28 Oct 2019

Life as an Apprentice: a week in Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Laura Davies

As a horticultural apprentice, Ben Wilde got to spend time in other gardens to learn new skills and to see how other places do things. This is his diary from a week-long placement at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Day 1

After arriving at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on the Monday morning, I was greeted by Gunnar (Head of Glass) and given an introductory briefing and welcome to the garden. Once we had finished, he introduced me to Richard, the supervisor for the rock and alpine area, and the person I would be shadowing this week. Richard then gave me a tour of the garden and the areas that I would be working in and a brief outline of the rock garden as a whole. The garden was laid out in such a way that as you walked out of the wooded area of the garden and through the rockery, you would be in effect walking up the side of the mountain, starting with the woodland base plants, and moving up through the wood fringe and going up through scree where there was a mixture of alpine plants and plants that could be found lower down the slopes. At this point the garden trail ended and the alpine plants, were housed in their own specialist area of the garden.

The alpine area of the garden was tended to by a lady called Elspeth, a senior horticulturist, who also tended the scree slopes of the rockery. I was briefly introduced to her and it was organised that I would spend a day shadowing her and working with the alpines on Tuesday.

For the remainder of the day, we worked around the rockery, tidying leaves and flowers that had dropped over the weekend, and doing some weeding on some beds around the “east valley” (so-called because it was a valley in the garden on the eastern side). At this point Richard talked me through some of the region-specific beds including New Zealand and Siberia. Before I knew it, the day was over and it was time to pack up.

Day 2

On the second day I was given a more complete tour of the alpine area by Elspeth. This included a new Tufa wall that was planted up with some tiny alpines and pillow plants. She then showed me around a beautiful area filled with alpine troughs and two 1970s alpine houses filled with display specimens behind steel mesh to dissuade the public pinching the plants. Behind the wall at the back of this area was the main housing area for all the plants in the alpine collection and plants that were being propagated for the rock garden. There was also a crevice garden that was made out of slate, which Elspeth informed me was one of the best materials to make a crevice garden out of. In this area, there were countless cold frames and three large glasshouses, all dedicated to alpine plants, one of which was purely bulbs!

After the tour, we started on the main job of the season, repotting the bulb collection, a job that I had been told normally takes around three months, ending at some point in November. All the plants were planted into terracotta pots, and then sank up to the rim in sand within the houses/cold frames. I asked if this was for display purposes and Elspeth informed me that it was a mixture of display and that the plants loved the terracotta, allowing the right amount of water transport and heating/cooling of the roots.

After lunch we went out to the trough area, and planted a few new plants into some of the troughs. This was to help fill in some gaps that had appeared, and to keep the area fresh to the public, as this was a well-visited area, and there was a large amount of alpine enthusiasts who visited. After planting, we worked on the troughs, weeding (mainly oxalis) and tidying up until lunch, when we moved back to the areas behind and weeded some of the cold frames. While working on the cold frames, I was able to introduce myself to a few of the different alpines that the garden had in its collection, including Dionysia a varied cushion plant family, sporting differing size rosettes, from those that looked like tiny savoy cabbage to some which you could pass off a moss if you were not paying attention.

To conclude the day we did a brief tidy up of the areas, and checked a few points of the watering, after work hours, I spent some time just walking around the area, admiring a whole ecosystem of plants that I had rarely seen and almost never worked with before.

Day 3

On day three, I was incredibly lucky to travel up to Aviemore, where we worked on a small plot that the garden had on a slope of a nearby mountain. The site was around a three hour drive in the van from the botanics. After a short trek to the site, up a misty valley, I was greeted to a square area with approximately 25m long sides, closed to the public, that had been fenced off from the surrounding park (to prevent deer accessing the site). Within this area, there were four terraces very well blended with the environment, that were only distinguishable by the strange array of plants growing in them, ranging from Scottish natives to New Zealand native plants, all, however, looking equally at home. Alongside these interesting plants, I was greeted with a brilliant view, an ever-encroaching cloud layer, and some of the most persistent midges I had ever encountered! Even after drowning myself in Deet, it was only enough to keep them off for about ten minutes. Settling myself into a gnat infested day, we began to work on the terraces, weeding out some of the more vigorous natives, and cutting back and removing heathers from the beds.

Within one of the beds, there were three Woodsia ferns that Richard was happy to see had improved since his last visit. He explained to me that the conservation of the woodsia ferns was one of the goals of the garden and to see them starting to grow happily was very exciting. And dotted around were some fantastic native plants, all of which I was unsure of the names of but everyone else could rattle them off no problem!

After three or four hours, I had learned to ignore the gnats, and the beds were weeded and the rain was starting to rapidly worsen. However, on the way back we were still able to catch a glimpse at some native Pinguicula growing on the river edge and an herbaceous Cornus nestled in some heather. After a quick bite to eat in the van, we began the journey back and I decided I really needed to start learning more about some of the native plants of the UK!

Day 4

We started off on Thursday morning, by clearing out the van from the previous day’s excursion and then continuing some weeding in the rock garden. This time we were working on the area’s just above the treeline, and I was surprised to see a large variety of plants that were familiar to me including assorted Allium, Aquilegia, and Rhododendron. I think this came as a welcome surprise, because I had been working with so many plants that I had never seen before! After working there for the morning, I began to recognize more and more plants from the Great Glass House, and the Boulder garden back in Wales. After the morning break, we did a bit of planting around the garden and then continued with the tidying of the garden, this time moving the area that mimicked the undergrowth of the high elevation forests.

After lunch, I was given a tour of the research glasshouses, and was told about the new “Biomes” project that was hopefully going to go ahead, and was to upgrade the glasshouse range at the garden. We were told that the downside was that a lot of the collections would have to be reduced in order for them to move to their new temporary homes that had been constructed for the project duration. The houses are situated on-site at the botanics and make up the largest area under glass at the garden. There were 6 large glasshouses, separated into sections. The glasshouses were of differing lengths, the smallest being around 50m long and the longest being around 100m.

Within the research glasshouses, there were a number of houses specifically dedicated to one group of plants, including Begonias and Orchids. There was also a vast collection of Zingiberaceae plants and a fantastic collection of Vireya rhododendrons. This tour took up most of the afternoon, and once it was over, we had enough time to help with pack up and then head back.

Day 5

On the final day, we carried on with some planting and weeding in the rock garden, and generally tidied up in preparation for the weekend. After the morning break we were given a tour of the display glass areas, and the palm houses. Here we were told that some of the palms that had been in the palm houses since they had been built were sadly going to die in the “Biomes” project, one of which was suspected to be the oldest palm tree in the UK.

In the main houses, we went through the arid houses, showing the convergent evolution of the cacti and euphorbias, and aloes and agaves. There was also a house displaying some of the Victoria water lilies that the garden grows. The tour concluded with a visit to the Vireya rhododendron display house, which was designed to try and mimic the natural habitat of the plants. Within this house I was presented with something called a “miracle berry” (Synsepalum dulcificum), so called because it made even the most sour and bitter foods incredibly sweet. After trying one of these, I found I could drink vinegar and eat onions raw without any of the normally accompanying side effects. After asking the tour guide, he allowed me to take one back to where I was staying, where I proceeded to disgust the people I was staying with by eating an onion like an apple!

After lunch, there was a team meeting (with cake) to thank an exchange student called Anabella, who had been working with the team for the last six weeks, and myself for my time in the garden, during which they said that if I was to come back I should at least make it a two week trip to see everything, and maybe come in the spring to see a change in season at the garden! I definitely agreed with the extension to the visiting time as the whole week had been a whistle-stop tour and I barely felt that I had time to get my feet on the ground!


All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Edinburgh and would jump at the opportunity to return if it ever arose. The breadth of knowledge held by all members of the team at Edinburgh was incredible, not just for the rock and alpine plants that they were commonly working with but also for the native plants of the area. Working with the alpine plants was a highly rewarding experience, as it was something that I have never done before, and nearly all of it was new. The visit to the plot in Aviemore was a welcome surprise and although the midges were not my favourite, the whole day was very good fun and a great way to see some more of the Scottish landscape.

Now I am back in sunny Wales, I am definitely going to research into alpine plants a lot more, and also do some more reading about the Vireya Rhododendrons, as they were a very interesting collection that was displayed fantastically at Edinburgh. I am also going to take a closer look at the local flora and begin familiarising myself with them more, as I really noticed how much I don’t know about the plants that I walk past on a daily basis. If the opportunity ever arose to revisit the gardens in Edinburgh I would seize it with both hands, and hopefully work there for a few weeks, if they would have me back!

Postscript. Ben Wilde has now been taken on as a horticultural trainer for the National Botanic Garden of Wales’ Growing the Future project.