By:  Kate Whittington, Asimina Vergou, and Julia Willison


Four Stories from Gardens in the United Kingdom (UK)

From 2011-2012, four UK botanic gardens—Bristol Zoo Gardens (BZG); University of Leicester Botanic Garden (ULBG); Westonbirt, The National Arboretum (Westonbirt); and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE)—engaged hard-to-reach members of their local community with issues related to plant conservation, as part of BGCI’s Communities in Nature Programme. Over a period of eight months, BGCI, through a series of workshops and one‐to‐one support, worked closely with the gardens as they shaped, implemented, and evaluated their projects with their local communities and reconsidered their role, responsibilities, and mission. The evaluation of the projects provides evidence of the impact botanic gardens can have in terms of addressing plant conservation and social inclusion issues.

Bristol Zoo Gardens – Bristol Community Plant Collection

Leading with the concept of plant conservation, BZG sought to establish a national plant collection via collaboration between local schools and community groups. The project was run as part of aPlant Heritage scheme in which individuals or organizations develop, document, and preserve a comprehensive collection of a particular group of plants.

Having never run a social inclusion project before, it was an exciting, yet challenging, prospect for the gardens. Community growers ranged from a school gardening club and community garden group to people in sheltered accommodation and a care home for patients with dementia. The groups worked together towards conserving species of marigold (Calendula sp.), a commonly cultivated plant in the English garden.

The wide variety of groups involved meant that the results were equally varied. Some of the groups had great success in hand-pollinating a Calendula species that is not usually cultivated in the UK. Others, unfortunately, were unable to produce plants for display. Nevertheless, all groups benefited from an increase in plant knowledge and a desire to continue with the project next year.

Seven out of the nine community groups produced plants for display in the Zoo, resulting in successful cultivation of ten of the eleven recognized Calendula species. This meant the collection was able to be considered a “comprehensive botanical collection.” The project is unique in being the first “dispersed” National Collection (rather than being contained in a single location), causing Plant Heritage to re-think their own guidelines for collections in order to incorporate the Bristol Community Plant Collection and grant it “Provisional” National Plant Collection status.

The most important outcomes, however, were the, perhaps, less-anticipated effects of increased confidence and self-worth, community cohesion, a desire to improve their environment, and a new-found interest in conservation. The Bristol Community Plant Collection demonstrates the wealth of possibility available for communities to play an active part in plant conservation, building, therefore, tangible connections both with their local natural environment and the plight of species worldwide.

The Community Plant Collection has improved people’s confidence. One of the most touching stories is of an older gentleman in the group; he's a pensioner and he's gardened all his life, and he was so excited when this rare seed came up and he was on the phone first thing in the morning saying, “Well, it’s worked, you know.”

Catherine, leader of the Upper Horfield Community Gardening Club, Bristol, England, UK (September 7, 2012)

University of Leicester Botanic Garden – Feel Green Project

As first-time organizers of Feel Green, a social inclusion project with a plant conservation theme, ULBG found working with an experienced partner organization a great help in facilitating the delivery of their workshops. They ran a series of activities with four groups of adults, in collaboration with Mosaic—an organization helping disabled people, in Leicester. Adults from the groups represented a wide range of ages and interests, all with varying levels of physical or learning difficulties.

Activities focused on horticulture, plant uses, the environment, and art. Each group went to the gardens for two, full-day workshops, culminating in a celebratory event with family and carers. During the project it became clear that visual and kinesthetic (tactile) experiences were better remembered than verbal teaching. The most popular activities were creating their own flower pots to take home, making a bag of mixed herbs for cooking, and making hand creams and massage oil. Participants also worked together to produce a piece of collective art by weaving willow.

Feel Green’s initial ambition was to use a sage-on-the-stage approach and raise the participants’ awareness of climate change and water conservation. The evaluation of the project unveiled the need to find new and more creative ways to engage adults with disability in plant conservation. However, the project did increase the participants’ understanding of the use and importance of plants in our lives and the benefits of connecting with nature.
I think [environmental issues is a topic that] needs to be at a level that people understand and it’s relevant to their world and their life. …because they are quite complex and big issues …talking about it on a more global kind of, could get a bit [difficult].

Mary, Team Manager from Mosaic, Leicester, England, UK (July 16, 2012)

The project and the partnership with Mosaic resulted in increasing accessibility of the ULBG to people with disabilities. A marquee was purchased, which became an accessible space for the groups. Meanwhile, Mosaic staff also trained educators from the garden in communicating effectively with adults with learning and physical difficulties. Moreover, the activities had an impact in terms of addressing social inclusion issues at an individual and group level. The activities sparked the interest of the participants in plants and the botanic gardens and opened a door for them to a new world that can fulfill their needs for an active and social life. Evidence also suggests that the participants became more confident.

Westonbirt, The National Arboretum – Hidden Voices

With the Hidden Voices project, Westonbirt aimed to improve their visitor profile and, by using a collaborative approach, develop a shared understanding of trees and what they mean to society. The project worked in collaboration with three different groups, tailoring specific environmental activities to each one: The Bristol Drugs Project (BDP), an independent agency that works with drug users and is focused on sustainable woodland management; Awaz Utaoh (Raise your Voice), a group working with Asian women who have been victims of abuse and face isolation and that is focused on global uses of trees through crafts and food related activities; and Stroud Macular Disease Society (SMDS) that supports elderly people with visual impairment and focuses on activities related to climate change and gardening. Each group visited Westonbirt on a monthly basis for six months, followed by a final celebration. The project was divided into distinct phases, and the collaborative approach was based on garden staff, participants, and group leaders who shared responsibility for each session to ensure the program was tailored to the specific needs of the group.

The project had varied success in terms of engaging participants actively with plant conservation. The most notable success regards the BDP activities, as the participants not only understood the importance of sustainable woodland management but also realized that they can be part of the solution to the problem.

It is all our responsibility as it is all our future. I think woodland management should be part of a community engagement project for everybody.

Tom, BDP group member, Bristol, England, UK (September 10, 2012)

The Awaz Utaoh and SMDS groups also indicated an increased awareness of environmental issues and the importance of plant conservation; however, they did not see themselves as playing an active role in addressing these. This can possibly be attributed to the fact that the activities of these two groups did not have a practical element to enable them to directly contribute to plant conservation.

Hidden Voices was very successful in terms of addressing social inclusion issues. The project raised participants’ self-esteem and benefited their physical and mental health and well-being. Participants felt more confident after learning new skills which they then wanted to bring back to their communities. The project also addressed the political aspects of social exclusion (e.g., disempowerment, low levels of community activity), particularly by enabling the BDP to feel that, by their action, they can contribute to society. The project was also successful in terms of social cohesion; Westonbirt staff and volunteers began to empathize with the challenges faced by particular groups and felt that they could relate to and enjoy interacting with the participants.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – Edible Gardening Project

RBGE had a little more experience in running community projects. When they got involved with Communities in Nature, theirEdible Gardening Project had already been running for ten months, at which point they revised their aim to involve hard-to-reach audiences and teach them the skills and knowledge they need to grow their own food. Mainly two groups of young people were involved in the project. The More Choices More Chances group (MCMC) from Broughton High School comprised young people who did not attend school very often, while The Rock Trust group comprised young people at risk of homelessness.

Over a period of five months, the groups visited the garden on a weekly basis and, by tending their own plots, learned how to grow, prepare, and share healthy and sustainable food. Through practice, the young people learned about: food security, reducing their carbon footprint, biodiversity in the edible garden, and how to apply environmental friendly practices such as composting, water conservation, and peat-free gardening.

In addition, due to community demand, RBGE offered a day of training to two groups, the Pilton Community Health Project (Pilton), which offers activities on how people can live healthier lives, and the Mayfield and Easthouses Youth 2000 Project (YK2000), which offers a safe space for young people to socialize and receive job advice and advocacy and runs a gardening social enterprise. The training focused on how to establish a community garden.
Feedback from the participants demonstrated an increase in their understanding of how their food production and consumption is linked to environmental issues. Some of the comments were: Being environmentally friendly means healthy and economical; Growing your own food means less will go to waste; the project made me to want a wormery and to eat more food produced freshly by plants; I feel inspired to grow my own food. Participants from YK2000 and the Rock Trust, Edinburgh, July 2012

Young people who took part in the project started growing their own food at home, tasted some vegetables for the first time, and cooked food from fresh produce rather than the ready-made meals that comprise their daily diet. Growing and consuming local food is not only an environmental issue; the project had a significant impact in terms of the health and well-being of the participants, which considering Scotland’s poor health record (obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease—all attributed to unhealthy eating habits), is highly commendable. Edible Gardening was also successful in addressing the social and economic dimensions of social exclusion, especially in relation to exclusion from the labor market and homelessness and to disaffected youth. Some of the young participants were at risk of homelessness, were single parents, and lived in deprived areas of Edinburgh. During the project they raised their aspirations in life; their confidence grew, and some even considered a career in horticulture in the future.