Tag Archives: gardening

Unsung National Treasures – 4 – The National Plant Collections

FlowerThe National Plant Collections are what they say on the tin, collections established “to conserve, document, promote and make available Britain and Ireland’s rich biodiversity of garden plants”.   “Why bother?” you ask.  Well plants can disappear surprisingly quickly because gardeners, like the rest of us, follow the whims of fashion.  The range and variety of plants available to the casual gardener has been drastically reduced by the supermarkets and DIY stores, even though they have made their limited stock so widely accessible, because they have destroyed our independent nurseries as much as they have destroyed our independent grocers.  It’s not just historical plants: who’d have thought that a plant that was widely popular only 40 years ago could have disappeared?  However “the shasta daisy ‘Fiona Coghill’ was thought to be lost from cultivation. The Collection Holder, Lady Hagart-Alexander … discovered that Reg Maxwell … still held a plant. He had received it from Philip Woods, who was in charge of propagating ‘Fiona Coghill’ when it was first marketed in 1968. … the plant you can buy today is exactly the same as the popular plant in the late 1960s.”

This is not a matter of vague good intentions and a romantically English blend of aristos and plantsmen.  It is about botany, as much as it’s about anything and each National Collection is “as complete a representation of a genus or section of a genus as possible” and the National Collection Holders undertake to “document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future”.

So where do you go to see them, these catalogued collections of plants? These are the gardening equivalent of the British National Library or the cellars of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and you’d think that the National Plant Collections would be held at Kew or Wisley, but in fact they are held on allotments and back gardens, in large estates and municipal parks.  Almost half the collections are in private ownership, and others are held by councils, commercial growers and universities.  I don’t know about you, but I find the robust practicality of accepting the help offered by dedicated individuals over creating something flashy and unsuportable from scratch to be surprisingly  moving. It is confirmation that all you need to do to make a difference in this world is roll up your sleeves, pull on your wellies, and – well – make a difference.  This is what gardening geeks do for fun: think of it as our national gardening wiki.

If you fancy taking it on, then there is still much to be done, and the The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens publishes a list of missing genera.  Be warned, though, that holding a National Plant Collection is no sinecure, and Collection Holders have to document their plants and work with others to ensure that their collection can withstand whatever disasters might occur: “Oak trees need space and it may not be practical to hold a full back up collection, however, Lathyrus spend the winter as seed in the fridge. Collection Holders must propagate their plants so that if an oak tree is hit by lightning, or the fridge fails, the plants are not lost from the collection (and possibly horticulture) forever.”

The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens is a surprisingly new organisation, being founded as a registered charity in 1978 as an independent offspring of the Royal Horticultural Society.  This contrasts with the many batty British conservation and social campaign groups which were founded between the two world wars or during the outburst of change at the end of the 19th century.  This blend of amateurs and professionals combining their expertise into a national force to be reckoned with is, however, quietly and quintessentially English.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the allotments and cold-frames, the gardens and parks, the aristocrats and nurserymen, the plastic labels and extensive database that form the National Plant Collections.

Autumn evenings and new beginnings

Filthy LucreIt seems to me September has much more of a sense of new beginning to it than the middle of winter: January 1st feels like a nadir not a beginning. March and April put a spring in the step because new beginnings are easy when the world is full of daffodils and lambs. But September puts a boot up the backside and life picks up again with a different kind of impetus. A month ago it was light in the evenings, it took me half an hour to drive to work, and I didn’t have any classes or chores. Now it’s dark and chilly, it takes me nearer an hour to get to work, and I’ve a course to study for, Pilates classes to go to, books to read for the Book Club, and I’ve just signed up for The Times’ new online game: Fantasy CEO.

Fantasy CEO seemed such a good idea at the time: a supplement to my other studies, a mix of a game and an exam, and a positive distraction from time-wasters such as Travian and blogging. Having started on their material, I really am not so sure. There’s a lot to read and the game hasn’t even started. And it’s all rather grown up, competitive and – well – technical. I ought to know instinctively that EBIT is Earnings Before Interest and Tax, but I don’t. “Oooh”, as they say, “er”.

Pilates, on the other hand, is proving to be enjoyable. There are only two of us in the class and it is hard not to improve in those circumstances. Since I am not my body’s best friend (hey, don’t blame me, the feeling’s mutual) I am having to make the acquaintance of muscles I don’t know I have. It’s like learning to hear the line the violas are playing in a pastoral piece when you are habitually tone deaf. I’m finding it mentally stimulating as well as physically challenging. I may have to resort to filling in my copy of The Anatomy Colouring Book. Oh, look! Another way of wasting time.

The book group, however, seems sadly beset by Quality Fiction. Fortunately I’ve been invited out for a curry at the time of the next meeting and the book for November is humorous. However, it worries me that the group discussed their departure into frivolity so earnestly. We shall see. They are interesting and intelligent women, it is just that I don’t really like fiction.

September is an odd time to start gardening, but having spent much of the weekend up to my wrists in weeds and compost, I’ve realised it is in fact a good time to start. There’s lots of satisfying clearing and tidying up to do, you can get a splash of instant colour with pansies and chrysanthemums and reliable deferred gratification by planting bulbs. I am a big fan of bulbs: minimal effort now and lots of splash in the spring, just in time to get one all geed up and enthusiastic again after the winter. September’s also a great time to score lawn-mowers off freecycle – two emails and I got offered half a dozen of the things.

So all in all, a snap in the air, a boot up the bum, and a time of new beginnings.