Published: 27 August 2013
Ventnor Botanic Garden
During my recent visit to Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight I became aware of a new way to not only grow plants but equally importantly, how to display them to the public.
The olive grove with it rocky soil ready for planting
This becomes an important point especially when it involves a botanic garden. 
 
I met Ventnor’s Curator, Chris Kidd; he has worked at the gardens for many years as both head gardener and manager before becoming the curator and knows the site well. He has seen some of the themed planting schemes from their conception and early development. This is now proving highly beneficial because the evolution of certain planted areas is taking on what many visitors may see as a radical approach. 
 
One such area at Ventnor is the Mediterranean zone. For this project the global geographical areas include the Baltic, North Atlantic, Sahara, Near East and West Pakistan, these are grouped together due to the similarity of their environmental climates, soil conditions and global seasonality which allows a wide range of plants to be grown that all require these similar conditions.
 
An earlier Mediterranean planting scheme showing the effect of the plant population manipulation policy after thirteen years.
Some structure plants such as olive trees have been planted in the ‘prepared’ ground. What appears to be rough, stony land is in fact carefully prepared to replicate the conditions found in the regions identified above.
 
After careful research by Chris Kidd and his team the planned course of action is to now source seed and plant species that will colonise the area to give a naturalistic effect as well as following their natural growth and life cycles.

Over the years this will allow naturally dominant species to take over certain spots while others may spread by seed or vegetative methods further across the plot. 


Even the paths may become ‘overgrown’ in places says Chris Kidd “We want the visitors feet to do the weeding in certain places, the plants will establish themselves where people are not walking” This will be adopted on the gravel surfaces in the open air eating area outside the visitor centre and cafe.

 

‘Weeds’ may even establish themselves on the gravel eating areas where visitors don’t walk on. 

Curator Chris Kidd looks for signs of encroaching plant growth.
This concept is known as “landscape immersion”, it leads to a more naturalistic appearance of the gardens and visitors will be encouraged to get up close and be surrounded by plants so making it as interactive as possible. ‘Touchy feely’ will be encouraged whenever possible.
 
It is essential that the plant selection includes as many species as possible within the different growth ‘levels’ or ‘stories’, these will include ground cover, low and middle height and higher into the small tree canopy level.  Many of the mature trees already growing in the gardens will provide the higher foliage canopy.  

The lower level species required will need to include species that are native to the planned planting zone, This aspect leads to the questions about controlling these species within the garden and the possible ‘un-kept’ visual effect created at different stages of their life cycles, especially at the end of the growing season and over the UK winters.

An earlier Mediterranean planting scheme showing the effect of the plant population manipulation policy after thirteen years.
After thirteen years the planting scheme has evolved naturally in other borders.

Chris Kidd pointed out another important consideration with this aspect of ongoing management, “This policy requires practicing a plant population manipulation policy. We will be working with nature to see which plants grow and thrive and which species become smothered by more dominant plants and disappear or perhaps re-colonise in areas where the plant competition is less.”
 
Another point of interest said Chris “In order to pollinate many of the flowering species we need flying insects; to ensure a healthy population of these beneficial creatures at the right time of year we also need host plants for them live on. In addition to this, the beneficial insects also have predators and getting the balance of habitat to ensure this natural biological control process has a chance of becoming established we need the host plants for the different life cycles to take place. This is why the wide range of plants is so important to the whole scheme”. This new growing concept for Ventnor certainly raises the issue of ‘when is a weed not a weed’.

Native species starting to colonise the new Mediterranean areas.


What is evident when walking through the more recently planted olive grove in what could appear to be a neglected part of the garden, and then into the area planted around thirteen years previously is how this new approach is working. The challenge for the Ventnor team is how to get this planted landscape evolution message across to their visitors.  Chris Kidd indicated that this important issue is being addressed with new pioneering technology potentially providing a great new experience for visitors as they walk around the gardens.   
 

The display of lush green foliage species from New Zealand is as realistic as possible outside New Zealand due to the microclimate within the garden. Planted in 1987 by the previous Curator Simon Goodenough from seed he collected in the wild. 
Static information boards dotted around at strategic points will not feature highly on the plans, Chris Kidd commented that “We are creating natural landscapes using plant species from the chosen geographical area, signs will not be appropriate, even the plant labels will be discreetly placed on plants so visitors who want to read them can.”

This lack of visible plant labels and information does not imply that accurate records of all existing planting schemes and new accessions to the collections are not catalogued following established protocols. The accurate maintenance and updating of the archive record for any botanical collection is of great value and Ventnor is no exception stated Chris Kidd.

Tropical House

The Tropical House at Ventnor is an impressive structure and houses a collection of plants from the temperate regions of the world. Visitors enter the main plant collection through a cleverly designed old mine shaft tunnel that winds round to suddenly reveal an impressive water fall immediately in front of them, at this point the overgrown workings of an old industrial landscape are seen. The meandering path allows close encounters with trailing vines, overhanging branches and the famous giant water lily, Victoria amazonica growing in the circular pool. The heat and smell of damp vegetation add greatly to the experience.  The entrance to the house is about to undergo a major revamp to provide a new interpretation centre. 

The Tropical House

The garden’s ‘Friends Society’ plays a valuable part in both the ongoing activities and the longer term development programs. The group are always keen to hear from anyone who is interested in the work of the gardens and may be interested in joining them.
 
Within the boundaries of Ventnor Botanic Garden there are wonderful themed areas containing spectacular planting schemes for visitors to stroll around and enjoy; from lawns with specimen trees, plenty of seasonal floral colour and the spectacular arid garden with the impressive specimen succulents and palms. There is also a hop yard where the heritage hop varieties are handpicked for processing into the gardens own brand of bear.

Agapanthus growing on the South African Terraces
 Another development that has recently been completed is the installation of solar panels to provide the energy to heat the water in the central lily pool, this reservoir of heat is then used as a heat source for the main structure. Chris commented that “These panels can generate up to 20kw of power, they are another step towards our sustainability target by reducing costs and our use of energy”

During the time I spent in this botanic garden the more immersed I became in the plants. The amazing microclimate on this part of the island provides great conditions for growing many species of tender plants to great size and maturity, resulting in spectacular groups of foliage, flowering and woody species. There are surprises around many corners, through mini ravines or the spectacular sea views from the view points.  

Chris Kidd emerges through the Dicksonia fern ravine in Australia
With their landscape immersion policy of allowing plants to spread from the confines of the borders the Ventnor team are challenging conventions, making visitors engage with their plants and look from different angles. I think this is a great, exciting though bold move.
 
Ventnor Botanic Garden has plenty of interest for everyone, parts of it are not for the faint hearted, it has places that needs exploring, getting into. People who enjoy discovering this sort of intimacy in a garden must put it on their list of places to visit.  
Reported by Chris Allen  
   
 

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