Interview - Mark Paterson, curator, Cruickshank Botanic Garden, University of Aberdeen

Mark Paterson's horticultural career has included spells in Canada, Australia and London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as Threave Gardens in Castle Douglas and the Eden Project in Cornwall, where he was head of the tertiary education programme. At the Cruickshank Botanic Garden, he will be working with the university to develop and promote the garden as an important asset not only to botany but to the city of Aberdeen.

Mark Paterson, curator, Cruickshank Botanic Garden, University of Aberdeen - image: HW
Mark Paterson, curator, Cruickshank Botanic Garden, University of Aberdeen - image: HW

Q. What was the attraction of Cruickshank?

A. First and foremost, it is the northernmost botanic garden in the UK, at 57 degs latitude. That implies that we are all shivering and growing alpines. But the garden is only two miles from the coast, which has a warming influence, and like any garden it has its microclimates so we can grow material that contradicts the idea that we can only grow hardy material. We are affiliated to the University of Aberdeen, which has been around for six centuries, and the garden has been here for more than a century so it has a magnificent pedigree. The garden abuts Seaton Park and is close to the mouth of the River Don and all three are conservation gardens, which is fairly unique.

Q. What was your role at the Eden Project?

A. For the last six years that I was at the Eden Project I managed tertiary education provision, delivering a broad range of subjects including A level, postgraduate and continuing professional development.

Q. What will your new role at Cruickshank involve?

A. Gardens are part of the make-up of the university. I wish to extend them as sites for formal learning and research and public engagement. Eden was different in scale but still a site of public attraction and learning.

Q. What about the comparative visitor numbers between Eden and Cruickshank?

A. They are significantly different. Not many botanic gardens in the UK can boast one million visitors a year for more than 10 years like Eden. Cruickshank does not have those sort of numbers at all, but one of its most interesting components is the location between the school of zoology and school of biological sciences so the garden has daily use with staff and students.

Q. How do you want to develop the garden?

A. In a variety of ways. As the garden is so far north, I want to extend the collection to show what is possible botanically and especially to show "here's what you can grow in your own garden". The garden is inherently a place where arts and science meet. There are some super spaces for public access. I hope to have the support of the university to use the gardens as an opportunity throughout the seasons, year-on-year, to develop this.

Q. What are the garden's funding needs?

A. It is vital to remember that gardens that are open to the public and promote educational benefit are not like artefacts in a gallery or museum. You can't put them in wraps and bring them out later knowing that they are going to look as good as before. A living collection needs constant care and upkeep and what is vital with funds for living collections is not to let it go to a place where it can never return.

Q. What do you think is the importance of botanic gardens?

A. They are fundamentally vital. Botanic gardens may not always appeal to everyone but Eden is a botanic garden although it is not called that. The role of botanic gardens is now more important than ever because in some parts of the world they are the green space of that environment. They are vital as sites of scientific endeavour and research and collections that are of purpose to gardeners entering industry and people wanting to extend, expand and check their knowledge. They also promote and maintain genetic diversity of flora and issues of species biodiversity, conservation and food security - issues that are all vital and possibly more pertinent than ever.

Q. What are the pressures on botanic gardens?

A. The perception of the general public as to what botanic gardens do is the biggest pressure. Cruickshank helps to extend the story and the magnificent history in an area of Aberdeen. It is a garden with free entry and a space where proprietorship can be felt. Many botanic gardens are not elite places but they should be a venue to attract everyone. That is one of the magical things about them.

CV

1992-93: Threave Gardens

1994-97: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

1997-2001: Garden design and horticulture retail in Australia

2001-11: Head, guide team, Eden Project, moving to manager, tertiary education programme

2011 to date: Curator, University of Aberdeen Cruickshank Botanic Garden


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