Interview - Ken thompson, plant ecologist, lecturer and author

You wouldn't expect a senior university lecturer to state that reading through scientific papers is like watching paint dry, but this is what drove Ken Thompson to write a book explaining the science behind gardening using accessible language.

The result was An Ear to the Ground, first published in 2006 and with a new revision available this year. The chapters cover topics ranging from what poisons plants carry to why the British flora is so impoverished, all explained in a humorous way and without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

Thompson says: "I go through a lot of primary publications of scientific literature but reading most of them, unfortunately, is like watching paint dry. They're not amusing in any way. Occasionally I would come across something that I would think gardeners would be interested in but, disappointingly, only academics would see it. So I squirreled the papers away and picked over the literature to put the book together."

He remarks: "Being a scientist all your life causes you to be a bit divorced from reality so you don't necessarily know what the average gardener would be interested in."

Fortunately, Thompson's own love of gardening, demonstrated by his efforts in his spare time in his steep Sheffield garden, gives him a stronger understanding than most academics.

His particular passion is growing unusual plants from seed. He says: "I just collect them from off the ground of gardens I visit and can't resist growing them." One result of this practice is a 2m tall handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. "I have no hope of seeing the tree flowering in my lifetime, it will be many years before it does that."

His interests were well met in the Biodiversity of Urban Gardens (BUGS) project, which was a detailed investigation carried out between 1999 and 2002 assessing the biodiversity of gardens in Sheffield. The project studied 61 domestic gardens across the city, within which more than 37,000 individual invertebrates were found.

Interestingly, the results showed that there was no qualitative difference between small and large gardens, and wildlife was attracted by alien plants as well as native ones.

However, he warns: "If gardens are too small it affects what people do in them - they don't put in trees, ponds, compost heaps and other things that are good for wildlife."

Thompson speaks fondly of the project: "It's probably the most interesting project I have been involved with during my entire career." He went on to use the project as a basis for his 2003 book, No Nettles Required. "The message from BUGS was extremely reassuring," says Thompson. "Ordinary gardens are good for wildlife."

The BUGS project went nationwide during 2004-2007. Gardens in five cities in the UK were studied and the results informed the Wildlife Gardening Manifesto, which was launched in July 2007.

Loving wildlife as he does, it's not surprising that he is against garden grabbing and paving over front gardens. "I'm concerned about losing front gardens to parking. In many cases it is completely insane. I think there is a curious idea among homeowners that it has some positive effect on the price of the house - they could be quite mistaken."

He thinks part of the problem is that people are ever-more individualistic and interested only in their own property.

Another issue that concerns him is the tendency of people to splash out lots of cash on their gardens, which he sees as an extension of the modern consumer society.

His hero was Geoff Hamilton, for being someone who would make something from old wooden pallets rather than buy something new. "Hamilton would never have spent £100 on a plant. He would get plants from a neighbour or grow them from seed."

It might sound like Thompson has a lot of "bees in his bonnet" but actually he hasn't - he's wry and good-humoured but passionate about gardening and not afraid to speak out.

Thompson started his ecology studies when he was quite young - as a boy he tinkered around in his own garden, playing with a pet tortoise and finding frogs under the garage. After studying for a biology degree, Thompson decided he wanted to stay in scientific research. He enjoyed genetics and biochemistry but found he didn't trust himself around machinery - being "cack-handed and careless" - but more than that, he didn't trust the readings derived from the technical equipment. "I liked the hands-on visual aspect of ecology, which after all, is just scientific gardening. If it's working you can see it's working, if it's dead you can see it's dead."

He gained his PhD at the University of Sheffield, followed by teaching in Durham and Plymouth, but he's been lecturing at Sheffield now since 1990.

His next plan is to write a popular book on biodiversity, as he feels "it's a much misunderstood subject among the general public".

He may also have a book on weeds up his sleeve. But for now he still enjoys the day job, thank you very much: "Contact with students is still very rewarding."

CV
1974: BSc University of Leicester
1977: PhD University of Sheffield
1990 to date: Lecturer at the University of Sheffield; senior lecturer
in the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences since 2002
1998-2002: Director of Buxton Climate Change Impacts Laboratory,
Sheffield
1999-2002: Key member of the first Biodiversity of Urban Gardens (BUGS)
project
2003: Publishes No Nettles Required
2006: Publishes An Ear to the Ground
2008: Publishes revision of An Ear to the Ground


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