Sunday, June 29, 2014

Week One

Hello, I'm Amanda, and I'm new at Kew.  To learn more about me and this internship, please refer to the introductory post.  Typically I'll use this space to detail what I learned and accomplished in the garden this week.  This week's post is a much, much longer than I expect future posts will be, because it was the first week and everything is all just so new and interesting.  I'll start at the beginning of the week.


The historic School of Horticulture building,
beyond the water garden

I arrived an hour and a half early for orientation.  I puttered around Kew Green until just after 8 a.m., School of Horticulture building, still an hour early.  The interns chatted and got to know each-other for a bit before orientation began.  For most of the interns, English was not their first language.  I was the only student from the United States.
then made my way to the

Kate Dixon gave us some information about health and safety, interacting with visitors, and general expectations.  We went to the constabulary building to get access cards and bike permits.  In many gardens that I've been to, staff either walk or ride a utility vehicle.  At Kew, workers are actually able to bike across the grounds, so they don't spend most of their time walking to and from the kitchen during lunch and tea breaks.  After all, the garden is over 300 acres.

Hardy Display Section

After orientation, each of the interns went to the sections they would be working in.  Daisy, an intern from the UK, and I went to meet with our team leader Shelley Cleave.  Shelley introduced us to the other workers, Martin who is one of Kew's horticulture students, and Simon who is an apprentice.  The next day we would meet India, who is another staff member.

Plants are arranged in Kew's order beds taxonomically
by family name, genus, and even species.  These beds
feature both annual and perennial plants.
Although Shelley was often present to provide information and guidance, she allowed the students to get leadership experience as well.  Although we all spoke English, sometimes I did have difficulty completely understanding everything.  Everyone was very accommodating and patient.  It was especially helpful that Daisy could help decipher some things too.  I needed to be careful that everyone could completely understand me when I spoke as well, so as to avoid confusion.

It was especially interesting that the staff have set times for "tea".  Essentially they're breaks, but many workers do drink tea at tea time.  Workers gather near the kitchen and lockers to sip tea or "a coffee" (not just "coffee") and talk about what they were working on, any interesting horticultural goings-on, and life in general.  Conversations were more often than not about plants.

Daisy and I were really fortunate to be given a diversity of tasks to work on during our first week.  We completed a variety of chores in every part of the areas we were assigned.  These tasks are described by area in the following sections below.  I have to admit, I was relieved that we weren't just weeding one spot for five days.  Maybe there will be a week like that at some point, but I'm glad the first week went the way that it did.

Order Beds

We maintain a definite border around
the order beds by edging
When Shelley told us that we'd be edging the order beds, I thought that we'd be using a power edger like I'd seen used at the UT Gardens.  I was a bit nervous about being trusted with that type of equipment right of the bat.  Luckily, I was wrong.  Daisy and I used a tool that I was not familiar with, but were also called edgers.  They were like long-handled shears, where the blades were held at an angle.  According to Daisy, many people use them to keep grass from growing into their garden beds at home. 

Martin explained that you should feel the back blade of the edgers laying against the thatch edge of the grass.  Cutting should be easy -- if you feel like you're forcing the blade, you're probably not going with the contour of the border.  I struggled with this at first, but like any repetitive task, you get used to it.

A clean cut edge in the order beds
Edging can be a bit tricky though.  For instance, you may not realize that you've cut too high until cleaning up the edges afterwards.  Simon pointed out that we should avoid cutting down on pieces of mulch or rocks, because this will dull or even break the shears.  Probably the most tedious part of edging is cleaning up all the little grass clippings afterwards.  This wasn't necessary in the order beds because it is such a large area, but we did clean up clippings after edging the rose pergola beds and the grass garden.

Finishing edging doesn't necessarily mean you're done with the task. First, we set aside all the dull tools.  When it's a rainy day, the workers will sharpen all dull tools.  Next, we sprayed a soapy water mixture on the blades.  Then we dried the blades completely so they wouldn't rust.  After that, we added some grease to make sure the two blades stayed lubricated.  Then we put the edgers away in their designated spot in the shed.  It's worth mentioning here that the hardy display tool shed is the cleanest garden shed I've ever seen in my life.

So why bother?  Who cares if the beds are a little scruffy around the edges?  Scruffy beds are less visually appealing than a nice, neat bed.  Also, edging prevents grass from the lawn from spreading into the beds, creating a weed problem down the line.  Finally, regularly edging maintains the original straight edge, preventing the need to re-do the edge with a power edger annually.

Maintaining a clean, weed-free bed is essential for any garden.  Weeds compete with planted material for resources like sun, water, and nutrients.  Weeds can also be vectors for pests and diseases that may infest the other plants in the bed.

When working in any unfamiliar garden, I can be a bit nervous about weeding for the first time.  What if I remove something wrong?  What if I leave the wrong thing behind.  The order beds are arranged taxonomically by plant family, which makes weed identification a bit easier than in traditional garden beds.  For instance, if you're weeding the Rosaceae beds and there's a Leguminaceae growing in the bed, chances are that plant is a weed.  Also, many of the weeds that are a problem for Kew are also a problem in Knoxville, Tennessee.

While most weeds can be tossed in the green waste bin for composting, there are some noxious weeds that should only be destroyed by fire.  These are weeds that, if composted, are likely to survive Kew's composting process and spread throughout the garden when the compost is used.  Weeds like Oxalis and bindweed (either Calystegia sepium or Convolvulus arvensis) need to be incinerated rather than composted.

Daisy and I had the opportunity to plant a few times this week.  We started by planting some small pots of the herb Rue, also known as Ruta graveolens (1969-50371), among larger bushes in the order beds.  When the older plants are ready to be removed, the specimens that we planted will be large enough to fill in.  That way removing the older plants won't leave an unsightly gap in the bed.

We also planted Dahlia 'David Howard' (2009-440, BUCO) in patches in the long bed that runs along
Aeonium arboreum 'Atropurpureum' is actually
planted with its pot still in the ground for ease
of removal at the end of the growing season
the brick wall and Aeonium arboreum 'Atropurpureum' (1994-2986).  I liked India's description of the Aeonium as, "A Dr. Seuss looking plant."  It has a long stem and succulent, black foliage.  The plants are propagated from last year's specimens in a glass house during the winter.  Then they are planted in the order beds and grown through the summer.  Before the first frost, the plants are removed, new cuttings are taken for next year, and the remains are composted.  This particular type of plant is still contained within the pot when planted.  The pot is firmed in, and the plant is buried another inch or so to make sure the wind doesn't knock it over.  This process makes it easier to remove the plants later in the year, rather than having to dig up all the roots.

When planting, we had to be careful to scrape all the mulch to one side before breaking ground.  This way, once the plant is installed, one only has to push the mulch back into place rather than mulching again or leaving a mixture of soil and mulch.  We did have to be careful not to push the mulch up against the stem, because the mulch can get hot enough to damage the plant.

Although Daisy did some watering with a hose in the Salvia border, I just lugged around cans to water in everything that we had planted. I filled up at a nearby water box that is level with the turf.  Although a sunken water box system is more attractive and out of the way than a traditional tap, they can be a safety concern for visitors.  We had to make sure the lid covered the hole so that visitors wouldn't trip or fall in.  Shelley informed us that Kew's water box system is actually quite old.  So old, in fact, that if anything breaks, it is very difficult for them to find replacement parts.

Rose Pergola

Most visitors who meander through the rose pergola are looking up at the beautiful, fragrant blossoms.  However, if you look down, you will notice three things.  First, there is metal edging between the grass lawn and the concrete path.  Second, you will notice a square bed around each rose.  This prevents turf and weeds from competing with the roses for resources.  Third, you will notice a narrow strip of grass between the edge of the rose bed and the path that has the metal border.  This grass must be mowed, but it is too narrow for the mower that is used on the rest of the turf.  It would also be dangerous to use a traditional mower above the metal edging.

The recently mown pillar around Rosa
'Kew Rambler' (2012-363, BERO)
Kew maintains this grass with an old fashioned cylinder push mower.  I have never used one of these before, and I was excited to have the opportunity.  Daisy and I took turns mowing around each rose.  She mowed one side of the pergola, and I mowed the other side.  We simply mowed around the edges of each bed.  We would mow short, brisk movements clockwise around the bed, then counterclockwise to ensure all the grass was cut.  Even at the highest setting, the cylinder mower cuts grass a bit shorter than the rest of the lawn, so if you look close you may be able to see the line.  When we finished, Shelley showed us how to clean the blades with a water hose.

After this experience, I would absolutely recommend a cylinder push mower for anyone who has a small lawn.  The one at Kew was made of really lightweight plastic, so it was easy to push.  The bag was easy to remove and replace when emptying clippings.  My only complaint would be that the mower always seems to cut the grass, so when moving between pedestals or returning to the shed, one must make sure that the front wheels don't come in contact with the lawn or you'll leave a trail of slightly shorter grass behind you.

The climbing roses had been growing vigorously this season, and some vines were hanging into the pathway and surrounding turf.  Shelley and India told us that visitor safety was our first concern, and that we needed to tie back dangerous branches so that nobody would walk into a limb and get caught or scratched.  However, it wasn't as simple as just tying branches with twine.

Trained vines of Rosa 'Treasure Trove' (1995-97,
RODA) around a pillar of  the rose pergola. 
Note how the older growth is vertical, while
the young growth is wrapped around the pillar.
Up until relatively recently, the roses on the pergola had been trained to grow straight up their pillars.  As a result, most of the new, vigorous growth was up on top of the pergola rather than around and on top of the pillars.  Kew addressed this problem by training the vines to wrap around the pillars.  Vines on one side of the path are trained to grow clockwise around their pillars, and the vines on the other side grow counter clockwise.  This practice increases the amount of stem within the sight of the visitors.  Flower buds and new growth come out of nodes on the stem, so this improves the view from within the pergola to include many more flowers.

Typically, the hardy display team trains their climbing roses around October.  However, at that time of year many of the stems may be woody and break.  Right now, the stems are green and pliable.  This is why Daisy and I were instructed to tie back vines so they would grow in the right direction, and would be easier to manipulate by the team later in the year.

Although it was tough to get the knack of things at first, this was a relatively easy (although very prickly) chore once we got the hang of it.  Daisy and I found that it was easy to get totally consumed in what we were doing.  It was like trying to solve a puzzle.  This task easily took most of our work hours this week to complete.  Some of the earlier pillars look a little scruffy, but Shelley thinks that the next time she has us train roses we'll do a lot better.

Pruning and Deadheading
Once the pillars were mowed and the vines were trained, Shelley set us out to collect the three D's of rose maintenance, which are any parts of the plants that are dead, damaged, or diseased. There weren't many dead or damaged vines, but there was quite a lot of deadheading to do.  That is, removing the dead flowers so that the plant will put more energy into another wave of blooms rather than forming fruit (rose hips) and setting seeds.  Deadheading also beautifies the rose pergola by removing all the brown, so that visitors only see vigorous green and pink or white blooms.

The rose pergola Tuesday morning.  We "finished"
on the pergola by the end of the day Thursday.
Most of the roses were relatively disease free by Knoxville standards, especially considering the fact that Kew doesn't spray the roses on the pergola.  Sure, there was an occasional touch of black spot or a smidgen of powdery mildew, but for the most part the most diseased plants were leaps and bounds healthier than the healthiest (untreated) roses back home.  There were a couple exceptions that looked especially rough.  Daisy and I noticed that the two most sickly vines were near each-other on the path and much newer than the other climbers.  We wondered if perhaps there was something with the environment rather than the plants themselves that was causing the problem, but I completely forgot to ask anyone.

Grass Garden

'A Sower' in Kew's grass garden
First thing on Friday morning, Shelley, India, Martin, Simon, Daisy and I went to the grass garden to edge the beds.  This would have taken ages for one person to complete, but with everyone working together we were done by morning tea.  This reminded me of what Wendy from "Every Child Outdoors" in Knoxville used to say, "Many hands make light work."  I've always preferred to work alone or in small groups, but this was definitely a situation where I was glad there were many hands.

I was still quite a bit slower than the others, but I did work a lot faster and better (I think) than when we had been edging the order beds on Monday.  I could have gone faster, but I didn't want to be sloppy or make a mistake.  Hopefully I'll catch up soon.

When we finished edging, we worked on weeding around the cereal crops.  This was somewhat trickier than weeding in the order beds, because many of these weeds were seedlings from the cereals that had been grown there the year before.  Usually the weeds didn't look too similar to the cereals.  The weeds were also usually smaller than the desirable plants and were growing out of the planting pattern. There were one or two instances where it was a bit tricky, but we managed to make it through without pulling any of the wrong plants.

Friday Afternoon

After lunch on Friday, the interns got together to learn how to use the library, do a quick tour of a portion of the garden, and learn how to use the computer system.  The library was amazing.  I think I will be spending a lot of time there outside of work.  There were so many books, and they were all about horticulture.  Some of the books are incredibly old.  Rare and historic collections are stored in a separate area that we didn't go to.  The temperature is maintained at a certain level to make the environment less hospitable to pests and to prevent decay.

The relatively newly planted Queen's Garden
Kate took the scenic route back to the School of Horticulture.  We saw Kew Palace, where King George III stayed with his wife during his bouts of "madness".  Outside the palace was the newly planted Queen's Garden.  I would have never guessed that most of the plants had only been in the ground for a few months.  Kate told us that before this year's growing season, all the old soil had been removed and replaced with fresh soil.  Herbs and flowers (historically for "posies") were started in the greenhouses (or as they say at Kew, "glasshouses") so they would be large and vigorous when planted.  Essentially, this area gives the illusion of being a very old garden.  Although the space and design is old, the garden itself is young.

Back at the school, Kate made sure that our computer logins were working, and that Kew's living collections database was available on our desktops.  This program will be really helpful for our Plant of the Week assignments.  If you enter an accession number, genus, area of the garden, or collector's name, the information for that specific plant is pulled up.  You can even search for dead specimens and read what went wrong (i.e. Was it stolen? Diseased? etc.).  Really neat stuff.

After that, I had an hour to explore the gardens and decide on what plant I would profile this week.  I hoped to spotlight plants from each area of the garden or that had historical significance rather than focus on only plants from my area.  However, I still hadn't made it beyond the Alpine House.  I really didn't wander all that far before selecting a plant and interviewing some staff.  The size of this garden is so daunting that I'm glad we have three months to explore it.  If given a day, I don't think that I'd really see much.

Thanks for reading!  Check back in seven days to read about my second week at Kew.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "Week One" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

Order beds are in the foreground, rose pergola to the right, and the Temple of Aeolus in the trees behind.
All photos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.


Amanda's British treat of this week is chocolate Digestives biscuits.  Yum!


  1. Oooh, I'ld love to see some pics of the tool shed and the water butts. I hope you get to do some propagation; I'ld love to see that too!

    1. Thanks for your feedback! I wasn't sure if readers would be as interested in the shed or irrigation as I am. Now that I know, I'll be sure to add those photos to the end of Week 3.

      I'm not sure if we'll get to do any propagation in my section, just because of the time of year, nature of the work, and maintenance need. Kew is so large that much of the plant material we use seems to be propagated for us by another section. I'll see if there are any opportunities for me to switch sections for a few hours or do a workshop.

      Thanks so much for reading, and thank you for your comment!

    2. Hello again! Finally got Week Three's post up. There are a couple of photos at the end of that post, and I added several more to the corresponding photo album on the Plante on Plants Facebook page. Thanks for reading, ADP

  2. Just thrilled to live vicariously. I am so impressed by those gardens that can fill everything by their own propagation methods. I made my own hanging baskets this year, growing everything by seed and by scalpel, so I'm feeling a tiny bit smug about that, but the rest of the garden is a wreck, so my head can still fit in my hat.

    1. Wow! What are you growing? How are the containers doing this week?

  3. Awesome to see the pergola covered in vines! That was one thing I wish I had been able to see when I was there for a short study abroad session class over my spring break in March. There wasn't much growth happening yet since it was so early in the season.

    1. The roses were really popping three weeks ago, but now things are winding down. Hoping for another flush soon since we've been deadheading. I'll keep my camera handy and share those photos. Thanks for reading, ADP