An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Tell us about your role at Logan Botanic Gardens.
I am the curator at Logan which is widely known as Scotland’s most exotic garden, and is one of the four gardens of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Alongside our main garden in Edinburgh, we have three regional gardens: Logan down here to Southwest Scotland, Dawyck outside Edinburgh, and Benmore on the West Coast. Each garden fulfils a specific role, and at Logan our specific role is to grow plants from the southern hemisphere focusing on four main areas: Australasia, South Africa, South America (especially Chile and Argentina) and the Atlantic islands. My role involves managing and growing the collections in terms of conservation, research and education. I also manage the staff and visitor resources and ensure that everyone who visits the garden has a very positive experience.
I was talking to my son recently, and I said to him:
- Do you enjoy travelling? He said yes.
- Do you enjoy being outside? Yes.
- Do you enjoy meeting people? Yes.
- And do you enjoy the fruits of putting in a good day’s work and reaping the rewards? Yes!
I said working in horticulture, as a curator, would be the ideal job for you. Just being outside doing things you enjoy – working with plants, meeting people who enjoy good quality landscapes, the great outdoors, and working with an excellent team of people who are passionate about what they do – is a reward in itself. When you’re a curator in Scotland’s most exotic garden, it can be quite disheartening [due to the weather]. But the rewards are just amazing. Growing and getting a plant completely new to cultivation to flower, such as Petteria ramentacea, the Albanian laburnum, gives you a real buzz. Or going on a plant exploration visit such as to Vietnam to discover new plants and new species.
What does plant exploration involve?
It’s completely different to what used to happen during the Victorian collecting heyday, when people like George Forrest would bring back boxes and boxes of seed. We work in very close partnership with host organisations on all aspects of the work, for example, in Hanoi, and we publish any new species jointly. We have to get written permissions for the visit and that is for all involved, from the hosts to the rest of the expedition party who can be from institutions across the world. We collect herbarium specimens, live material usually in the form of seed, DNA from the plant material and we record specific information about the plant: where it’s grown, what it’s growing with, the habitat, a description of the plant and plenty of detailed photographs. If we do find a new species or a species new to the flora of that particular country, we have all the information we need to write up a detailed submission to a credible, peer-reviewed publication. From our visit to Vietnam, we have identified seven new species so far. While others might be collecting material, it is only with the host country’s approval that new species can be verified. Since the Nagoya Protocol, it is very important for botanic gardens to ensure that processes are duly followed.
Tell us how you became curator at Logan Botanic Garden.
I’ve been involved with horticulture for probably over 40 years. My earliest recollection of horticulture was when I was six years old and my father taught me how to prune roses. I enjoyed it so much that I kept on going, pruning 300- 400 roses. My father was a really passionate gardener and we would plant up, and weed, about an acre of vegetables before our annual summer holiday in Cornwall. When I was 10, we moved from Preston to southwest Scotland just outside Kirkcudbright to convert a house into a hotel. The hotel had 12 acres of grounds, beautifully laid out by German prisoners of war, and the garden had a collection of over 200 cultivars of daffodils. To this day, I still think Senwick House probably has one of the most spectacular displays of daffodils in the whole of the UK. As my father got older and busier with the hotel, I took on more of the garden, and grew about an acre of vegetables and had a large orchard. I did lots of propagation of the shrubs in that garden, and grew plants to show. It just kept on developing from there.
I always knew I wanted to go into horticulture and I was offered my first job or apprenticeship when I left school on a youth training scheme at Inverewe, but unfortunately the scheme was just starting and hadn’t quite got up and running so it didn’t come to anything. I ended up going to Barony College outside Dumfries and working at a local nursery for a year. I really enjoyed it. Then I went to Threave School of Horticulture outside Castle Douglas to do a very hands-on practical course which is still going today. You really got to know your plants really well, and did the theory of plant pathology, entomology, genetics etc. I was there for two years and at the end of it, I was fortunate enough to go on a year-long scholarship to Longwood Gardens, the premier garden in America, in Pennsylvania.
Going to Longwood has really stayed with me as I still use the standards I learnt there. For instance, I’m always trying to get five-star presentation rather than being happy with four-star: it’s the finishing touches. While I was there, I travelled to 26 states visiting gardens and arboreta – and still use the photographs and ideas I acquired then. When I came back to the UK, I went to RBG Kew for three years which was a great experience, meeting very influential people. While there, I spent a month-long placement at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and got to meet world leaders in rhododendron taxonomy and botany like David Chamberlain.
At the end of my training, I worked in the central belt of Scotland for about seven years with Glasgow Parks Department and Renfrewshire District Council doing, for example, tree preservation orders, carrying out tree surveys, doing carpet bedding displays and floral bedding displays. Then I returned to my roots to take up the position of Head of Horticulture at Barony College, where I became the Head of Horticulture, Forestry and Schools Education. In 2007, the curator position at Logan Botanic Garden became available and has allowed me to explore my interests in exotic plants and hardy palms. Logan has always been a fantastic garden and we’ve developed it further in terms of it becoming a visitor attraction with attractions for all ages and interests from a willow dinosaur, an exhibition studio and bistro franchise. This is reflected in visitor numbers, which have increased from 18,000 ten years ago to over 30,000 now.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s starting out [in horticulture]?
I’ve always found that people involved in horticulture are amazingly generous with their plants and with their time. I don’t know any other profession where people are so generous, passing on knowledge. So if you’re starting out, work away in your own garden and visit local gardens, go to talks and try to access as much information as possible. We can’t be all things but you will develop an interest in something in particular – and no matter how much you learn, you will realise that there is still more to know. Horticulture is very diverse and I don’t think we’re very good at selling the diversity of careers available – from plant collecting around the world to managing the turf at Wembley Stadium. My careers advisor wasn’t too good when it came to horticultural career advice – and I don’t think it’s improved much today. There are so many more opportunities that young people just don’t know about…
With hindsight, would you have done anything differently in your career?
I probably wouldn’t do anything differently. I think I’ve been incredibly lucky and fortunate, and often create opportunities for myself by looking at what’s around. Being a curator isn’t like a job, it’s an extension of my hobby. I enjoy working with people, and I would like to think that people working at Logan enjoy it too as we all take great pride in what we do. We’ve got an amazing garden and we love to share it with other people.
If someone only has an hour to spend at Logan, what do they really need to see?
I would probably recommend that they spend most of that hour in the walled garden. The walled garden is three acres in size, and it’s so beautiful. If you can take 10 minutes to sit and take in the surroundings, all the better. There is the formal pond with enormous koi carp, cabbage palms over 100 years old – which show you how long it can take to make a garden, and lots of wildlife. If you then walk around, see the willow sculpture of Logansaurus rex, different species of bananas, and some rare and exotic plants like the giant black tree fern, Cyathea medullaris, and the filo pastry tree, Polylepis australis, with its incredible bark and is seen so rarely in gardens in the UK. There are also some exquisite floral treasures like Rhododendron dalhousiae var rhabdotum, which flowers in July with a lily-like white flower that has a red stripe down the side of the petals. Nature is amazing and you take this all in as you walk around the garden.
What does the future hold for you and for Logan?
Logan’s future, I think, is very positive. In terms of our collection, we had just under 1,000 species in the garden in 2011 but by this year, we have over 2,000. The area we’re maintaining in the garden is greatly increased and will continue to increase although staff numbers will probably stay fairly similar to what we are now so we will need good management using mulching, very careful use of pesticides, and planting the right plant in the right place. We will continue to expand our plant collections to do more for conservation and on a bigger scale, using sites outside Logan to expand the living collection and genetic diversity of rare species. We’ll also develop the visitor experience, a new restaurant and use the garden for a greater variety of events, but always having the plants as the main focus of the garden.
For me, I’ve just published my first book called Plant Explorer, which has sold really well and received some great feedback. I would like my next book to be a monograph of rhododendrons from Vietnam, which would require some further trips to Vietnam in spring rather than in the autumn to see rhododendrons in flower. I’ll be starting that project this winter and it will take a number of years to complete. I’ve also got a private garden at home which is 10 acres in size and is my retirement project, but is already coming on very nicely. One of my favourite plants are the monkey puzzles, and I have planted a grove of monkey puzzles, about 60 of them, which are about 15 to 20 feet high at the moment. There is an underplanting of large-leaved rhododendrons and hundreds of magnolias coming on as well. It will be a botanic garden with a focus on rhododendrons. It probably takes about 50 years to create a woodland garden, with the three layers of ground cover, shrub layer and tree canopy.
What’s your favourite plant or plants?
I probably have two favourite plants, one of which is the monkey puzzle. I just think it’s a unique plant that can grow in the harshest of conditions. It’s such an iconic plant. It’s unfortunately extremely endangered in Chile so one of the reasons why I’ve got a large planting in my garden at home is for conservation reasons, but they are very striking plants. Sir Herbert Maxwell planted 200 of them in a field at Monreith and they are now probably over 100 years old: you can almost imagine a Tyrannosaurus rex walking out of them. My second plant would be Rhododendron dalhousiae var. rhabdotum which is such a spectacular plant. It’s a tricky plant to grow as it is quite straggly. It’s usually epiphytic and comes from Nepal where it grows in the crevices of trees, but when you see it, it almost looks artificial. Rhododendrons often get a lot of bad press, [criticised for] flowering for only two months of the year. You can get rhododendrons that flower for each month of the year and they can also have spectacular leaves and bark. They are an amazing genus and we only know a small proportion of what there is [out there].
I’m always trying to get my family interested in plants and have named a rhododendron after my daughter, Rhododendron ‘Nadia Baines’ and one for my wife too. There is a monkey puzzle I’m growing which is very columnar, and similar to one at Wisley, and this will hopefully be a cultivar I can name after my son. Probably the most amazing plant I’ve named so far is one named after my mother, Magnolia ‘Eileen Baines’, which is a cross between Magnolia wilsonii and Magnolia sinensis. It is currently in full flower in my garden – in August – with flowers of about 15 cm wide, a double form, a heavenly scent and flowers that hang down. A beautiful plant named after a lovely lady.
What about garden tools?
I like a blower which I think is underused. It saves such a lot of future work by keeping paths free of leaf humus to prevent weed seeds rooting. A good pair of secateurs in the back pocket is always useful for catching the odd bramble or pruning a straggling shoot.
You’ve written a book, but have there been any books that have really influenced you in your career?
Not surprisingly, Kenneth and Peter Cox’s Encyclopaedia of Rhododendrons comes out on probably a twice weekly basis. That’s probably the one book which I use more than any because of my specific interest in rhododendrons. Years ago, the RHS practical guides to propagation and pruning were great hands-on books with excellent illustrations. Probably the earliest book which I had, and I’ve still got to this day, is Adam the Gardener. It used to be a column in the Sunday Express but one Christmas, I got the book and I still use it as a guide to when certain things should be done in the garden. It’s easy reading and a really good practical guide: it takes you, week by week through all the things you can do in the garden.