Saturday, July 19, 2014

Week Four

Kew displays plants taxonomically
by family in the order beds
There's been some interest from readers over the past few weeks in learning more about the weekly edging we do in our area of Kew's hardy display section.  Although I did give a very brief explanation in the first week's post, this week I'm going to give more detail about where we're edging, how this task is done, and my thoughts on this type of work.

This is a great week to write about edging, because we really did quite a lot of it.  Nearly all day Monday was spent edging the order beds and around the water garden, and I know that Simon, an apprentice, went on the edge the secluded garden, grass garden, and around the peony beds.  It's a good thing Simon really enjoys edging!

All about edging in my section

A quick history of the order beds
Kew's order beds (or "plant family" beds) were established under William Hooker's directorship.  Before that time, the space was one of the gardens used to grow produce for the Royal Family.  However, in 1846 a new kitchen garden was planted at Frogmore, and the Royal Family agreed to allow Hooker to use the space for other pursuits.

Lamiaceae, or the mint family, takes up
multiple plots of Kew's order beds
Like many other areas at Kew, the order beds were laid out taxonomically by family.  Originally they were organized by Jussieu's natural classification system (Desmond, 152).  In 1869, the collections were reorganized by the Genera plantarum which was created by, then director, Joseph Hooker and his colleague George Bentham (Desmond, 226, 348). 

Today, the order beds may be in for another reorganization.  Kew's Jodrell laboratory and other prominent botanical and horticultural institutions have been unlocking the secrets of plant's DNA.  Their discoveries have called into question current plant classification systems (Desmond, 318-319).  It looks like genetic fingerprinting will lead the way to new a method of taxonomic organization. 

Although the order beds are a riot of color in the summer, the display is more for education than aesthetics.  Visitors can walk through the garden and compare the similarities and differences between plants within the same family.  For instance, although "Love-in-a-Mist" or Nigella damascena and Anenome both look very different in flower and foliage, they're both in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.

Google satellite image of Kew's order
beds.  I figure that we edge
around 6 miles every week!
The order beds are arranged in 104 plots.  Although from within the garden they seem like normal, rectangular plots, they're actually parallelograms that are laid out at a slight angle.  Visitors may be able to note this unique arrangement by standing at one end of the garden and looking down the grass main pathway.  May I suggest a view from the gardener statute looking toward the Jodrell lab?  The mound of the Temple of Aeolus gives another nice view, but it would be best in the winter when the trees between the temple and the order beds are dormant. 

One feature of the order beds that visitors may appreciate but not necessarily notice are the crisp, clean borders between the beds and the grass paths.  This distinction is achieved by edging.

What is edging anyway?
Edging is the process where grass or some other plant is cut at the edge of a garden bed border or path.  There are two motivations for frequent edging.  First of all, it keeps grass from growing into garden beds and onto pathways.  For gardeners in the southeast U.S. who are constantly battling to keep their bermuda (Cynodon dactylon) or Zoysia lawns out of their gardens, you know that once one sprig of grass crosses the border the whole bed is compromised.  Second, crisp, clean edges really do look nice.

Cool tools
Kew's hardy display section generally uses two tools for edging -- edging shears and half-moon edgers.  However, a spade can be a good substitute for a half-moon depending on the type of job.  Edging shears are best for edging along a straight line with an uneven drop.  For instance, we use edging shears to cut along the borders of garden beds and where metal edging meets concrete paths.  Half-moon edgers are used to cut borders that are nearly even, such as along an inlaid brick pathway.

We use edging shears for most
of the edging in the order beds
Before coming to Kew, I was only familiar with the sort of edging we do in Knoxville.  We usually give our borders a fresh edge with a power edger once or twice a year (depending), put down a good layer of mulch, and weed out encroaching grass as necessary. 

Edging the order beds
Every Monday, the whole crew and two volunteers edge all of the order beds and around the rose pergola.  We don't edge around the beds in the northeast quadrant of this area, because they are currently being used as a vegetable garden for a chef's television program.

By my very rough approximations, I figure that every week we edge somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,200 feet.  That's nearly 2 miles!  About 8,700 feet are around the order beds (when you subtract the vegetable quadrant), and the remaining 1,500 feet are the beds around the rose pillars.  Every two or three weeks the crew also edges along the paths within the order beds, which are an additional 1,250 feet.  I didn't calculate the other areas we edge (like the border around the, the peony beds, grass garden, water garden, or secluded garden), but they do take a fair bit of time as well.

India demonstrates how we edge
the order beds every week
The normal Monday routine usually takes seven staff members and two volunteers about three hours to complete.  That's taking into account the fact that the volunteers start a bit later and finish a bit later.  So that's 21 man hours.  Phew!

Visitor reactions
Although I've only been at Kew for a short while, I have noticed some visitor's funny reactions to edging.  The most prominent memory would have to be from a school tour two weeks ago.  A large class of middle-school age students were walking through the order beds when I heard a shrill squeal behind me.  One girl was very distressed by what I was doing to the grass.  She called out to her teacher, "Look at what she's doing!  She's killing that plant!"  It's actually more like giving it a haircut.

One of the other members of our crew noticed that visitors from southeast Asia are especially intrigued by this chore.  I have to say that these visitors do stop and photograph us edging more frequently than those from anywhere else.  Another staff member recalled a time when a visitor from the U.S. stopped her and said, "Now, I know that there is a power tool that does the same thing."

An intern's perspective 
I must admit, there are times (usually right before morning tea on Monday) that I wonder why we do this chore.  I mean, the grass just grows back again, and in seven days it looks like we hadn't even done anything.  But all I need to do is look up from my shears and back to where we've already worked, and I can't help but feel some pride and accomplishment.

The gardens really do look much better afterwards, and as one of the finest botanic gardens in the world, Kew does need to look smart.  I've also got to say that spending some time edging saves lots of time with weeding.  We don't edge regularly in Knoxville, and I know what a pain it is wrestling bermuda grass out of a garden bed.

Aside from edging...

In addition to a whole lot of edging, we also worked in the secluded garden.  The whole crew and a group of four volunteers spent Tuesday weeding, deadheading, watering, edging, and generally doing a thorough job of tidying up.  Chrissy, India, Daisy and I went back to this area on Wednesday, where the team I was in scooped loads of duckweed (Lemna) out of the stream and Daisy's team worked on tidying up the bamboo garden.  We also weeded, watered, and deadheaded the birch border that is next to the grass garden and tidied up roses on the pergola.

Thursday and Friday afternoons we had a special treat.  The artists for Kew the Music did sound checks the last hour or so of work, so I got to hear Elvis Costello warm up with some nice songs and Bjorn Again cover sections of ABBA's "SOS" and "Mamma Mia".  

Thanks for reading, and check back to hear about my second month as an intern at Kew.  Four weeks down, seven weeks to go!

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

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

This week's British treat of the week is treacle tart. Mmm mmm!

View of the order beds from the Temple of Aeolus

View of the order beds and the Temple of Aeolus from the School of Horticulture building

All photos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.

  • Desmond, Ray.  (2007).  The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2nd Edition).  London: Kew Publishing, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  177-179, 345-346.
  • The Plant List website
  • The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website and staff


1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I despair over the veg garden, which is never very good in any year, and I realize that I'm wasting yet-another-year with that instead of completing hardscape for the perennials and shrubs. Sometimes it's just busy work and not much to show for it. At least your edges look good!