Interview - Don Murray, head of horticulture, Eden Project

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Eden Project in Cornwall, famous for its space-age biomes housing plant species from all over the world.

Head of horticulture Don Murray describes the gardens as "sexy" and "curvaceous" and says he hopes they have acted as a catalyst for change in British horticulture. He believes that being at the heart of the Cornish community has kept more than one-million visitors coming to the gardens every year.

Q: What makes the Eden Project different to other gardens?

A: Eden is hopefully sending out that shining light for 21st century horticulture. First and foremost, we are about the people - the plants come second. As a professional horticulturist I should really be working in some sort of botanic garden, but Eden has an edge to it. We are embedded within the community because we employ 437 people and that goes up to around 700 in the summer. The fact that we are working on things like sustainable horticulture means, for me, that we are bringing people around to Eden's ideas. When people talk about sustainability, I have not heard them talking about their staff. Being sustainable is also about the welfare of the team and helping people achieve their dreams.

Q: What has been the key to the Eden Project's success?

A: Having guts - it's about having guts and believing you can make it happen by bringing together people from different fields and different areas. We are always thinking about the future because we are a project. It's great because we have a free licence to do things and, unlike some other gardens, we are able to move things around. Also, our gardeners are not just gardeners. They are interpreters - both really good communicators and really good plant people.

Q: How do you maintain visitor numbers?

A: These are times when people have to be savvy about business and hard decisions need to be made. Our biggest asset is our staff, and being able to turn things around very quickly is important - as was seen with our floods earlier in the year. We are working on all sorts of revenue generation and in the Mediterranean biome we now have a food offering where chefs cook all sorts of Mediterranean dishes. It's very unusual for horticulturists to work with chefs and allow these things to happen, but we have been working hard to air it out.

Q: What have you got planned for the future?

A: My background is in canopy science and back in 2002 I hosted the Big Canopy Conversation. We want to build a canopy walkway and because we have the largest rainforest greenhouse in the world it will ultimately be the largest walkway. We are also hoping to become energy independent by building the first deep heat underground power plant. It's really important because we want to move our nursery and back-up facilities closer to the geothermal site and use it to heat the greenhouses.

Q: Explain the concept behind the Eden Project Consultancy.

A: One of the things we are looking at doing in the future is having other Edens across the world. The idea is not to build biomes like we have here, but to work with countries to help them realise what they need to build. For example, a project in Singapore would be totally different to the project here in Cornwall.

Q: How do you approach plant conservation?

A: We were one of the first gardens to combine conservation with selling and marketing a product. We have been working with the Seychelles on a variety called Impatiens 'Ray of Hope' and we market and sell that. Part of the money goes to the Seychelles government and some of the money comes to us. It's about working with others and doing proactive conservation because it's important to work with the host countries to help them to get to where they want to be.

Q: How important is training and education at the Eden Project?

A: We realise that waiting for Government money to help with apprenticeships is not going to happen, and we work with all sorts of horticultural bodies because it's important to realise what's being done and what can be done. In the past we had the Eden Diploma and we are looking at starting that up again at some point in the future. We need to see what skill sets people need in horticulture because they are totally different from 20 years ago.

Q: What do you think makes British Horticulture special?

A: I think that there's a lot to be said about horticulture in the UK. We are a far bigger player than the Government realises and although everyone is strapped for cash I feel that there are many like-minded individuals out there. At the Eden Project, we use the term "rock 'n' roll horticulture" and our aim is to make horticulture even greater.

1991-92: Horticulturist, Mountstuart Gardens
1992-97: Botanical intern and principal investigator, Marie Selby
Botanical Gardens
1998-99: Research scholar, University of Missouri
1999-2002: Curator, Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses
2002-08: Curator, Eden Project
2008 to date: Chair of horticulture, Eden Project

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