The Tangled Bank – Sustainability Special


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

Welcome to the first of a series of special episodes to celebrate the PlantNetwork Year of Sustainability. In these special episodes, we focus on projects and people working on sustainable projects and issues in public gardens.

Beccy Middleton is the curator of St Andrews Botanic Garden and is joining us to discuss The Tangled Bank Project.

Can you tell us a little about yourself by way of introduction?

I’ve been at St. Andrews for five years now which has gone really quickly, and most recently in the role of curator. Before that, I worked for the National Trust for Scotland at Inverewe on the northwest coast. I was very lucky to train at RHS Garden Rosemoor, Cambridge Botanic Garden and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

You are working on a project at St Andrews Botanic Garden called “The Tangled Bank“. Can you tell us more about this project?

“The Tangled Bank” is a major development – and very exciting project – for us. It’s probably the biggest thing that’s happened in the garden for many years – and it’s taking place in the heart of the garden. In part, it has replaced the order beds and changed the area of the garden around the entrance area. The name, The Tangled Bank, is a nod to Darwin: there is a passage in the Origin of Species which talks about evolution being a tangled, complicated matter*. That really inspired us to think how we could talk about plant evolution in terms of communities and not separating plants out on their own. By putting a plant back in its community, we could look at how plants interact with each other, how the community is functioning, and how plant populations change over time.

In addition, we wanted to find a way to really sing about the flora of Fife and to put it right at the heart of the garden to give it the significance that we think it deserves. So we chose three habitats that are important in Fife: meadow grasslands with scattered woodland; coastal habitats which are some of best semi-natural habitats we have in the county; and, urban environments because for a lot of people in Fife, that’s the most recognisable habitat for them. Using these three habitats as templates or inspiration, we’ve created three new areas of the garden which we hope will engage visitors in a new way. Instead of being very didactic, just telling visitors what they need to know, we’re hoping these areas will be more immersive and allow people to engage with the plants in these very recognisable habitats.

We also believe that these areas will be a great resource for research, enabling us to do research into these plant communities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible [such as look at the impact of invasive species on community structure]. They will contribute to conservation of our local environment by allowing us to look at how plants interact and how they respond to disruption – without doing this in very important and valuable natural areas. We can tinker safely with the plant communities without worrying about the long term impacts of doing something similar in a National Nature Reserve, for example! We will be able to inform management practices in these reserves.

Finally, it’s a chance to really show how wonderful the local flora is, and that the people in Fife should be really proud of the plants that are growing around them.

What do you think visitors’ reactions to these areas will be?

That’s going to be really interesting. We do have some influence in terms of how people are going to experience the plants when we put them in a garden. For example, we’ve designed the coastal area so there are changes in land level that allow some plants to be at eye level: they may be more diminutive and perhaps quieter than the more glamorous garden plants but being able to see them close up will allow people to see plants they might previously have overlooked. There are other things that we can do in terms of design that will either emphasise or attract attention to certain plants or features, and we might be able to grow plants more densely than they might in their natural habitats to draw out their impact. In terms of interpretation, we’re going to have to do some careful communication to show the importance of these plants and engage people in awareness raising and conservation.

Rebecca Duncan and Sarah Carlton planting up the sand dunes. © Harry Watkins

I’m not aware of anybody quite trying to recreate a coastal environment or coastal floral habitats in a garden: are you the first?

We tried looking as we wanted to learn from other projects and other people that are doing similar things. We didn’t really find anything on such a scale as “The Tangled Bank” although there are a number of brilliant developments in botanic gardens such as Cambridge and Dundee where they’ve put native plants together in their communities. We were inspired by those projects. We couldn’t find any with coastal communities! It’s going to be a really interesting journey in terms of how we learn to maintain the coastal part in particular – we wouldn’t rule anything out. We’ve talked about manually disturbing the sand to mimic a blow out of the dunes. And we’ve talked about whether we might need to spray a dilute salt solution on it. I think we’ll learn quite a lot as we go along.

Could you tell me a little bit about how the project is being managed and funded because it sounds quite substantial?

We’re in an interesting position for a garden of our size. We are an independent, charitable trust with links to the university, who are very supportive. We do receive funding from Fife Council for which we are really grateful but otherwise, we are not connected to a larger organisation. That gives us a lot of flexibility but it does mean that we have to be sensible with how we use our resources. Other forms of income are visitor-generated income and the activities of the Friends Group who provide a huge source of support. We also have individual donors who help with big developments like this. Looking forward, we’ll need to be looking at funding applications for further stages of development.

How far has the project developed so far?

The woodland and meadow section is up and running which is great: we’re letting that settle down. The coastal section is getting there: supply chain issues have delayed its progress but we are currently installing a timber boardwalk through the middle which will improve access into the middle of that part of the garden. Then the third part, the urban part, has yet to be fully developed. We’ve made a start but there’s plenty more to do in that area. We’re hoping that this year we can get more people from the local community involved in consultation and design exercises.

The Tangled Bank – woodland and meadow area. © Beccy Middleton

What’s been the reaction from local communities, visitors and the garden team?

It has been mixed but I would have been astonished with any other reaction. It’s been quite a big project and quite a big change for a garden of our size, so it’s been quite a lot for people to take on board. Overall, the response has been really positive and we’ve found it’s been most interesting to talk to people. You can put up lots of signs and interpretation, give out leaflets etc., but talking to people means that we can engage in a much more direct way. I’ve had lots of interesting interactions with people who have come a full “one eighty” in their views in the space of a few minutes! That’s been a big learning curve – and shown to be the best way of bringing people along with you. The team are all excited, which is great, and has allowed everyone to get stuck into a big project.

There is one aspect of the project with which visitors have been less happy: the decommissioning of the public glasshouse range. This is a massive step for us, certainly one that we didn’t take lightly and without a great deal of thought. The glasshouses were very important to many visitors and supporters for lots of different reasons. It was with a heavy heart that we started on this process, but we think it’s the right thing to do at the right time. If we take down the glass houses, it gives us an enormous space to be able to make a new, exciting development with lots of new opportunities and new plants. It’s also cut our carbon footprint by over 90% straightaway, which is also important to us. The heating bill has been slashed but we’ve also cut down on water use, staff time needed to maintain the glasshouses and plant collections, and the chemicals and bio controls used to treat pests and diseases. That doesn’t mean that we’re not sad to see the glasshouses go.

With the climate crisis, rising gas prices and other issues, it seems that difficult decisions will need to be made now. Will you be monitoring the changes and your carbon and water footprints over time?

Yes! For an organisation of our size and our resources, it really was a question of trying to work out where we could invest to be as effective as we could and concentrate on making the biggest impact. If we grow native plants and plants from similar climates, we can do more with less resources.

Are you also working with the national agencies to coordinate work?

Yes, we’ve been working with Nature Scot because they manage a coastal NNR nearby. We’re also working with other land managers in Fife which is something we hope to expand with more partners in the future.

It’s almost like a rewilding project for the project. Is that a term you would ever use?

It is a really interesting term and is so loaded that I’m almost frightened to use it. There are similarities to what we are trying to do, pulling back on the amount of control we’re trying to exert on the garden and acting more as a referee. There are certainly advantages to trying to adopt more extensive rather than intensive management processes. For example, the order beds would take two of us three days a week in summer to maintain. That is fine but meant we couldn’t work on other things. With areas requiring less input, we can invest time in the garden in other ways.

Thymus polytrichus in the coastal area. © Lesley Cunningham

It sounds like a win-win project on several different fronts. Have you met any challenges or issues that were unplanned or unexpected?

One of the most frustrating issues we had, and looking back it’s probably humorous but it wasn’t at the time, was searching for water mains and other services. There were plans for the site with all the services marked down but they’ve been lost at some point in the history of the garden. Now we don’t have any records of where underground cables go and where water pipes are located. We did spend quite a lot of time searching, digging various holes and rushing around with a metal detector trying to stop the water while it was leaking out in various places. That was a slightly frustrating diversion but I’m sure we’ll laugh about it at some point. The other big challenge is learning how best to explain to people what it is that we’re doing and why. I think we’ve learned quite a lot about the process and how best to communicate with people about the reasons behind what we’re doing.

With the various lockdowns, we’ve seen people engaging with their local environment more. Has this been an opportunity for you to engage people in helping them understand their local environment with your new areas as part of “The Tangled Bank”?

There might be a benefit. Certainly, talking with people visiting the garden, you find they are more engaged in green space. I think we’ve seen a slight shift in the people we see in the garden, with many more who haven’t visited before. We’ve seen more families and young people visiting, which is brilliant.

If anybody else is thinking about doing a project like “The Tangled Bank”, what advice would you give them?

Don’t lose your service plans! Don’t be too frightened of making big changes. Some changes might be staring you in the face but you’re not aware of them until you start looking at the big picture. For example, the area of the garden which is now the meadow/woodland area was really densely planted with lots of evergreen plants. It was the first part of the garden visitors saw but we hadn’t realised that people didn’t spend much time here. We propagated the plants here before removing the shrubs and opening up the area. Now there’s a lot more space and you can see between the trees, with really nice views out into the rest of the garden. At the time, it was a really hard thing to do to remove such a lot and change the garden so much, but actually it’s worked really well. It feels like it’s always been like that. I guess the one thing that I’ve learned from that is that sometimes even the big scary things can result in a positive change if you can see it through.

Finally, how long has the project been in planning?

It’s relatively recent actually. We started talking about different options, things that we might do before the first lockdown, but we didn’t really get started on the ground until autumn 2020. We’ve made a lot of progress in that time but there is still more to do. It is probably one of those projects, like gardens in general, that is never really complete!

Hopefully we will catch up with Beccy again to find out how the project has developed and what other lessons emerge from this drastic garden change!

*It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. From Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.