were united in their celebration of plants. Here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, there was a focus on plant classification. In Russia, huge numbers of people attended guided tours on Siberian flora. In Nigeria, focus groups discussed possible partnerships between farmers, processors and scientists. In Norway, workshops were held for children to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens.

This year, Fascination of Plants Day was held on Sunday, 17th May. Students at the University of Bristol were in the garden discussing plant classification and research in the plants sciences. I met two final-year undergraduate students, Joshua Valverde and Will Perry, who were on hand discussing different topics within the plant sciences and fielding questions from the public.

What's in a name?

Many queries related to binomial nomenclature or plant naming. In biology, the name of a plant (and indeed all living things) is divided into two parts; the first name - the genus -  defines a group that comes from a common ancestor and have some common features and the second part - the species - groups together organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Together, the genus and species forms the Latin name. Poster information compiled by Joshua explained the history of plant classification.

Joshua explained how plant classification changed over the centuries.

“To begin with, Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher, was one of the first to document and characterise plants by their morphological features. After that, plants were classified according to their medicinal use. And then long and unwieldy Latin names were used based on the morphology of the particular plant. It wasn't until the mid-1700s that Carl Linnaeus introduced the binominal system.”

Of course, taxonomists don't always agree on which groupings some species belong to, nor on where groups should be placed in the broader contexts of plant evolution. Classification of plants originally relied on finding similarities in form and structure (morphology) between plants. "This was subject to error though because unrelated species may evolve similar structures as a result of living in similar habitats or in response to some other adaptive need. This is called convergent evolution," explained Joshua.

However, molecular methods have helped resolve some of these disputes.
Gnetum gnemon, a member of the order Gnetales.
Photo courtesy of gbohne on Flickr CC.

“Morphological data suggested that the order Gnetales [what we now consider a group of 'advanced' conifers] was the closest living relative to the first flowering plant," explained Joshua. "After molecular analyses of various genes, however, it is now thought that Amborella trichopoda [a shrub native to New Caledonia] is the closest living relative to the first flowering plant. Water lilies also seem to be quite an ancient lineage.”

Will informed me that visitors were particularly interested in how DNA sequencing over the last decade has advanced our understanding of the evolution of plants. He explained that a lot of this work has been carried out by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) - an informal group of systematic botanists from around the world who are trying to reach a consensus on the taxonomic groupings of flowering plants. In fact, one of the phylogenetic trees produced by the APG is displayed on a visitor information board in the Botanic Garden.

The roots of a prestigious society

Additional information on plant classification included details about the Linnean Society of London. This society was founded in 1778 and named after the famous Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The aims of the society are to “inspire and inform the public in all areas of natural history through its broad range of events and publications”.

The society maintains the vast animal and plant collections of Carl Linnaeus (the Linnean Herbarium holds some 14,300 specimens alone), looks after his personal library as well as having its own extensive research library. The society has a hugely prestigious past and it was at a society meeting in 1858 that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented papers relating to the theory of evolution by natural selection! The society today continues to report on scientific advances and holds a number of events (including a student lecture series) throughout the year ranging from the genetic diversity of farmed animals to the future of plant conservation.

Opportunities for hands-on learning
Daisy pollen in oil under a light microscope. Image courtesy
of  microscopy-uk.org.uk/

For those members of the general public that enjoy hands-on learning, the Botanic Garden had some dissecting and light microscopes available to look at various plant structures. Under one microscope there was some daisy pollen, which I heard one member of the general public describe as resembling “those spiky looking naval mines”.

Fascination of Plants Day is held each May, so be sure to join us in the Garden for this worthwhile event next year! And don't forget to come down to the Festival of Nature this weekend (13th-14th June) learn about pitcher plant research, soil and so much more!