I love idea of botanic gardens and am unavoidably drawn to them. This may be down to much of my childhood being spent at Kew picnicking with my parents, or it may be that the geek in me desperately wants my interest in gardens and all things botanical to blossom into something oh so much more intellectual and academic, whatever the root cause, the outcome is that I can rarely pass a botanic garden by.
So I was happy to go off to revisit the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBG) earlier this summer, as I hadn’t been there for a number of years and was keen to explore.
In their paper Environmental awareness, interests and motives of botanic gardens visitors: Implications for interpretive practice1, Roy Ballantyne, Jan Packer and Karen Hughes describe the purposes of botanic gardens as conservation and education, but also acknowledge the huge role they play in tourism. I wasn’t aware until I started reading around the subject that “visiting gardens” is the 4th most popular reason for tourists to visit the UK!
The implication is that botanic gardens are as much a tourist attraction as an educational resource, and NBG certainly felt as if tourism was top of it’s list of purposes during my visit.
It's an undeniably beautiful place with a stunning setting deep in the Carmarthanshire countryside. Carefully thought out with lovingly restored old stone buildings, incredible views and surprises around every corner NBG delivers pleasure in well, spade loads. As you enter the garden through the gate house you are immediately swept into a sea of options – what to do, where to go, what to see. I think you have to see the garden as a range of different rooms one after the other – it doesn't really quite run together as a whole, and I don't think that matters as such and its a lovely wander as you take in giant wicker sculptures, a pool full of shimmering metal fish, restored walled gardens, pebble lined rills designed to echo the nearby river Tywi, swathes of wildflowers, dry gardens, wet gardens, Japanese inspired gardens, lakes and behind all that, wonderful rolling meadowswhere you could play all day. There are all sorts of side exhibitions that would fascinate and inform children, particularly the very young such as the bee garden where you can watch honey bees at work, and the fungi exhibition in the Great Glasshouse, a huge “of the hill, not on the hill” Frank Lloyd Wright inspired glass structure that gives a space age feel to the garden.
So for a day out, lovely, especially on a warm bright sunny day, and for youngsters, yes it's educational, no doubt about it.
However, for people like me, who know a little and want to learn more, what does NBG deliver beyond the “lovely day out”? My answer really is not enough. I came home with planting ideas and lists of plants to investigate, and wonderful images, but throughout the garden I felt short changed on information. There just wasn't enough for me to get my teeth into. Their wild flower display was wonderful and filled me with awe when compared to my grassy awful year one attempt here at home, but did they tell me what they had done to get to that point? How long it had taken? Even what the individual plants were? No!
The Great Glasshouse showcases micro climates from round the world showing plant diversity in threatened habitats. When this exhibition was originally set up it was fascinating, but over the years the facts around such rare threatened climates have become more widely understood, and I would now enjoy more focus on our own threatened landscapes and eco-systems, the importance of native species, an exhibit about sustainability and food production in the UK, and more, far more on the history of gardens and gardening and the native flora and fauna of Wales.
I acknowledge that lots more goes on beyond the day to day opening of the garden, but most visitors will never be able to get there to experience the range of specialist classes and courses on offer – they need to access what they can on their occasional visits.
This slight feeling of being unfulfilled by the visit is exacerbated by the garden centre that doubles as an exit. It appears (forgive me NBG if I am wrong) to be just a commercial garden centre. It doesn't sell plants from the garden and the proceeds of anything you spend in there doesn't seem to go to NBG.....what a missed opportunity!
Will I go back – of course, often. Should you go? absolutely. But it's more a day out than a learning experience.