Monday 30 September 2013

A week at the Chelsea Physic Garden

I have always been interested in the Chelsea Physic Garden. It is the oldest botanical garden in the country, originating as an apothecary garden in the 1600s, it is a garden that retains a lot of character and an antiquated charm and is like a cabinet of curiosities for plants. It plays an tomey part in the history of horticulture and botany and now a garden specialising in ethnobotany, its significance still remains.

The Wardian case is one of many examples, used in up until the 1950s by institutions like Kew to transport plants, it was instrumental to the changes of entire countries. It was with this that Robert Fortune (one of the many curators of the garden albeit a brief stint) transported tea plants to India from China, hence causing a tide change of economy & politics within these two countries. The Wardian case itself was invented by Dr Ward in 1829 - once master of the Society of Apothecaries that formerly owned the garden.

My passion for Horticulture first began from wanting to grow my own food, and I have always been fascinated by people and how they work. When I worked as an artist my interest was in bringing people together and how to interact and elicit responses from them. So I have always been interested in the history of plants and how they have been used. It was only when I encountered Dixter that I found ornamental horticulture really exciting. As Dixter is such an all encompassing experiential place, it has given me a deeper understanding how plants can make people connect, use, think and feel about a space. My origin of interest is richer but still remains. I also love seeing lots of interesting plants and think of how they can be used in the garden! Anyway it was with this in mind I wrote to the Chelsea Physic Garden, asking if anyone there would be interested in an exchange, and their then trainee Tom Wells happened to be, so we swapped rooms and work for a week.

Mon 8th July
Weather: Very hot, full sunshine.

This handsome Tithonia rotundifolia was grown in the Peter Miller section & DOB.
Dixter has used this in the garden too, but it's hard to get good plants of it
because it needs good heat. 

I got an induction and brief tour of the garden. Helpfully head gardener Nick Bailey asked what I wanted to get out of the week, and without hesitation I told him that I wanted to learn more about glasshouse work, propagation and get a feel of how the garden worked.

My first task of the morning was to water the outdoor Canary Islands plant collection and deep water some big pots of mixed plants that had things like Brugmansia suaveolens in them. Then it was working in a team morning to strim the edges of the Dicotyledon Order Beds - DOB for short. I had to wear goggle over my glasses which misted up with condensation, making vision slightly difficult. I then helped Emma with the Peter Miller section of the garden. This involved picking up Magnolia grandiflora leaves including under some Abutilon sp., topping up soil along a Lavandula sp. hedging. Then I replanted some of the Lavandula so they were more evenly spread out and less gappy.

Tues 9th July
Weather: Hot, but not as hot as yesterday. Height of temperature around 26°C , min. 16°C at night. There was also a nice cooling breeze - gorgeous!

I worked with Kate manager of glasshouses on the 'Tropical Corridor'. I scrubbed scale insects off with a toothbrush and cleaned off mealy bugs with a powerful water spray using just water. She showed me the glasshouse check list, what she has to routinely go through once a week - checking each house methodically, to see if there any pests or diseases, if control is necessary, temperature etc, everything that ensured that they were in good working order and that the plants within them were happy. A feed is given to the plants once per week via a Dosatron - a non electric water powered chemical dispenser.

I tidied and watered an area that the Natural History Museum rents out to keep plants they are doing experiments on. There were a lot of fallen leaves. The plants were a brassica (possibly Arabis), Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebells) & ferns. Near there was greenhouse that had some interesting smelling Aloysia sp. that smelt of mint.

Soleirolia soleirolii in the bottom right corner.

Then I scraped and hand forked out a weed called Soleirolia soleirolii aka 'Mind Your Own Business' in The Fernery.

Weds 10th July
Weather: Hot
I worked with propagation manager Nell Jones and did some semi-ripe & heeled cuttings of Salvia officinalis. For both type of cuttings some we cut the leaves in half, some we left as small whole leaves. Of each set, we put one under the automatic mister, the other outside of it to be hand watered. This was because the last ones she had tried the leaves had rotten off.

The sage was taken from the Superfoods exhibition, that showcases food labelled in such a way.
To better inform people about them and to dispel any marketing myths. 

She showed me how to search for plants on their database, and informed me what their accession numbers were (an unique sequential number given to every plant, so they can be tracked) and how to label using these. I learnt about the meaning of 'species' in the context of this garden & standard botanical gardens. At Dixter we talk about any plants that is not a cultivar as a species, here they are talking about the unique DNA that every plant (and person) has. Two plants could both be labelled Salvia officinalis but they could be genetically different even though they are the same type of plant, because they have different parents, unless they are clones. This is why species used in the Dixter context could be confusing. This reveals another function of a botanical garden, which is helping towards conserving a more diverse gene pool so that plants don't just come from a limited set of parents.

After that we set about clearing & watering an area called the nursery, which is currently a store of stock for the garden or unused plants.

Nell is inspiring in that she started out as a recruitment consultant and wanted to change careers. She started volunteering at the Chelsea Physic Garden and applied for their one year traineeship. After that they employed her as the Propagation Manager. She hardworking, committed and not fazed by anything she doesn't know. It is this attitude to keep trialling and observing like we did with the Salvia that given her success of propagating many different types of plants. She treats them all the same at the start, she tells me, then observes and start asking questions.

Thurs 11th July
Weather: Hot! At least 26/ 27°C.
I helped trainee Joe with his Pelargonium greenhouse, taking off any dead bits, weeding pots, brushing up and generally making sure the collection is presentable.

When to leave the dead - At Dixter we are meticulous about taking dead bits out if it affects the overall visual picture, but we also meticulously leave the dead when we are doing trials, so that we can see if a plant dies gracefully or not. In a botanical garden they sometimes do the same but coming from a different angle, the dead is left on specimens plants for another kind of educational purpose.

The Brassicarium, one of my favourite things in the garden, showcases
many different types of brassicas - one of the
food groups that is labelled a Superfood. 

We fed beans and peas in the Superfoods area with Miracle Gro that is in the form of a bright blue powder - 2 scoops to 10 gallons of water. Then I helped do some weeding, feeding and watering of the 'Brassicarium' also in the same section, designed by Tom the trainee whom I had swapped with, and who I still hadn't met yet.

Then I helped do some planting around and near the Edible garden, helping to fill in any holes in the display. I planted some Amaranth viridis, Arachis hypogaea (peanut) in the plants used to make oils and Aztec sections, Apium graveolens var. rapaceum (celeriac) and some Francoa sp. in the woodlandy area. After that I helped stake some Cannabis sativa plants (botanical gardens have to obtain a special license to display these) and tied up a Vitis sp.
The Aztec section. 

Fri 12th July
Weather: Hot.
Friday at the Chelsea Physic is teamwork day and they usually pinpoint a job that particularly needs doing and would be good if lots of people did it together. This included filling up a skip of general rubbish that had built up in the boat yard, wire brushing weeds out of cracks in the paths and weeding DOB.

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