RHS to build a national centre
RHS to build new national centre for horticulture
“What we are doing is unique in the world”
THE Royal Horticultural Society is moving into brand-new territory – and mobilising an army of gardeners to help it on its way. The society, which was formed more than 100 years ago, is combining its decades of gardening and scientific expertise to become a world leader in the fight against climate change and help reduce the global impact of mental and physical illness.
It is developing a multi-million-pound, world-beating National Centre for Horticultural Science and Learning at its flagship garden RHS Wisley in Surrey, The centre will open in 2020.
Instead of being a top-secret research laboratory staffed by unworldly, stuffy boffins, the centre and its trio of new gardens will welcome the public to watch the scientists at work and be inspired to do their bit back home.
RHS director general Sue Biggs said: “What we are doing is incredible and wonderful and extremely exciting.
“As far as I know it is unique in the world. There are places doing agricultural and botanical research, but nothing for horticulture, which is a shame when you think there are 27 million gardens in this country.”
By ‘garden’, Sue doesn’t just mean a sizeable patch of Surrey countryside. The RHS wants everyone, whether they have a few metres of land or an innercity balcony, to do their bit.
“It isn’t just about having a decent plot of land,” she said.
“You can make a difference if you have a balcony in a tower block, are part of an urban architecture scheme or have your own community space.
“If there was ever a need to use the people and the plants to combat climate change, mental-health issues and other problems, it’s now.”
Sue joined the RHS as director general eight years ago, having been the managing director of travel giants Kuoni and Thomas Cook. She calls her current position her ‘dream job’, having been bitten by the gardening bug when she was just seven years old.
She is determined to lead the society onto new ground and inspire its 485,000 members to create a greener future for the whole planet.
Sue continued: “The pollinators are suffering, there’s climate change and we want to encourage amateur gardeners to do more to combat these problems.
“There’s an army of gardeners out there – individuals, clubs and societies – and a lot you can do to combat the threat of a warming world. For a start, I know there’s a shortage of parking, but leaving your house frontage as a garden, rather than concreting over it to make a car park, helps alleviate the risk of urban flooding.
“Planting trees helps reduce the temperature in cities, and growing climbers up a house wall provides extra insulation to keep it warmer in winter
“I don’t want to imagine a country without gardens”
and cooler in summer, reducing the need for heating and air conditioning.
“Gardening also helps our wellbeing. It’s good for mental health, it is a form of exercise, which helps the obesity problem, and people talk to their neighbours, which reduces loneliness.”
The improved facilities at Wisley will also have a knock-on effect for the other RHS gardens at Rosemoor, Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall and Bridgewater.
The new Learning Centre will be at Wisley’s Hilltop and will include an expanded herbarium, an archive, library, study area and three new gardens. There is also a new atrium and gathering space for talks, art exhibitions and activities, a restaurant and a bar. The car park has also been expanded.
Visitors can see the scientists working, use the archives and library, apart from the rare-book room, and watch the work of preserving plant samples in the herbarium.
The holistic approach linking gardening and science to global and personal wellbeing is echoed in the National Centre’s trio of new gardens that focus on wildlife, wellbeing and diet.
Created by designers Ann-Marie Powell and Matt Keightley, they will be ‘living laboratories’, where visitors can see how horticultural science impacts on everyday life.
Tim Upson, director of horticulture with the RHS, added: “The gardens are a perfect demonstration of our commitment to inspiring everyone to grow for a better, greener future. They will act as a living embodiment of our new science centre, sharing the many benefits of gardening.”
So where does Sue see RHS Wisley being in a decade’s time?
“I think that up until now people have been scared by the science bit of gardening,” she said. “We want to demystify it and celebrate the importance of gardening and what we can do together to help society.
“People ask, ‘Why are you spending all this money just on Wisley?’ But it isn’t just on Wisley, it’s for the country. Can you imagine a country, a world, without gardens? I can’t – and I certainly don’t want to.”
AG Editor Garry Coward-Williams said: “We applaud this initiative and believe that everyone should support it.”
Proposed new main entrance of the National Centre, via the Wellbeing Garden
RHS director general Sue Biggs
Artist’s impression of the new Wellbeing Garden at RHS Wisley