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Thursday, 31 January 2013

The scent of winter

The last remnants of snow that recently blanketed Bristol, and indeed most of the UK, have been washed away by what seems like relentless rain. In the Botanic Garden, the staff and volunteers are seeking shelter in the potting shed and glasshouses, turning to indoor work during this inclement weather. Yet, despite grey skies and soggy soil, the Garden still has some delights to offer the senses.

Prunus mume in bloom at the Botanic Garden
Just outside the welcome lodge at the Botanic Garden, there is a delightful fragrance emanating from the Chinese plum, which is also known as the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume). This is an incredibly important plant in China and Japan and the delicate pink flowers feature prominently in much of the art from these cultures. Beneath the Chinese plum, Helleborus is in bloom – purple, pinks and whites – offering a beautiful winter display of colour.

Andy, a botanical horticulturist at the Garden, has taken time out of his busy schedule to show me around the rain. As we enter through the main gate, all the borders are looking incredibly tidy. Now that the last leaves have fallen, the volunteer and staff gardeners have taken the time to sweep and rake up the remains of autumn.

Snow drops have finally made their appearance.
Andy takes me past the pond to an area at the back of the garden where the gently sloping grass bank is scattered with spring bulbs that have broken through. Andy explains plans to make a bee hotel. There is already a good stack of wood and bamboo started, which will be added to over the next while to provide habitat for solitary bees. There are also plans to use some planks to create a city skyline sculpture that is also fully functioning bee habitat – a ‘Bee-tropolis’ if you will. Good gardeners always treat their pollinators well!

Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) looking a little soggy.
We stop at the winter sweet (Chimonanthus) and have a smell of the small white flowers that are growing along the bare branches. Andy tells me that most of the winter flowering plants are incredibly fragrant in order to attract the few pollinators that are out and about at this time of year. Unlike the sweet smelling Chinese plum, the winter sweet has a more nutty or spicy scent, which makes me wonder what sort of pollinator it’s trying to attract. Generally speaking, flowers with a spicy or fruity smell tend to attract beetles, while sweet smelling flowers attract bees and flies.

The winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) is in full flower. The flowers are...subtle. In fact, Andy needs to point one out to me. It has a strong citrus smell that is really lovely.
Winter flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii) 
has a lovely citrus fragrance.

Without a doubt, however, the amazing winter display is the evergreen Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. It is in full bloom and is incredibly fragrant. This species grows wild in the Himalayas and belongs to a group known as the paper Daphnes as the bark was once used to make paper and rope.

Beyond the Daphne, in the corner, there are a number of very large wheelbarrows filled with branches and cuttings that are evidence of how much cutting back and clearing has been done in the garden recently. There is also a pile of branches and a bush, which are all victims of the recent snowfall.

Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postill'
offers an incredible winter display.
“Winter is a time for keeping our fingers crossed,” says Andy, “hoping that everything makes it through and that all the winter protection we did helps.”

As we cruise by the compost heap, I can’t help but think of the rotting robot parts.

Beyond the compost and the vegetable patch, there are piles of Hazel branches. The gardeners have been collecting these in preparation for the new growing season. They are used as pea sticks to support herbaceous plants. It’s one of many winter tasks in the garden.  

Andy explains that winter is when much of the landscaping and development is done in the garden. However, right now with such sodden conditions, it simply can’t be done. But, in the meantime, there’s lots that can be done indoors. Let’s hope the winter pollinators have more luck with their outdoor tasks!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Ro-botany: rotting robots in the garden

There’s something really exciting going on in the compost heap at the Botanic Garden. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that buried deep within the hot and humid milieu of the compost, lay the components of future robots that could help clean up environmental disasters such as oil spills. It might sound like a piece of science fiction, but in fact it’s part of a two year project by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory that is looking at the development of a biodegradable robot.

The aim of the project is to build a robot that is self-powered, can move and biodegrades at the end of its life.  It’s an idea that was conceived by Dr. Jonathan Rossiter from the University of Bristol and Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos from the University of the West of England (UWE). Rossiter is an expert in the development of artificial muscles and Ieropoulos is an expert in the development of microbial fuel cells. So, when these two put their heads together to think about the future and the biggest challenges that lay ahead, they came up with the biodegradable robot.

Look out - there may be a future robot rotting in the
Botanic Garden's compost heap!
Robots have the potential of conducting large scale clean up of the environment in order to minimize the risk to humans. However, releasing the number of robots necessary to clean up an environmental mess within a reasonable time frame isn’t currently feasible as there is too much effort required to collect them all afterwards. If the robots aren’t collected, they themselves pose a toxic threat as batteries and other components degrade and release chemicals into the environment. The solution? A completely biodegradable robot.

One obvious application of such a robot is in the event of an oil spill. “There are hydrocarbon-degrading organisms that will utilise crude oil,” said Dr. Ieropoulos, a Senior Research Fellow in Engineering Design and Mathematics at UWE. “A futuristic scenario is to release these robots with guts full of microbes that use the crude oil. The robots swim about and the microbes in the fuel cell utilise the crude oil to power the swimming action. By the time they have finished, the robots have biodegraded gracefully into that very same environment without harming it.”

The hard bits, soft bits and active bits...

The workings of a robot can be divided into three main components: 1) the stomach – where energy is generated, 2) the body – which enables movement and 3) the brain – which can receive information from the environment and potentially make decisions. For this project, Rossiter and Ieropoulos are concentrating on developing the first two components – the stomach and body.

The ‘stomach’ is a critical component of the project as it enables the robots to be self-powered. Microbial fuel cells, are a technology that uses microorganisms to directly convert organic matter into electricity.
For the body, the researchers have to identify a range of biodegradable materials: hard bits to give it structure, soft bits that act as skin to hold it all together and active bits to help it move. For this, they are looking to both human-made materials as well as biological materials (such as cellulose).

“There are two approaches really,” said Dr. Rossiter, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering at Bristol. “We take man-made materials that we know work as artificial muscles and see if they degrade and we take materials that we know biodegrade and see if we can build muscles out of them.”

What’s happening in the compost heap...

The researchers are looking at the behaviour of a range of biodegradable materials in different environments. They will compare how the materials decompose in the lab, exposed only to room temperature and air, with how they decompose in the compost heap, and finally how they decompose in a bacterial broth, which replicates the microbial fuel cell environment.

Each week, the materials are weighed to determine how much mass has been lost over time. The results from the compost heap will be compared with those from the lab to determine whether the bacterial broth in the lab is accelerating the biodegradation process, and if so, how much electricity is being generated through that biodegradation.

“We can feed the microbes in the fuel cell things from the environment,” said Ieropoulos, “but if there are biodegrading organisms inside the fuel cell, then at the end of the robot’s lifetime, we want them to consume the chassis and muscles of the robot itself.” 

The project began in August 2012 and will run over two years with support from the Leverhulme Trust. At the end of the two years, Ieropoulos and Rossiter hope to have a proof of concept to show that a self-powered biodegradable robot is possible.

So, next time you visit the Garden and happen to be by the compost, bear in mind that there might be a future robot lurking in there!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Volunteers in the spotlight

This is my first day visiting the garden on a Tuesday. It’s a whole new set of faces around the coffee table as each day of the week brings with it a new set of volunteer gardeners at the Botanic Garden.  I've brought some home-made cookies – a sort of bribe or peace offering I suppose. You see, I want to drag a few of these lovely volunteers away from their work for a few minutes to ask them about what motivates them to keep coming back to the garden, donating their precious time, week after week, year after year.

Colin Bolton has been a volunteer gardener for nearly
ten years.
After some discussion around the coffee table, Colin Bolton becomes my first volunteer interviewee. I’m not entirely sure he has actually volunteered rather seems that his fellow volunteers around the table have ‘volunteered’ him. He’s willing to go with the flow though.

Colin has been a volunteer gardener at the Botanic Garden for nearly ten years, coming in one morning a week. He is a chemist by training and is a retired lecturer from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Medicine. He heard about the opportunity to volunteer through his son Mark Bolton, who is a well-known garden and flower photographer and has worked with a number of people in the Botanic Garden for various projects. Colin thought he would give volunteer gardening a go.

However, immediately before he was about to start, Colin was struck with meningitis and was very seriously ill in hospital for about six weeks.

“The medical staff were amazed that I came out of hospital, I was so ill,” Colin tells me. “I began volunteering for the garden right after that as a bit of therapy.”

For Colin, it seems to be the people in the Garden that he works with that have kept him coming back all these years.

“They are such nice people to work with and it’s lovely to work with people who know what they’re doing. They’re good teachers and everyone is very friendly, right from Nick [the curator] downwards.”

Colin began volunteering a couple of years before the Garden moved locations and he recalls the move well.

“The move was quite a performance...moving so many plants that were really well established. I can still remember seeing Andy digging around the roots of a really well established tree. He was digging down six feet and across just as much.”

When I ask him whether he was a big gardener before volunteering here, Colin tells me that he and his wife do have a fair size garden at home. He claims that his wife is really the creative genius in their own garden though. Then with a smile on his face, he describes his role as the unpaid labourer.

Judith Moore (second from the left) started her own
gardening business after she became a
volunteer gardener.
Next, I head off to find Judith Moore. She is sweeping leaves with a few of the other volunteer gardeners, Judy, Zaria and Marion, and I can hear the laughter and chatter long before I spot them.

Judith began volunteering as a gardener just after the garden had moved. She was a social worker and found herself between jobs and looking for something to do. Having visited the Garden at the old site quite a lot, Judith felt quite an attachment to it. She had always had an interest in gardening, so she began volunteering one morning a week. That was over seven years ago.

Volunteering in the Garden inspired Judith to start her own business and become a self-employed gardener, which she’s been doing now for about six years.

“I’d never thought about doing paid work as a gardener, but being here made me think about it. It just made me think, ‘well yeah, I could do this’. So I did.”

Judith completed horticulture training courses through the Royal Horticultural Society at the Botanic Garden and spoke to me about many of the other benefits she receives being a volunteer gardener: “It’s a fantastic network here. [The Botanic Garden] is a source of lots of things – information and ideas, but also work.”

People often phone the Botanic Garden inquiring about gardeners and they refer them to Judith. She’s acquired two of her clients this way. But, it’s more than this that has kept Judith coming back over the years.

“I’m sure everyone will say this to you, but the paid gardeners here are such nice people. Day to day it is just such a pleasant environment to be in, but also you feel that they’re all very supportive of us.”

When I point out that Judith’s volunteering commitment means hours that she can’t put toward building her business and her paid work, she simply replies, “I think that highlights how good it is coming here, because I really didn't want to stop this connection. It sort of feeds you.” 

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Iris unguicularis in bloom in the garden on January 15th.
Before I leave, I take a whirl around the garden to see what’s going on. There are some irises in bloom, which offer a beautiful splash of colour against the winter back drop and I stop to take a photograph. I run into Martin Webb who is working hard. Martin and his wife Carole started volunteering with the Botanic Garden about seven years ago, when it moved to its current location. Like many of the volunteers, Martin and Carole span the different groups of volunteers and are volunteer gardeners, volunteer guides and are also very involved with The Friends.

“ We've seen the garden grow up in this location,” says Martin, “which means that from a gardening point of view you feel as though you own a little bit of it because you can say, ‘I did that’ or ‘I helped with this’. It also helps with the guiding because when people ask questions you can tell them an anecdote because you know where things have come from and how things used to look before.”

Martin immediately slips into his role as a guide without knowing it and points to an area beyond where we’re standing and starts drawing upon his anecdotes: “When we first came, all of this wasn't planted and you had to take your cue from Nick, who painted a picture of what things were going to look like and then we had to try and see what he was seeing.”

Martin enjoys being on the interface between the garden and those who come to take pleasure in it. He and Carole both give tours for both adults and children and he spends some time telling me about how touring children about the garden requires completely different techniques.

“You get them to pick up a few leaves and have a look at them – some are glossy, some are prickly, some are waxy, some are furry – and you get them to have a feel. We talk about why the leaves are different and we basically have a mini botany lesson.”

Martin Webb is both a volunteer gardener
and a volunteer guide.
Martin says that the worst fear among the volunteer guides is that they will be asked a question they can’t answer. However, he claims that almost never happens.

“Even if they’re a very well informed group, you can always explain things in the context of this garden and what’s going on here. A good disclaimer is to just say up front that you are a keen amateur and encourage others within the group that might be more knowledgeable about specific areas to speak up and share their knowledge.

“In the end, you usually come off a tour on a bit of a high because you feel as though people have appreciated it, asked good questions and learned something.”

Martin and Carole decided to start volunteering after they retired. They were looking for something to do together and they were both interested in gardening and seven years later they are both very involved volunteers at the Garden. Martin pauses just long enough for me to take a picture of him in the winter sunshine before heading back to work.

So there you have it – a few of the stories behind the volunteers who are so integral to the Botanic Garden. I’m sure that every volunteer at the garden has a different reason for why they started volunteering and a unique motivation that keeps them coming back. However, as an observer, watching them work away on a cold winter day, I can safely say that all the volunteers look happy doing what they’re doing. And quite frankly, there’s a lot to be said about being somewhere that brings you happiness.