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Building the Extremes Garden

Wes, our  Head of Horticulture, lets us know what went in to creating our new outdoor showcasing exploring plants with some amazing adaptations to extremely arid environments.

The big challenge to build our Extremes Garden was to find suitable plants to display, as they are not the type that can be picked up in your local garden centre, and we needed something especially striking as a centre piece.

Fortunately my old mate David Cooke, manager of Kew Gardens' Temperate House helped us out, and loaned a Giant African Cycad, Encephalartos altenstenii.

Cycads are amazing plants that survived when the dinosaurs inhabited the planet; they actually predate the evolution of flowering plants and produce cones rather than flowers as reproductive structures.

Glasshouse manager Kate Pritchard from Oxford Botanic Gardens also kindly loaned us two lovely Organ Pipe Cactus that have also made a big visual impact on the garden.

Other plants came from Southfields specialist cacti nursery; gold medal winners at Chelsea this year. The amazing Architectural Plants Nursery in Horsham also provided us with a nice selection.

We paid a visit to a private nursery/collection owned by Cacti expert John Pilbeam (Connoisseurs' Cacti) to source the remaining smaller specimens.

After a lot of deliberation we positioned the plants. They were planted in their pots because they are only going to be on display until September (when they will need to be moved inside for the Winter) so it saved disturbing their root balls which cacti in particular don’t appreciate.

We then laid a weed-suppressing membrane around the plants and over the surface of the bed, creating a patchwork between the plants.

We then mulched with 5 bulk bags of decorative stone, to give the display its arid/desert look.

The display only really took the highly skilled Gardens team 2 days to install, and we are very pleased with the results.

Desert inspiration for an Extreme Garden

If you've visited our Gardens this week, you may have noticed a new display near the Animal WalkExtremes Garden showcases the amazing adaptations plants have made to survive some of the most extreme conditions on earth, with cacti and succulents from exceptionally hot environments.

Wes, Head of Horticulture at the Horniman, has shared some of his American inspiration for creating this new display.

In April this year I travelled to the Mexican peninsular of Baja California with a friend and self-confessed cacti freak. This would be Part 2 of an expedition begun in June 2013 when we travelled through the Sonoran Desert in the South Western States of the USA looking at species of cacti and succulent plants growing in their natural habitat.

  • Wes discovers some extreme plants in Mexico's Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

The Sonoran Desert also covers areas of Northern Mexico, and is home to an even broader range of desert plants that we had yet to see, so we felt we had unfinished business and headed back earlier this year.

The plan was to travel the length of the peninsular as far as the town of Loreto, looking at various locations that my travelling companion Andrew Gdaniec, Curator of the Alameda Botanic Garden in Gibraltar had researched and found locations for.

The first highlight was to find the closely guarded location of the hedgehog cactus Echinocereus lindsayi. Andrew had acquired GPS coordinates of this very rare plant, and we had to travel off-road to the foot of rocky outcrop where we spotted flowers from our jeep. In the end we only found 12 or so of these plants so were very lucky.

  • Echinocereus lindsayi in flower, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Desert landscapes can be quite varied. While most people think of rolling sand dunes, the North American deserts are quite different.

  • Boulder Canyon in the Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

  • The Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

We also saw some truly monster plants. One that dominated much of the landscape was the Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, which is only found in Baja. It is the world’s biggest cactus, growing up to 20m in height and weighing 20-25 tonnes. These are very long lived species and some of the large ones we saw were probably 500 + years old.

  • Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Succulents are plants that sometimes look like cacti, and they have similar water saving adaptations, but because of botanical differences (cacti have structures called areoles, which succulents do not) they are not classed as cacti. But they are no less impressive!

  • Succulent, Agave deserti , Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Along with amazing plants, there is also a lot of animal life to look out for in the desert. Highlights we came across include rattle snakes, big scary looking spiders, lizards, scorpions, vultures and coyotes. Grey whales also overwinter in the lagoons off of the coast.

  • Wes meets a whale during his trip to Mexico, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

This trip and our earlier one proved to be inspiration for the new display that the Gardens team have just finished installing. It is designed to complement the temporary Extremes exhibition in the Museum, and is designed  to show visitors how plants can survive in extreme habitats through some amazing adaptations. We hope you like it!


Sprucing up the Wildlife Garden

Our Learning team have let us know how they've been getting the Wildlife Garden ready for the new season.

Spring is in the air and summer is just around the corner so it was that time again for the Learning team to spruce up the Wildlife Garden for the upcoming term.

We run very popular minibeast safari workshops with children who visit the Wildlife Garden to hunt for bugs and find out about the sustainable ways we can help the environment.

First things first: we had to clean out our pond. It’s made from a recycled bath: using old containers like this is an easy way to make a pond in a small space and it doesn’t stop it being filled with wildlife. After removing all the weed, which can take up too much oxygen for other animals and plants, we found a family of newts hiding in the bottom!

We kept these amphibians out of the way while we worked and when we'd finished made sure they were put safely back into their home.

Our wildflower meadow was quite overgrown with goose grass, so we pulled this up and re-planted with a variety of colourful wildflower plugs specially chosen to attract bees and butterflies in the summer, including wild marjoram, oxeye daisies and yarrow.

The Minibeast hotel was already a riot of colour with Aubreia and snap-dragons, but we added more colour across the garden with primroses and pansies to provide nectar for bugs and bees. These were planted up in the minibeast mansion, old boots and buckets - the garden is now looking bright and ready for summer!

School and community groups can book to use the wildlife garden by contacting us, and keep an eye out through the summer for special event days when the Wildlife Garden is open to all to come and explore.

For further information contact the Gardens Learning and Interpretation Officer, Amy Wedderburn at awedderburn@horniman.ac.uk.

Gardens in Bloom

Wes, our Head of Horticulture, shares an update from the Gardens as we head into Spring.

Over the last few weeks the Horniman Gardens have been bursting into colour with a dazzling display of crocus, snow drops, and daffodils.

The crocuses in particular have been stunning, and are naturalised in many areas of our lawns.

  • A riot of colour from our crocuses, These are growing near the Animal Walk
    These are growing near the Animal Walk

Crocuses are in the Iris family, and there are quite a lot of them: about 90 species and many more cultivated varieties. They grow throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and China.

Crosuses grow from a 'corm' in the ground, which in appearance are similar to bulbs and act as an underground plant stem that store nutrients and water.

Saffron is a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the Saffron crocus Crocus sativus, it has been used as a fragrance, dye and medicine and is one of the world’s most expensive spices. Visitors can see these flowering in our Dye Garden during the autumn.

Naturalising bulbs in lawns is great way to grow certain plants and it’s a really easy way of providing an amazing spring display. If you want to do this with crocus, you need to plant them in autumn, simply buy as many as you can afford, and scatter them randomly over the grass, and wherever they land plant them in that space. Using a trowel or bulb planter, plant them to 3 times the depth of the bulb and you’re good to go.

We'd love to know if you've got any crocuses growing in your Gardens at home, or whether you've seen any in other public Gardens around London. Why not share them with us in the comments or on Twitter @HornimanMuseum.

Gourds in the Gardens

A few months ago we blogged about some curious containers from our collections. Amy now introduces us to the link some of these objects have to the Horniman's display Gardens.

Our Display Gardens contain a wealth of plants that have thousands of uses in our everyday lives. The Materials Garden has many plants which people from all over the world have put to use in clever and suitable ways to adapt to challenges of living in and using their natural environments. Gourds are a great example of this.

Our gardeners grow gourds, which are similar to pumpkins or squash, along trellises to support the fruits as they develop. The fleshy orange fruits, once ripened, can be dried out – either by leaving them on the plant or by storing carefully in dry conditions, until they become hardened. These hardened gourd shells can be used to make tools, musical instruments, art and textiles, and containers.

The hard shell of the dried gourd is water tight and keeps the contents inside cool, providing a way to transport or store liquids and foods in hotter climates.

This Kenyan Masai milk container is made from a long gourd which has been dried and hollowed out. It is decorated with carved and painted designs of gazelle, giraffes and types of birds. It would be used to store milk, blood, honey or oatmeal.

This one is from our handling collection and can be seen in the Hands on Base.

The Sudanese vessel below was used for storing buttermilk. The woven case around it (made from plant fibre) would be used for carrying the container.

This Kenyan Kamba container is decorated with a net of multicoloured beads with small metal bells around the bottom. The hide strap which runs around the gourd is used as a handle.

Why not take a closer look next time you visit our Gardens and see if you can find where we grow our gourds?

Tree Felling in the Gardens

As part of the gardens tree maintenance programme, our trees are surveyed every two years by a professional arboriculture consultant. He advises on how we should prioritise our tree works.

In the most recent survey, completed in January, a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) located on the Avenue was flagged up as being a priority.

The tree is probably between 50-100 years old and, although it looks fine from the outside, there is decay within the base of the tree which makes it potentially dangerous.

On Tuesday last week, the tree was felled by a registered tree surgeon who has worked in our Gardens before.

Some of the wood will be used for a new wildlife garden, smaller branches will be chipped up and taken offsite, as will the main trunk.

Our next steps are to replace the tree and redevelop the bed around it.

Homes for Bats and Birds

Jim, who works for The Conservation Volunteers, has been updating us on the latest work being done on London's oldest Nature Trail.

This January, the conservation volunteers put up the new Woodcrete Bird and Bat boxes purchased by the Gardens team.

These boxes are used by most conservation organisations as they are tough, durable and easy to clean. They are made of a mix of wood pulp and concrete, so are impervious to attacks from woodpeckers, crows, jays and magpies who will attempt to raid the nests for eggs and fledglings.

We have put up four bat boxes down around the Nature Trail meadow. This is a good area for bats (probably pipistrelle bats) as the pond is nearby, and this along with the meadow is a good source of insects - the bats main food.  The bats can roost in the boxes and come out to feed from dusk onwards.

Bats live in colonies, so the boxes are all put close together, unlike boxes for birds, which have separate territories.  

Four blue tit boxes have also been put up along the trail to join the other six great tit boxes that are already there. The difference between the two boxes is that the blue tit box has a smaller hole, thus excluding the larger great tits, who will oust the smaller blue tits given the chance.

All of these boxes will provide very useful nesting and roosting sites for birds and bats, and they will help to increase the overall biodiversity and educational value of the Nature Trail.  

Horniman Inspiration - Katherine May

Artist Katherine May tells us how the Horniman Dye Garden inspired her latest exhibition, Water – Colour, at the London Design Festival 2013.

Water – Colour is a textile installation that aims to raise awareness of water consumption in the production and use of textiles. The installation evolved over the course of 9 days during the London Design Festival 2013 using an exhaust dyeing method to dye 100 meters of cloth.

This unconventional dye process uses the same dye bath and rinse water until the colour runs out, producing a gradation of fabric colour as the amount of dye decreases.

The Horniman dye garden revealed to me just how many plants have been historically used for dye. Alongside the more well known Indigofera varieties, were Dahlias and Hibiscus, producing a vibrant range of colours.

A natural indigo dye was chosen for the installation, partly for its transformative qualities as it turns cloth from yellow to green,a dn then to blue as it is exposed to air, and partly because it can ‘fix’ to cloth without the need for chemical pre-treatment.

Plants from the Horniman Gardens were displayed within the exhibition to display the natural origins of colours. They were an integral part of communicating the material life-cycles that played part of the installation.

Once the indigo dye vats were exhausted, the final stage of the exhibition saw the dye station replaced by a sewing workspace and the making of the cloth into quilts.

These were then hung through a five story atrium space to show the gradual change in colour, alongside the Horniman Gardens plants and natural dyes to show the full material ‘life cycle’, all the way from seed to cloth.

The finished quilts from the exhibtion are now available to purchase online.

Winter Gardening Jobs in the Materials Garden

Head of Horticulture Wes gives us an update on the important work going on in the Gardens to protect our plants for Winter.

Many of the plants we grow in and around the display gardens are from warmer climates and will not survive a London winter, so at this time of year the gardening team are busy protecting them from cold temperatures, wind and rain.

Some plants like the Cyperus papyrus (papyrus) we dig up, containerise and leave in a heated green house until the spring.

Our banana plants are the hardy Musa basjoo. They will survive being left in the ground if protected from the elements. Bananas are often referred to as trees, but they are really giant herbaceous plants, the largest in the plant kingdom. Their true stem is underneath the ground in the form of a large rhizome. This is the part of the plant that really needs to be protected.

Gardener Damien begins this task by removing all the leaves and using them as mulch around the base of the plant. The stems are cut in half.

He then puts canes up in a wigwam like fashion around the clump and ties horticultural fleece tightly around, securing at the top and bottom.

This will keep the frost off of them, and more importantly keep them dry to avoid the rhizomes from rotting.

This appears quite a brutal way of treating these plants, but it does them no harm and in the spring, when the weather has warmed up they re-shoot from the cut stems or from the base of the clump. They will get a good soak and some fertiliser and they are good to go for another season.

After the Storm in the Horniman Gardens

If you visited last week, you will have seen that on some days parts or all of the Gardens had to be closed. This was to allow the Gardens team, to inspect each of the trees and clear away any damage caused by the gale force winds of St. Jude.

Many of the trees suffered damage to branches in the storm, and a tree surgeon needed to make sure these were brought down and removed safely.

We also lost 4 complete trees. Two fell in the high winds and 2 more had to be felled as they were left severely damaged and unsafe. Then work began to remove some of the stumps left behind.

One of the trees which had to be felled last week was a large Ash. Gardener Andrea managed to catch the event on camera.

The tree had suffered severe damage to a large branch, and upon investigating and climbing the tree to remove this it became clear it was not safe to leave the rest of the tree standing.

It is a shame to see mature trees like this Ash come to an end, particularly since many people are familiar with the older trees in the Gardens, but in the end their removal can be vital for the safety of visitors.

The Horniman's Head of Horticulture, Wes, explains that for the Gardens team it is important to look on the positive side after an event like this, to see an opportunity to think again about plans for the space, and future replanting.

This tree's stump will be left in the ground for visitors to discover. It's the perfect chance to explore nature and perhaps even discover the age of this tree by counting the rings.

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