Posted by: SandraDeeble
May 14, 2011
Under a shining cluster of gigantic bubbles in Cornwall perhaps the most important garden in the world is growing. Sandra Deeble meets some of those devoting their skills to the project.
Without plants, there would be no life on earth. So read the first line of the business plan for the Eden Project. The power of this statement, has stirred dozens of people to leave homes and jobs to go to live in Cornwall to work at the Eden Project, arguably the most important horticultural project in the world.
The Eden Project is the vision of Tim Smit and the first view of the greenhouses, called “biomes”, can only be met with one response – silence. They are awe-inspiring. From one particular viewpoint at the visitor centre, the sight of them causes your imagination to soar: a dream world where giant soap bubbles bump into each other and gather nestled on a tiered hillside.
The biomes are called greenhouses, but there is no glass. The material is ethyltetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, a hi-tech transparent foil and a second cousin to Teflon. The biomes have gained entry to the Guinness Book of Records for being the largest and tallest structures of birdcage scaffolding ever erected in the world. The Tower of London could fit into the largest biome, which is 240 metres wide and 55 metres high.
The Eden Project has been built in the huge Bodelva china clay pit in St Austell – it will be completed by Easter 2001. Inside, it’s a building site with the makings of a garden, one which aims to make us take a fresh look at our relationship with plants.
Around 2m people in the UK are braving the elements and carving out a horticultural career. “And it’s a growing industry,” quips Tom Keay, temperate curator at the Eden Project. Mr Keay stumbled across horticulture one summer when he got a job with the Royal Parks in London. “I remember thinking: ‘This is amazing: people earn their living looking after plants’. From that moment on I knew that was the sort of work I really enjoyed: being outdoors growing things,” he says.
He went on to Bath University to take a degree in horticulture. “You do a lot of plant biology and management skills,” he explains. “But doing a degree broadened my horizons. I thought that horticulture was garden and park management, but I started looking at the whole landscape. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a nature reserve, a beach or reclaiming china clay waste areas in Cornwall, it’s a lot more than gardening.”
“It’s all about having green fingers,” says Adrian Lovatt, the outdoor supervisor at Eden. Asked if he really expects anyone to believe the green fingers myth, he says adamantly: “It’s something you’re born with.” He was born in the Isles of Scilly and his father worked as a head gardener. After a degree in botany at London University, he worked in a nursery and then went to the National Trust as a trainee gardener. He went on to do the Kew Diploma, a three-year course at the famous gardens in west London.
“When I was at Kew, I started hearing whispers in the press about Eden. This job was advertised in Horticulture Week. As much as I loved historic gardens, there was always this gap in my career where I couldn’t focus on plants, but Eden satisfies that. The Eden Project is unique in the way it’s linking plants and people. Every health problem that humans are ever going to face could be cured by plants, but we’ve got to rediscover the ingredients, and that could take years of research.”
Someone else who followed the Eden story a long time ago is Paul Watson. He worked as a welder for 10 years. “But I always grew vegetables at home and went to garden centres,” he admits. “Then I heard about the Eden Project and one morning I thought: ‘Sod it, I’m not welding anymore.'” He is happy doing the work, which can involve anything from laying paths and developing the area known as “Wild Cornwall”, to planting eucalyptus trees. “Peace and satisfaction mean more than money,” he says philosophically.
“And the plants are quite happy,” says Emma Ball, who works as a draughtswoman. She points out different areas in the 55-metre high tropical biome. “That’s Amazonia, coming into West Africa. We’re in Malaysia; there’ll be mango trees and ginger and nutmeg. Over there is Cornucopia, with chewing gum, bamboo, rubber, palms, bananas, sugar cane, coffee and timber. We’ve thought about having paddy fields going up the sides. And that’s the waterfall,” she says. There’s nothing to see yet, but Emma, who went to Pershore College, can smell the possibilities.
If the area sounds like paradise that’s because, to lots of people, it is. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, the restored Victorian garden sitting atop a ravine filled with sub-tropical plants, is spiritually linked to Eden. It’s just down the road in Mevagissey, where Peter Stafford, managing director, has nurtured not just a host of unusual plants, but a horizontal management structure that encourages gardeners to air their views. “We’ve cho sen to get away from the hierarchical structure that existed in a Victorian garden,” he says.
“In Victorian times people stayed working on the same estate. We’ve got people who come to us with training, enthusiasm and passion, but they’re not going to stay here all their life. All we can do is give people responsibility for what they create, rather than telling them what to do,” he says.
But he has difficulty recruiting people. “We could use someone in the vegetable garden; someone with a particular expertise in pruning and seasonality; someone who can bring together the manure at the right time, and the stuff for the pine- apple pits.
“You’ve got to be able to find someone who can double-dig to recreate the soil structure that the Victorians had. There are generations of head gardeners but now they’re probably 55 or 65.”
At Notcutts Nurseries, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, Paul Prowse is also experiencing difficulties. “We’re crying out for skilled people,” he says. “Horticulture is becoming a sophisticated industry. It’s a mixture of the fashion industry wrapped up into media and retail.” Mr Prowse was quick to confirm that spiky plants are in this season.
But at specialist agency Horticruitment, partner Ray Hulme says that one explanation for the horticultural recruitment crisis is that some of the most talented graduates are being creamed off by garden website businesses. “It could all end in tears,” he says dramatically. With around 5,000 horticulturists on their books, Mr Hulme also bemoans the fact that some colleges are cutting corners. “Horticulture isn’t economical. There are glasshouses to maintain. Graduates just aren’t getting the training they need,” he says. There has been a trend to focus more on courses that can be studied in the classroom rather than on the ground, as it were.
Yet a training in horticulture can be invaluable for teaching other things, explains Jill McChesney, training manager at Thrive, a charity which promotes horticulture for health. “It can be used as an assessment tool, perhaps for someone who has had a stroke. We’re getting people to do gardening to build their confidence,” she says.
Back at the Eden Project, it would seem that the gardeners working there really have struck gold (or china clay). Just as Heligan was developed intuitively, at Eden, intuition also plays a role. “You’ve got to be able to look at a plant and think: ‘There’s something wrong with that,” says Tom Keay. And while many of the Eden gardeners believe that you can learn a lot about art and horticulture at college, some things can’t be learned, as Adrian Lovatt explains: “You’ve got to have a feeling for plants.” It’s the green fingers theory again.
You can visit the Eden site and visitor centre until early January, after which it will be closed until the official Easter opening.
Planting the seeds of a budding career
Eden started as such an in-your-wildest-dreams, blue-sky project that it was featured on Blue Peter, long ago, and spotted by Fiona Sanders (right) now supervisor of the temperate zone. “It was just an idea. The presenters said there were people thinking of building the biggest conservatories in the world in Cornwall. They flashed up a computer image and I just thought that it would be great to work there. That was four years ago.”
After a stint as a gardener at Torbay hospital, Ms Sanders saw her job advertised in the Western Morning News. “It’s a dream job,” she says. “Although it’s a Millennium project and people are sceptical about it, it’s going to be here for years and years. I’m not going to say it’s the new Kew Gardens because Kew has so much history, but in the future this will rival what Kew does and it’ll be known throughout the world. Hopefully it will really count for something when people see it on your CV, and one day I would hope that I would be able to work abroad,” she says.
And forget office politics – gardeners don’t have hidden agendas, according to Ms Sanders, who explains that they’ve got no time for politics, they just tend to get on with the job. “It’s a very relaxed working atmosphere,” she says. “And people listen to your point of view. What you say counts for something and there are never any hard feelings.”
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