Saturday, July 12, 2014

Week Three

Much of this post will be about Kew's grass garden,
since that is where we spent most of our
time this week.  Photo by Daisy.
You know the routine
Although there were a few interesting diversions this week (more on that later), I think Daisy and I have started to settle into our section's normal routine.  Monday was spent edging and weeding the order beds, Tuesday and Wednesday were spent weeding the grass garden, and Thursday was spent deadheading and training at the rose pergola.

Getting to know the grass garden

We did spend two full days and part of one morning working in the grass garden this week, so I figure it's appropriate to go into a bit more depth on that subject. I'll provide a very brief history of the grass garden at Kew, share this week's experience with grass verification, write a bit about the main weed problems, and conclude with what it feels like to weed one of these areas.

A quick history
Ornamental grasses have been cultivated at Kew nearly since its foundation.  The botanic gardens were founded in 1759, and the earliest accounts for a grass garden on the site were in the 1760's (Desmond, 39).  The circular grass beds were not included on a 1763 map of the gardens (Desmond, 56 - 57), so they must have been established later in that decade.

John Smith, Kew's first curator (served 1841 to 1864), seemed to have a special interest in the grass collection.  In 1828, on his own initiative, Smith reorganized and verified the species within the grass garden (Desmond, 127 and 343).  Smith must have researched the history of the garden before this great undertaking, since Ray Desmond cites Smith's 1880 Records of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew when pinpointing the date the grass garden was established (Desmond, 39 and 142).

Many visitors still miss the grass garden during
their visits.  In 2006, Kew added a path from the
Princess of Wales Conservatory (structure to the right)
and Cambridge Cottage (not photographed)
to increase traffic through the grass garden.
Smith either installed or updated the beds with the old circular design in mind.  He arranged the grasses in a large bed with four concentric circles and placed the tallest grasses in the center of the beds to create an eye catching display (Desmond, 129 and 148).  The grass garden was located relatively close (slightly northeast) to its present location (Desmond, 150-151, 173 and 336).  Considering the Kew is over 300 acres in size and many of the collections, such as the arboretum, have moved considerable distances over the site during the past 250 years, the movement of the grass collection from the 1820's to today is really not that far.

The grass collection was first moved in 1963, and again in 1982 to the space where it presently resides (Desmond, 354 - 355).  In the 1990's, Kew remodeled and revitalized several garden areas, including the grass the grass garden.  In 1997 circular beds were added, and in 1999 a lawn wheel of British native grasses was installed (Desmond, 310 and 358).  Despite all of the work done in this garden, it was still overlooked by visitors.  That is why in 2006, Kew added a path through the grass garden that would connect the Princess of Wales Conservatory and Cambridge Cottage.  The hope was that this would increase traffic in this area.

Historically, grasses at Kew have been organized in
concentric circles.  In the late 20th century, grasses
were organized in thin, rectangular beds. Between
2007 and 2011, Shelley Cleave's team expanded the
beds to add depth and dimension, as seen above.
According to Shelley Cleave, Kew's main curator of the current grass garden, the new grass collection had been laid out systematically in relatively thin strips, somewhat similar to the order beds.  Although this type of design makes a handy reference garden for botanists and horticulture students, it isn't that aesthetically pleasing for the public. Under Shelley's direction, the beds were expanded in size to add some depth and layers.  Like Smith, Shelley planted larger specimens in the center of the beds and the smallest grasses toward the edges.  This expansion happened between 2007 and 2011. 

Today the grass gardens are a riot of movement, sound, texture and color. The landscape is pleasing, educational, compelling for visitors, and botanists and horticulture students are still able to use this area as a reference garden.

After a certain period of time, Kew's
hort team in the grass garden sends
samples to be verified by the herbarium
Although Friday morning was damp and dreary, we were in for a real treat.  Because many of the specimens in the grass garden had been installed twenty or more years ago, they needed to be verified with Kew's herbarium. Essentially that means that a botanist needs to look at these plants to verify that they are the same as the label and living collection database reflects.  There are far too many plants in the grass garden to verify all at once, so Shelley and the herbarium have been going through the collection alphabetically, a handful of plants at a time.

Friday morning, Shelley showed us the steps on the horticulture side of verifying some grasses.  First, she went on Kew's live collection database and printed off the information for the four plants to be verified.

A wing of Kew's herbarium
Next we went outside to collect materials from each specimen.  If the botanists in the herbarium aren't provided with enough information, they can only partially verify a plant.  That is why Shelley collected the roots, stem, and inflorescence of each species.  If possible, she would include newly opening and fully open flowers and seed heads.

Then, the plant material and an information sheet for each plant was placed in a sealed plastic bag.  Martin, a horticulture student in the group, was charged with delivering the samples to the herbarium.  Really interesting!

Wicked weeds
Weeding the grass garden was much more intensive than it had been the week before.  Last week we were mostly focused on improving curb appeal by removing weeds that were visible to visitors.  This week, Shelley gave Daisy, Simon and me small sections within different beds to weed intensively.  Shelley encouraged us to be very thorough when weeding each section, and I did my best to remove as much of each weed as possible.

View within the grass garden prior to weeding
The two main problems -- couch grass (Elymus repens) and wild garlic (Allium ursinum) -- need to be completely and carefully removed.  If even the smallest stolon, rhizome or bulblet remain in the soil, then the weed problem will persist.  If these weeds are pulled normally without consideration for the pieces that are left behind, then there may be a dozen or so that sprout from what that one weed left in the soil.

The grass garden is pretty large, and the mulch isn't as thick as it is in the order beds, which makes it more difficult to completely remove entire weeds.  Add into the mix the fact that we're supposed to make every effort to preserve that thin layer of mulch without exposing any soil, and you can see why this took all day Tuesday and Wednesday to do.

An intern's perspective from within
View within the grass garden after weeding
Weeding the grass garden is a lot like swimming in a deep pool.  You can't just walk in -- you have to dive in with your arms out in front to protect your face from grasping, razor sharp foliage.  You can't wade through the sections of the bed.  Rather, you must stroke ahead to make way and kick legs to prevent trampling or tripping.

Weeding on your hands and knees is like swimming under waves of Miscanthus.  You pray the wind doesn't rise lest you become tossed under the whipping fronds.  On the freshly weeded, brown, soft mulch floor, the temptation to lay down gets stronger as the work drags on.  Thankfully, Simon throws a life saver ("Tea time!") long before there is any danger of drowning in the grassy sea.

Staff Picnic

Tuesday afternoon was a real treat -- Kew had a staff cookout!  Although I hadn't really met anyone (besides interns) in the horticulture department outside my section, I was able to get an idea of how many horticulturalists there are at Kew in last week's meeting.  The barbeque on Tuesday was even more boggling because it included all the people who make the gardens run -- not just horticulture staff.  It's really amazing just how many people actually work at Kew.

There wasn't as much mingling between departments as one might expect, but there was a little.  The hort people tended to stick together, the Joddrell folks were in another group, etc.  One employee in the foundation did something really brilliant to get the horticulture people talking and comfortable -- she asked a plant question.  Simple, but effective.

She described a plant she had noticed ("It's like a stick with a hard raspberry on it").  There was silence at first, then one person asked for more information. ("It didn't have any leaves or flowers at the time").  A low murmuring started, and then the questions started flowing ("There was no label."  "It was near the Director's garden." "I saw it last week.").  Other horticulturalists who work in the area were tracked down.  Apparently one person walked back there to try to find exactly what she was talking about.  The next morning at work before the Hardy Display section meeting, everyone was all atwitter.  One person had even dreamed about the plant, and woke up in the middle of the night knowing exactly what it was.

Genius.  I need to keep that in my pocket as an ice breaker at the next horticulture conference I attend.

The British treat of the week is scone with clotted cream and jam (or jam and clotted cream).  Sooo decadent. 

The procedure for applying spreads to the scone differ depending on where you are in the United Kingdom.  In some regions, the jam must be spread before the cream, whereas others are vice-versa.  I tried both, and they're both really rich and delicious.  Here's my two cents.  If you want your scone to absorb some flavor from the jam, apply the jam before the clotted cream.  If you don't want a soggy scone, then apply the clotted cream before the jam.  However you choose to prepare this tasty treat, plan on taking a nice, leisurely stroll afterwards to ease your guilt after having such a heavy dessert.

Enjoying a decadent scone with clotted cream and jam at Kew's cafe by the Victoria Gate

As promised, here are a couple photos of Kew's water boxes and my section's tool shed.  More photos can be viewed in the "Week Three" photo album on my facebook page.

As per one reader's request, here are some photos of our section's tool shed.  Every tool is clean and in its place.  The floors are also clean.  Absolutely the tidiest tool shed I've ever set foot in.  And it is ALWAYS this clean.
As per one reader's request, here are some photos of Kew's irrigation system.  The system is very old, and it can be difficult to replace broken parts.  Water box in the Queen's Garden.  This is absolutely not the state that most boxes are in. I just couldn't get the water boxes in the order beds open for a photo.

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 Three" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

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


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