Communal task of restoration

The £6.7m renewal of Sheffield Botanical Gardens shows the value of engaging the voluntary sector, writes Gavin McEwan.

Restored beds at the newly revamped Sheffield Botanical Gardens - photo: HW
Restored beds at the newly revamped Sheffield Botanical Gardens - photo: HW

Britain's biggest restoration project of a botanic garden in recent times could not have happened without a huge input from enthusiastic volunteers, and provides an object lesson in how this effectively free resource can benefit the country's parks and gardens.

Sheffield Botanical Gardens is a 7.5ha early Victorian garden owned by Sheffield Town Trust and managed by Sheffield City Council. Its restoration cost £6.7m and curator Ian Turner believes it to be the only case in the country so far of a volunteer group raising more than £1m in match-funding. He says that Friends of the Botanical Gardens Sheffield (known as FOBS) "is what has driven the success of the garden".

The group was founded in 1984 by councillor and current president Arrol Winning and former gardens curator Don Williams, with the aim of getting the community more involved in its upkeep. It now has around 400 members, many with specialist knowledge of plants.

The friends group set up the Sheffield Botanical Gardens Trust (SBGT) as a tax-efficient registered charity in 1996, the same year that an initial funding bid was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). "Back then the gardens looked dreadful, with a lot of anti-social behaviour," says Dr Sue Kohler, who chairs FOBS and SBGT. "We needed money to make it usable."

Like FOBS, the trust is manned on a voluntary basis, and includes an accountant, a solicitor, a professor and a master cutler. "They do it for the love of the garden and of Sheffield," says Turner. "It continues to raise money for the gardens. Fundraising remains very important, and will never stop."

Kohler describes the restoration project as "very much a partnership between us and the council". The city oversaw the work, handled the contracts, the legal side and the budget, she says. "Our job was to raise the match-funding, publicise it and plant it."

Volunteers were also responsible for much of the physical work of preparing the soil, a hard clay, prior to planting.

Regular liaison between FOBS, the trust, the council, the University of Sheffield and garden staff was "a bureaucratic nightmare", she adds. "We all had to learn to communicate properly. You have to ensure everyone knows what everyone else is up to, otherwise there's muttering. It was a complicated partnership, but extremely fruitful."

Volunteers managed to persuade more than 50 companies, societies and trusts to each donate over £1,000. Being a registered charity made fundraising more tax-effective, since donations were eligible for Gift Aid. Covenanted subscriptions yielded a further £100,000 over the period. These included donations left in the pavilion, pond and fountain. "People are exceedingly generous," Kohler adds.

Other innovative fundraising ideas have included sponsoring panes of glass in the pavilion and roses in the rose garden. Besides appealing to outside sources, park volunteers generated about £250,000 through plant and craft sales, tours, lectures and work in kind.

The ranks of volunteers have been swelled by students from the university's landscape department, whose former head Professor Carys Swanwick was instrumental in putting together the proposal.

Because the gardens and structures are Grade II listed, English Heritage became involved as "project monitor" for the HLF. The original plan for the gardens was by Robert Marnock, perhaps the greatest exponent of the elaborate "gardenesque" style of landscaping, and the Government's heritage adviser was keen to see elements of his design reinstated. Most striking of these is the rose garden - a hit with the public, but "a nightmare to maintain", says Kohler.

The most recent work crowns a 10-year programme that had previously led to a restoration of the iconic pavilions, which reopened in 2003. A cafe and shop were also prioritised in the restoration schedule to generate a revenue scheme. The latter phase kicked off with the felling of around 300 trees to allow more light into the garden and provide spaces for herbaceous plants.

Landscape consultant Simon Dowse of landscape architect Scott Wilson says: "The trees were an emotive issue. There was a lot of consultation to win people round."

"It makes people feel safer," Turner adds. Art exhibitions, music and theatre productions are also being held in the garden during the summer. "They bring in people who wouldn't otherwise come. On a nice day, you can't see the grass for people."

Between 20 and 30 volunteers continue to help maintain the gardens each week, augmenting the regular staff of six.

Turner took over control in January. "Essentially, I have come into a finished garden," he says. "It's a flagship for the city, and a fantastic base to take forward. It's not just a garden - it's a place for education, training, conservation and research."

Turner used the high-profile reopening in June, which attracted a large crowd to the gardens, as an opportunity to say, "come and work here". "It's a great taster for a career in horticulture," he says.

An apprenticeship programme is already in place in the garden, replicating training that was in place until the 1970s. "Education is a thread running through the gardens' history since the start," says Turner.

Several other gardens in the area have since sought Kohler's advice in leveraging volunteer input in major infrastructure projects. But she stresses her background is in horticulture, as a former lecturer at York and Sheffield universities, rather than in project management or fundraising.

The gardens are home to the National Collections of Weigela and Diervilla. Current plans include an "evolutionary garden" centred on a 100-million-year-old fossilised tree stump of a Lycophyte or giant club moss.

"Experimenting is fun, and you don't find anything out unless you try - like discovering which plants can be grown outside in the garden," Turner says.

The Evolution garden "will require a lot of interpretation", he adds. "Right now most plants are not labelled. But volunteers are working on that, bed by bed."

FOCAL POINTS OF THE PROJECT

Herbaceous border

Extending down from the pavilions, this centrepiece of the gardens ranges from soft shades at the bottom to hot colours at the top. It was designed from scratch, planted and maintained by FOBS. A new fountain at the lower end, by Derbyshire-based Dorothea Restorations, resembles the 1830s original.

Rose garden

Reinstated as part of Robert Marnock's original design, for which considerable evidence remains. Steel swags were commissioned to bear the climbing roses which encircle the beds. The restored centrepiece, a statue of the Greek god Pan flanked by woodland creatures, was added in the 1950s.

Prairie

Designed and installed by students from Sheffield university's landscape department to resemble a North American prairie. A new sand-based seedbed was created to avoid the problem of competition from pre-existing native weed seeds. It is blowtorched at the end of the season and allowed to regenerate naturally.

Four seasons bed

The area between the pavilion and Clarkehouse Road, formerly a dense thicket of holly and laurel, has been designed to provide visitors with ideas for seasonal planting. The aim was also to provide a visually appealing frontage to the gardens, rather than for any specific botanical interest.

CREDITS

Main funders: Heritage Lottery Fund, Garfield Weston Foundation, Wolfson Foundation, Landfill Communities Fund

Project manager: Scott Wilson Group

Landscaper: Brambledown.


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