Category Archives: Gardens

Celebrating Conrad Gesner Day 2017 (and Spiral Sunday #27)!

Gessner house Zurich March 2008 018

Happy Conrad Gesner Day!  Who is he, you may ask?  And why does he have a day?  Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565.  Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.

Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”)  is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.

However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death.  To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants.  Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.

Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae.  It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees.  It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors.  The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):

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As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner.  This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:

Spirals in Zurich March 2008 119.png Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!

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Spiral Sunday #26 – a bumper crop from Birmingham Botanical Garden

Today Karin and I took a drive up to Birmingham to visit my daughter Ellen, who is studying applied performance and community theatre at Birmingham School of Acting.  After picking her up we went for lunch at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  Now, I’m a bit of a botanic gardens collector; I love visiting them, and keep a life list of those I’ve visited and a wish list of those I’d like to visit.  So I was sure I had been to the Botanical Gardens as a PhD student during a British Ecological Society conference at the University of Birmingham.  But when we arrived there I had no recollection of the glasshouses or the layout, it was not familiar at all.  Odd how the memory plays tricks, one way or another.

I can recommend a visit, though – the Gardens looked stunning even this early in the season; lots of plants in flower and even a buzzard circling low overhead.  It being Spiral Sunday, of course, I was seeing spirals everywhere; in the unfurling fronds of a tree fern (Blechnum gibbum):

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On a cast iron garden seat:

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In the flowers of a variety of camellia:

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In the leaves and flower cones of Banksia grandis:

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And in the design of a sun hat in the Gardens shop:

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The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardeners’ World

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The latest series of the BBC’s flagship horticulture programme Gardeners’ World started on Friday, heralding its 50th year of broadcast – quite an achievement.  I’ve long been a fan, and a few years ago jumped at the chance to take part in one Science in the Garden special episode with Carol Klein (which I’ve posted about previously).  Since Friday I’ve given some thought as to what I get from the programme and have come up with a list of the main reasons why I love watching it:

1.  At its heart, Gardeners’ World is about the main subject of this blog and of my career: biodiversity.  Specifically the programme is centred on the biological richness of wild plants and the diversity of the horticultural varieties that we have created from them, for food and for ornament.  Spinning off from this is the acknowledgement that, although much of it is not native to Britain, this plant biodiversity (and the way in which we manage it in our gardens) can have important positive benefits for the wildlife of our country, including birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects such as bees and butterflies.  This is particularly the case in urban settings and I’ve noticed a welcome trend in recent years for Gardeners’ World to include more features about city horticulture.

2.  Gardeners’ World has long championed a more environmentally friendly approach to horticulture, bringing in ideas about using peat-free compost, minimal use of biocides, recycling and upcycling, composting, and growing your own food, long before any of this became fashionable.  Indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that earlier presenters such as the late Geoff Hamilton were responsible for such fashions gaining mainstream exposure, influencing the habits of millions of people in Britain.  That kind of influence should not be under-estimated.

3. Gardeners’ World reminds me of my dad, who died in 1996.  I can recall him watching it back in the 1970s when Percy Thrower was the presenter and my dad had an allotment a short walk from our small terraced cottage house, with its tiny concrete backyard.  Some of my earliest memories of plants and nature relate to that allotment: a huge rambling rose along the fence; a greenhouse made from old window panes, filled with the rich scent of tomatoes; a toad that dad put in that greenhouse to eat the slugs; rainwater tanks hosting little communities of wriggling insect larvae.  After the allotment plots were cleared by the local council and sold for development my dad erected a greenhouse in the backyard, and grew shrubs and bedding in large pots.  In the early 1980s this was joined by a second small greenhouse for my cactus and succulent collection, many of which I still have.  Some of the best stories in Gardeners’ World are as much about people and their relationships with one another and with their gardens, as they are about plants and gardening per se (see also number 5, below).

4.  Despite having watched the programme for many years I still get new things from it.  Each season I gain inspiration for new plants and new ways of working with the garden that Karin and I are developing here in Northampton, which I’ve talked about quite a few time; see for example:  Renovating a front garden…, my post about Scientists and gardens, and the series I did on pollinators in the garden for Pollinator Awareness Week.  Gardeners never stop learning.

5. Being from the north of England I’m intrigued by the linguistic links between that part of our country and Scandinavia, particularly shared words such as “bairn”, and place-name elements such as “holm”.  Karin is Danish and these connections of language are something we often discuss.  Recently she pointed out that the Danish word for garden is “haven”.  Although it’s not pronounced in the English manner that word is probably the best single way of describing how I feel about our garden; it’s a haven from from the outside world, a place of rest and security, contemplation and physical activity, emotionally supporting us, and providing resources and space for the wildlife that uses it.  Although we don’t do much work in the garden during the winter, each year the start of a new season of Gardeners’ World reminds me of the pleasures to come in our own haven.

Of course there are sometimes things that irritate me about the programme: it can be a bit too cosily middle class at times, occasionally the advice offered can be simplistic or inaccurate, and some of the “scientific” trials of plant varieties lack rigour and replication.  Nonetheless, it’s a programme I have grown up with and one that I love to watch.  Happy Anniversary Gardeners’ World, here’s to 50 more years!

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Some upcoming public lectures

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Giving public lectures to special interest groups in and around Northamptonshire is always a pleasure as the audiences are usually very receptive.  Just been through my diary and realised that I’m giving five such lectures over the next few months, on pollinators, conservation,  ecosystem services, and so on:

8th March – “Bees for dinner?  The importance of pollinators in a changing world” – Long Buckby Women’s Institute – open to all and not just women!

22nd March – “A city without trees is like a bird without feathers” – Litchborough Gardening Club [title is slightly wrong on that link…]

5th April 2 – “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle: a personal natural history of Tenerife” – Friends of Linford Lakes (Milton Keynes)

27th June – “Pollinator diversity” – Chalfonts Beekeepers (Buckinghamshire)

12th July – “Plants & pollinators – more than just honey bees” – Cancer Research UK ladies lunch club fundraiser at Wellingborough Golf Club

Some of these will certainly be open to guests if you’re not a member and want to come along and hear what I have to say.

Happy to discuss giving a talk to other groups, please do get in touch, though I’m probably not available until after the summer as I’m also giving a keynote lecture at the PopBio conference in Germany in May and a couple of short talks at the International Botanical Congress in China in July.

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When did plastic plants become acceptable?

Plants are important.  Really, really important.  They play important roles in society and in the nature that supports our societies: plants feed us; they are a source of many pharmaceuticals; they produce oxygen and store up carbon dioxide; they can remove pollutants from city atmospheres; and they are the foundation for much of the world’s ecological functioning.  In addition they inspire poets, artists, musicians, and have huge cultural significance, as well as bringing beauty and biodiversity to even the most urban of environments. Plants positively add to our quality of life, and make us happy, whether we are aware of it or not.

OK, there’s a bit of personal bias going on here: I’ve always loved studying and growing plants, they are a huge part of my life.  But the basic facts of what I laid out in that opening paragraph are correct: plants matter.  So I find it troubling that there seems to be a recent trend in using artificial (mainly plastic) plants indoors and in outside “gardens”.  When did this happen?  When did plastic plants become acceptable?

It first struck me that there had been a recent shift in how we view plastic plants back in the summer when I visited the newly refurbished main restaurant at the university’s Park Campus.  The refurb was very nicely done and there’s a big display about how much of the university’s waste we are recycling, and there’s lots of greenery about the place – except that most of it is plastic.

Then in November we visited my son Patrick in Lancaster.  We stayed a night in a nice hotel in the city centre, in a room that led out into a private courtyard – full of plastic plants.  There was a plastic lawn, a plastic palm, even plastic ivy.  Ivy!  One of the easiest plants in the world to grow – why would you need to make it out of plastic?!  It makes itself perfectly well which you can see if you peep over the wall at the back of the courtyard:

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Then the following week I was in London at the Wellcome Trust to take part in a project review panel.  The Wellcome’s building near Euston Station is wonderful, really striking on the inside, full of light and life.  I was initially please to see an avenue of fig trees in large containers arrayed along the centre of the main concourse:

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But when I looked closely I realised that although the trunks and branches were real, these were not living plants: the leaves are artificial, made from wire and synthetic material.  So someone has gone to the trouble of growing real fig trees only to dismember them and festoon them with faux foliage.  Please, no one tell Mike Shanahan!

I’m really surprised at the Wellcome Trust, an organisation I have a lot of respect for;  we know that real plants have a positive effect on psychology and health, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for artificial ones.  In their defence the Wellcome Trust building does have some real plants scattered about the place, but they missed a huge opportunity in not using real figs here.  Even that cathedral to capitalism that is the Milton Keynes shopping centre uses real plants in most of its displays, including some lovely tree ferns:

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And splendid palms:

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Finally, insult was added to injury as we entered the New Year.  As I mentioned in my Spiral Sunday post a couple of weeks ago, we bought a wreath as a Christmas decoration and I took it apart to compost and recycle at the start of the year.  What I hadn’t noticed when we bought it was that half of the holly berries were plastic:

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This was hugely ironic given our recent study of how insects boost the value of holly by pollinating the female flowers that produce the berries!

All of this is more than just snobbery on my part.  Yes, you can argue that plastic plants are a bit naff and can never take the place of the “real” thing.  But my main concern here is an environmental one: plastic plants require resources (usually oil-based polymers and energy) to make.  And I doubt very much whether they are recycled very often.  Yes, real plants also cost resources to grow (though that can be minimised depending on how they are grown).  But they also provide a range of benefits and, at the end of their life, they can be composted.  Not something I can do with my plastic holly berries.  Not only that, but I suspect that most (all?) of the plastic plants that are sold are manufactured in the Far East.  Using British- or Europe-grown real plants would cut down on the carbon-miles required and support more local horticultural industries.

Early in 2017 Andrew Lucas at Swansea University, on Twitter, described what he thought was the most depressing tweet of 2017 so far:  “Transform your garden today: buy Artificial Grass from ExpressGrass. Cut to your size for easy DIY installation”.

Agreed, hugely depressing, but we can do something about it: stop buying fake plants.  Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Plants?  Its theme tune could be Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:

Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself…..

……It wears me out

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Spiral Sunday #15 – Happy New Year!

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A Spiral Sunday for New Year’s Day!  This shot was taken at last year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show where I was helping the British Ecological Society win a Silver Medal.  This is the water feature in Nick Bailey’s Beauty of Mathematics, one of my favourites from that year, and a garden in which Fibonacci spirals abounded, both in the plants and the hard landscaping.

Looking forward to RHS Chelsea 2017, the BES will be producing another display, and this time hunting for a Gold Medal.  I’ll let you know how it progresses.  Happy New Year to all of my readers!

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Spiral Sunday #7 – The Fernery at Oxford Botanic Garden

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Oxford Botanic Garden is a very special place and one that holds an important position in my personal journey as a scientist and teacher (see, for instance, these old posts: The Walls of the Garden and A giant falls: the Tolkien tree is no more).

Some years ago the Garden refurbished its Fernery (a glasshouse devoted to humidity-loving ferns and their relatives) and as part of the design installed a stone floor centered on an old outlet both aesthetically and topographically – the floor level slopes inwards from all sides to allow water to flow into the drain.  It’s a nice confluence of design and practicality using, of course, a spiral.

That’s the seventh in my Spiral Sunday series; more next week.

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International Wildlife Gardening Conference – 23rd November

20160702_100724An International Wildlife Gardening conference is to be held at the Natural History Museum in London on 23rd November this year, organised by the Wildlife Gardening Forum.  The theme is:  “What European wildlife and nature gardeners can learn from each other” – very apt in these post-Brexit times.  The cost is £50 for the day (including lunch) and you can book by following this link.

Here is the programme for the day:

10.00 Registration and tea/coffee

10.30 Introduction and background; The Forum and the Wildlife gardening movement in England and Wales – Dr Steve Head (WLGF)

10.50 Nature gardening in Germany: an historical view from the start to today. How useful is the concept of native plants for wildlife? – Dr Reinhard Witt (President of Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

11.25 Naturgarten e.V.: nature-oriented design in gardens, educational institutions and public space in an era of climate change – Ulrike Aufderheide (Naturgarten e.V. [Nature Gardeners’ Association], Germany)

12.00 Lunch and networking (optional guided tour of the Wildlife Garden)

1.30 Biodiversity path in a heritage park: a case study – Jérôme Constant and Carole Paleco (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) (Afternoon Session Chair: Andrew Salisbury)

2.05 Looking for oases – Marianne van Lier and Willy Leufgen (Stichting Oase [Oasis Foundation], Netherlands)

2.40 Tea/coffee

3.00 Looking after our roots and the brown stuff – Sarah Rubalcava (Ireland)

3.35 19 years of Garden for Life: working together to promote wildlife gardening in Scotland – Dr Deborah Long and Juliette Camburn (Garden for Life Forum, Scotland)

4.10 Panel session with speakers (led by Adrian Thomas)

4.30 Summing up and Close

(Please note; this programme may be subject to late changes)

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Urban areas as a refuge for insect pollinators: conservation for the city

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Urban conservation ecology is a fast growing field that has mainly focused on how towns and cities can support populations of plants, animals and fungi that may be declining or threatened in the surrounding rural environment.  That is, the city for wildlife conservation.  In a new essay in the journal Conservation Biology, written with colleagues from across the world, we argue that conservation for the city (an idea originally conceived, I believe, by Steward Pickett) should also be a focus of future research and management activities.

Conservation, or ecology, for the city in essence means that plants, animals and fungi, as well as being supported by the city (see our recent urban bees example), play a role in supporting the city itself through the provision of ecosystem services such as decomposition, flood alleviation, and crop pollination.

It’s pollinators and pollination that we particualrly focus on in this essay – here’s the abstract:

Urban ecology research is changing how we view the biological value and ecological importance of cities. Lagging behind this revised image of the city are natural resource management agencies’ urban conservation programs that historically have invested in education and outreach rather than programs designed to achieve high-priority species conservation results. This essay synthesizes research on urban bee species diversity and abundance to suggest how urban conservation can be repositioned to better align with a newly unfolding image of urban landscapes. We argue that pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach. In a rapidly urbanizing world, transforming how environmental managers view the city can improve citizen engagement while exploring more sustainable practices of urbanization.

I’m happy to send the PDF to anyone who wants a copy; here’s the full citation:

 

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Renovating a front garden for pollinators: because there has to be more to a scientist’s life than just…..science!

Over at the Standingoutinmyfield blog, the author has posted some “Photos from a hardwood floor“, and contrasted the satisfaction to be derived from a project such as (in this case) laying a new floor in her home (and great it looks too!) with the dissatisfaction that life as a scientist can bring.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I have the best job in the world, but I agree with her that there has to be more than science in the life of a scientist.

It’s probably not widely realised amongst non-academics, but failure and rejection are MUCH more common than success and acceptance in our professional lives.

Rejection rates for most journals are greater than 50%, and frequently as high as 80% to 90%; success rates for large grants are typically lower than 20%.  In the past seven months I’ve had one grant application and five papers rejected.  It can be very disheartening,  which is why I have to have more in my life than just science.

Of course there’s the teaching and admin that is a vital part of my job, but, like Standingoutinmyfield, other projects are important.  So Karin and I have spent part of the summer refurbishing an old summer house at the back of the garden (on-going) and renovating and planting our front garden (almost done).  As the latter project involves plants that are good nectar and pollen sources for pollinators, I thought I’d post some photographs:

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The original front wall – built in the late 1980s/early 1990s I think, and not at all in character with the late Victorian house.

The garden itself was paved and concreted over:

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Demolition in progress!  While I supervise…..:

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We salvaged what bricks we could, for other projects, and the rubble was taken to the local recycling centre to be used as hardcore.

It’s amazing where plants will grow:

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The site is almost cleared, ready for a local semi-retired bricklayer (with 56 years of experience!) to build us a new wall using similar bricks to those of the house:

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And here it is:

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The soil in the front garden was very poor, varying from solid clay to builder’s rubble, so needed a lot of peat-free compost and sharp sand to improve it.  But finally we were ready to plant it up:

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The garden is south facing so we had to choose plants that would do well in a hot, dry summer (not that we have many of those at the moment….).  It will take a year or two for them to get established and knit into a full display.  The plants are a mixture of pollen- and nectar-sources for pollinators plus things we just like – here’s the full list:

A small scrambling rose Rosa “Warm Welcome” – a beautiful, unusual colour, a very nice scent, and appropriate name for the front garden!

Lavender “Hidcote” – planted as a low hedge along the full length – even as we were putting in the plants, worker Buff-Tailed Bumblebees were visiting the flowers.

Plectranthus argentatus –  not hardy here but a lovely foliage plant, fast growing, and with flowers that bees like.  I’ll take cuttings in the autumn to keep it going.

Wisteria – this is quite a large plant that was a birthday present for Karin.  But I’ve lost the variety name so will have to try to track it down.

A fig – Ficus “Panache” – because we like figs.  The roots have been constrained in a sunken container to encourage the plant to produce more fruit and less growth.

A self-sown privet (probably Ligustrum vulgare) that was already in the front garden; we allow it to flower (rather than treating it as a hedge) as the bees love it and the black fruit can be eaten by birds.

Potentilla “Gibson’s Scarlet and “Jean Jabber” – deep red and vivid orange, respectively.

Achillea “Fanal” – also deep red and favoured by hoverflies.

Salvia nemorosa “Caradonna” – beautiful, intense purple.

Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) because we love the smell and hoverflies love the flowers.

Japanese Anemone x hybrida “Honorine Jobert” – pure white and late flowering.

A perennial sunflower Helianthus “Lemon Queen” – likewise a late flowering hit with the pollinators.

Lamb’s Ear – Stachys byzantina – particularly favoured by the Wool-carder bee Anthidium manicatum.

There will be more to come in the near future.  Meanwhile, here’s a before-and-after shot:

 

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