An interview with Kate Hughes



Interview-at-a-glance

An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about your role at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

My job title is Horticultural Project Officer, and it encompasses editorship of Sibbaldia, the International Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture as well as teaching, particularly practical horticultural skills. I teach at RBGE Edinburgh, on a course called the Certificate of Practical Horticulture (CPH) which is a highly practical course.  I’ve adapted modules from the CPH course to deliver in overseas institutions including botanic gardens. When time allows, I pick up other projects which might be in collaboration with our publications department, science and conservation projects with science staff, or with interpretation as well as in the garden. I’m based in horticulture, but I often work with other staff throughout the botanic garden and across all four of our gardens.

When I look at what I do, it is all about communicating horticulture, particularly practical horticultural skills and aptitudes that horticulturists need to have to be good at their job. It is also about communicating how important these skills are, to foster these skills. I really enjoy the international aspect of my job: as Sibbaldia editor I receive papers from all around the world and it’s really interesting to see how horticulture is done in other countries and to help bring their work to a wider audience. We do have a lot of first-time authors and it’s really nice to be able to help them into print and communicate their work.

If anybody is interested in contributing to Sibbaldia, how should they go about getting in contact with you or do you approach them?

I often do approach people but people also approach me with ideas for contributions. If anyone is interested, I suggest they browse our website to look at previous publications and then contact me to discuss. The website is diamond open access which means it is free to publish and free to read: you can download articles from the website as PDFs. Go to: https://journals.rbge.org.uk/rbgesib to see previous publications and more information about publishing with Sibbaldia. If you would like to get in contact with suggestions for articles or would like to send an abstract for consideration, email me at: Sibbaldia@rbge.org.uk  

You have a very international role – teaching around the world and working with authors from many different countries – but how did you get into horticulture?

I feel like I was a little bit of a late starter in horticulture. I did Sociology & Spanish at university, but found I had a growing interest in plants at that time. Once I graduated, a friend encouraged me to work in a bonsai shop, and it was the first time I was paid to do horticulture: I had to learn pretty quickly, but I really enjoyed it. So I started to look for courses to find out more about horticulture. I came across the HND in Horticulture with Plantsmanship at RBGE and I joined the first year it ran. It was an excellent course – and still is so I would definitely recommend it! I then spent a year in Chile on conservation projects and working with the International Conifer Conservation Programme. So I learned a lot about conservation projects and the basis of horticulture in conservation projects in that year. Having Spanish from my degree really helped me to get that work. When I came back, I did a mix of landscaping and lots of different horticultural jobs, until I got a job at RBGE in the early 2000s, looking after the display house with the ferns and Pelargonium species collection, as well as the ginger research collection. So I’ve had quite a varied background in horticulture and I think that’s been very useful for me, particularly in teaching because it means I’ve got a range of different experiences to call on. I moved into my current part-time project management role when I had children as it offered greater flexibility and it has gradually evolved, with more teaching including delivering the CPH in Mexico in Spanish: I translated the CPH into Spanish.

If you could go back, would you do anything differently?

I feel like it has worked out for me as I really enjoy my job. I wouldn’t like to say I would do anything differently because I’m happy where I am, but I will be honest and say I do miss the hands-on horticulture, looking after the plants, but it’s not possible to do everything!  I do have an allotment and garden at home, and so I do get my fix of hands-on horticulture. I would recommend to anybody that they get as much variety as they can because everything counts. It all goes into make your own jigsaw puzzle of experience which you can then take into your role.

What does the future hold for you?

In the very immediate future, I’m in the middle of producing the volume of Sibbaldia (the 20th volume) which will be the RBGE 350th anniversary volume, and the proceedings of the Promoting Excellence in Horticulture Conference that took place online last October. I hope that will be out in July. If travel restrictions are reduced/removed, I want to visit a Darwin Initiative Project in Tajikistan in which we’ve been involved. This project is encouraging the cultivation of endemic species in people’s gardens and close to their communities, in order to reduce the pressure on wild populations. There are still some modules of training to deliver that are outstanding from that project so I’m really keen to not only see how the project’s going, but also to finish off that training. Longer term, we’ve got another project coming up with the Climate Change Alliance for Botanic Gardens which RBGE joined in February. Membership of the Alliance gives us access to a tool which will help us look at our collections across the four gardens, and how suited they are for the projected climate change in the four areas. We’ll be looking at what the anticipated changes are in 30, 50 and 70 years time, how well suited the plant collections are at the moment, and what we expect to be growing in 30 years time. It will help us prepare our collections for future changes. Overall, there’s more I want to do with consolidating Sibbaldia and to continue to reach a wider audience to promote what I see is the essential nature of horticulture for conservation, amenity and our wellbeing in general and for wider society.

Do you have a favourite garden or even a favourite RBGE garden?

They are all beautiful, of course; it’s really hard to pick one as they are all so special in themselves. The cool weather recently has held back a lot of things. I’ve had a growing appreciation of alpines in the last few years, and I really enjoy the Alpine Yard and Rock Garden at Edinburgh. So, if you’ve only got one visit to Edinburgh, you must visit the Alpine House – a sweetie box for horticulturists as the displays are changed every week. I do also have a soft spot for Benmore Botanic Garden. It is on the west coast, in Argyll, and is the largest of the RBGE gardens in terms of hectares. It’s also the wettest. While it is beautifully maintained, it has a wildness to it. Perhaps my soft spot comes from when I was a student of horticulture, I spent two weeks there in the summer doing work experience, and having come from a very busy course on the HND and suddenly going to Benmore where it was completely peaceful, it was like a world away. And a whole different set of plants to explore!

Pelagonium transvaalense ©Kate Hughes

Do you have a favourite plant or group of plants?

I have always found this question really difficult to answer as my favourite plant can change from moment to moment. There is one plant which has been with me over the last few years- a pelargonium. I looked after the pelargoniums at RBGE for many years and they are an amazingly diverse group. There was one plant that wasn’t in the collection when I first started looking after the pelargoniums, and I acquired it for completeness of the collection: Pelagonium transvaalense which is found in very few locations in South Africa. It’s a little bit different from the general perception of pelargoniums which we often think of as liking full sun on the dry side with a dormant dry period. P. transvaalense seems to like moisture all year round. It is a tuberous plant that doesn’t grow much above about 70 centimetres and is somewhat straggling, but it does really well on the windowsill of my office at work which is north facing so cold on the outside but very stuffy on the inside. At one point we found it had declined in other parts of the collection so the one on my windowsill was the only one in the collection. It was duly propagated and there are several now, but it still seems to really like my window! It’s got quite green luxuriant leaves with chocolate zoning in the centre, typical Geraniaceae red stems and a typical Pelargonium flower – quite deep pink.

What about gardening tools: is there is there anything that you reach for before you head off to the allotment or need while teaching?

A pair of secateurs is vital for the allotment– where would we be without Felco’s? But there’s another tool that I’ve been using a lot recently, planting out lots of annuals and plug plants, and that’s my copper hand trowel. It has a wide, sharp copper blade which just slices through the soil and being copper, it deters slugs and snails. It seems to make really short work of digging, doesn’t rust, and the soil just seems to slide off it. It was given to me by my mother and it’s engraved with my name on the handle as well so it doesn’t get lost.

Is there is a book, whether it’s a reference book or even a work of fiction, that is particularly special to you?

Well obviously Sibbaldia is top of my list although that’s a journal  – but it’s still reading matter. A book I first found when I started learning about plants and proved very useful at the start is ‘Flowering Plants of the World’ by Professor Vernon Heywood. It really helped me to see how plants were related and how they fitted together in the plant kingdom with information on distribution and economic value as well as flower and leaf physiology. I believe it has been updated since to take into APG classification changes. There are lots of other books I could list but I’ll leave it there….

Would you ever consider writing a book on horticulture?

I feel like I’ve got a lot more to learn before I can put it down into a book. I do like being able to write blog posts, I have to admit I haven’t done any recently, but I like that possibility of putting down shorter chapters of information. There is a book that I’ve always wanted to write, gathering together the experiences and knowledge of the scientists and horticulturists at RBGE as people have such a huge store of information in their heads, which Sibbaldia is doing to some extent, and to capture their knowledge would be really good.


Find out more:

Kate worked with PlantNetwork to deliver the Promoting Excellence in Horticulture Conference 2020. Find out more about the conference using the links below.

#PEH4Everyone

For anyone who is new to gardening and for those that would like to polish up on some of their skills and awareness, this free session could be for you.