Kew sets out plan to be 'visibly spectacular'

Director of horticulture Richard Barley says spectacular horticulture will help gardens to repair reputation after job cuts.

Barley: complete confidence - image: Simon Griffiths
Barley: complete confidence - image: Simon Griffiths

A drive towards "visibly spectacular horticulture" will help repair Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew's reputation following the announcement of 125 redundancies (HW, 4 April), director of horticulture Richard Barley has said.

The former Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne director Barley told HW: "Much is being sorted out that needed to be sorted out. I have complete confidence that five years down the track we'll look back and say: 'That was a reasonably challenging period yet it has made us all stronger and there were nettles that needed to be grasped and they were well and truly grasped at that time.'"

Barley wants Kew to be brighter. "Kew is an extraordinary place but there's a real need for us to roll up our sleeves and improve some aspects of what we do and improve in terms of visibly spectacular horticulture while not diminishing the value of our living plant collection, so really bringing those to life more and providing an exciting and enticing prospect for people to come and visit."

Kew's Broad Walk main promenade will have a new pair of 330m borders - "a spectacular herbaceous display telling the story of Kew and its plant-conservation work" - designed by a new in-house landscape unit. "Visitors in the next few months will see a noticeable increase in colour and horticultural content."

The 132ha "incredible" site has underused natural areas, where Barley says there are "opportunities for kids to get in touch with nature, which I don't think we do that well with existing play facilities". After a log trail went in late 2013, Barley said there will be "more of that sort of thing and less replication of any old municipality playground".

Barley said visitor numbers of two million, up from the current 1.3 million, are "realistic" by making Kew more "entertaining and inspiring through better horticulture". He added: "We don't make it easy for people to appreciate what's here in terms of plant collections," and "we've not been terribly good at promoting Kew in the rain."

The annual orchid festival is a blueprint for seasonal promotions such as spring flowering of cherry blossom, bluebells and magnolias. In Kew's glasshouses, Barley said: "The world is our oyster if they increase visual spectacle and allow us to tell stories about plants so people leave with better understanding".

With mainly science and public engagement jobs going numbers in the horticulture department are "quite stable" with only a "handful" of voluntary redundancies. "To better present Kew's horticulture we need skilled people and we're not able to do that if we reduce this resource," he said.

Morale is "quite strong" among Kew's gardeners because "staff are responding very well to getting some clear direction". He added: "I'm seeing greater pride in what they're doing because they're aware that the spotlight perhaps is returning to some degree to the horticulture within the site."

Barley said his boss, Kew director Richard Deverell, who is trying to plug a £5m funding gap after arriving from the BBC in 2012, has great vision and "recognises what it needs to remain vibrant and relevant". Barley added: "With obvious respect to past directors with plant science background", financial management skills have been missing at the garden.

Barley is also revamping the "unsung" School of Horticulture, with plans for a more "condensed 12-month course designed to attract students from outside the EU" as well as more "local market" hobby courses.

Union Prospect has nearly 100,000 signatures on its Stop Kew Cuts petition. "Change is not necessarily bad but we're challenging short-sighted job losses and reduction in activities in face of all recommendations," said the union. Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson has said there will be no bail-out (HW, 30 May).

Kew blueprints
2002: Wilkinson Eyre site plan - reviewing and prioritising site
2010: Independent Kew review.
2010: GrossMax masterplan.
2012: Independent review of horticulture - formed part of planning.
2014: School of Horticulture review - internally reviewed.
2014: Redundancy plan review.

Inquest Sympathy offered to family

Kew was taking part in an inquest this week, as HW went to press, into visitor Erena Wilson's death following being hit by a cedar branch in September 2012.

Barley offered sympathy to the deceased's family, adding: "All we can do is co-operate fully with the coronial inquiry and have confidence as I do that Kew's tree management and practices are absolutely as good as they can be. I have no concerns on that score."

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