Historic article from early days in horticulture at the Eden Project prior to opening in 2001 by Andrew Ormerod

The Eden Project from the “Big Build” to the “Big Plant” by Andrew Ormerod (2001)

Much progress has been made since the last article appeared in the Cornish Garden Society magazine.  I know for many of us working at Eden Project we think back to events that appeared to have happened many months ago only to find that it was a few weeks ago, such is the pace of change!  This year has seen the successful opening of Phase 1 [the visitor centre and pit rim with the land train ride at Boldelva (termed “main site” in this article)] to which many of you plus over 480,000 others have visited.  Regular visitors will have seen the two biomes develop from their skeletal structure supported by scaffolding over the months, to the fully covered plant conservatories now being planted up. This article highlights the changes at the “main site” and at The Eden Project nursery at Watering Lane near St Austell.

So what developments have occurred behind the scene? The exhibits have been developed, this has entailed background research for each topic covering horticultural, ethnobotanical, historical, economic, political information on a global, regional and local level. From this information “story lines” are being written for each exhibit, these are influenced by the strongest stories highlighted by the research.  Based on the overall direction of the different story lines a brief “messaging” summary has been prepared in a table for each exhibit.  The messaging table indicates the direction that each exhibit will take and ensures that there is a diversity of themes across the Eden site. It also indicates if the dominant interpretation for each exhibit is plant led or led through artistic or other methods of interpretation.  The story lines for each exhibit have been undergoing a process of factual verification during the autumn and winter and once verified will be, in condensed form, the narrative on site.

On the plant procurement side it has been a case of ensuring that we have the plants that we require to tell the correct stories for each exhibit.  These are the  most significant plants in each exhibit, and are termed, in house, “red label” plants.  At the turn of the year, these plants are having their botanical details verified to ensure that the labels that appear on site are correct.   Plants required for some of the exhibits have proved to be a challenge to obtain.  Take the perfume exhibit in the Warm Temperate Biome for example, the rose cultivar used in Provence for perfume, cv. “Rose de Mai”,  has had to be sourced from a commercial rose petal producer in Provence who happens to have a small nursery.  By contrast the genuine form of Jasminum officinale “de Grasse” now only grown on a few hectares of land in Provence proved far easier to obtain, from a nursery in Devon.  As with all aspects of Eden plant procurement is an evolving process; for example contacts are being established with a view to obtaining the plants that produce Frankincence (Boswellia spp.) and Myrrh (Commiphora spp.) in the near future.  Another example of the range of challenges faced is exemplified by the outdoor exhibit “The making of garden  flowers”. This charts the  development of six garden plants from their wild ancestors, including Pansies, Daylilies, Sweet peas, Crocosmia, Dahlias and Camellia x williamsii.  We have been fortunate in having a great deal of help and advice from experts associated with these different plants.  Some of the key plants such as Sweet peas, Dahlias, Crocosmia and Camellias have been easy to source thanks to our helpful contacts,  but in some cases older key garden plant cultivars have been difficult to track down.  For example the first truly red daylily “Theron” produced in New York in 1934 by one of the early giants of daylily hybridisation A.B. Stout, has proved illusive in the UK.  We will probably be able to obtain it from the USA.  Finding old varieties of pansies has been even more challenging and we may for this exhibit have to resort to some selection ourselves of plants that resemble the paintings of early hybrids produced in the 1830-40’s.  Some of these projects will be on-going as a way of embelishing and enhancing exhibits.  To some degree, the sleuthing involved in creating the exhibit is a story in its own right.  Some plant procurement offers further challenges for the New Year and at the end of January we are expecting a consignment of young nursery tea bushes from a tea plantation in India, which will be quarantined prior to planting in the tea garden exhibit .  This is a challenge, because the bushes will have to be moved as rapidly as possible from India to Cornwall.  It is more complicated because MAFF guidelines for importers stipulate that no soil can be imported from countries outside the EU.  Thus close collaboration is necessary to work out the most effective way of getting the plants over to the UK intact.

So what has been happening on site horticulturally while the biomes have been built? A great deal of planning and preparatory work were necessary to ensure that planting could start in September 2000.  September was highlighted as an important month for the humid tropics biome to be in a fit state to receive the first consignment of tropical plants.  There was a short window for moving tropical trees in the autumn from holding nurseries in Holland before external temperatures fell below the critical 12’o“C cut off point below which tropical plants suffer and die. A planting schedule was prepared for the humid tropics biome, outdoors and warm temperate biome. Both the humid tropics and out door planting were designated to start in September 2000 and the warm temperate biome in January 2001.  Before planting could commence any appropriate services (electricity and water) needed for an exhibit had to be in place and drainage, where required, had to be installed.  The landscape designers were busy finalising the exhibit “general arrangement” drawings and planting plans in conjunction with the horticultural curators and taking into account the different structures and art forms required for interpretation.  When the humid tropics planting plan was drawn up, the sites for the large trees were marked on the ground with stakes.  An order of priority for planting trees was drawn up based on the use of a strategically placed mobile crane. The idea was to plant the trees furthest away from the crane first.  A test run was carried out successfully in July with a crane and some artificial trees created by McAlpine’s from telegraph posts embedded in reinforced concrete to simulate the heaviest trees. Each tree had a jokey epiphet pinned to their “trunk” including the now extinct “Lava tree”!  In addition two real trees from Watering Lane were tested out with the crane. These included the “veteran” Kapok. (This tree had a previous escapade in 1998 when it had to be lowered into a hole dug in the original “short” humid tropics greenhouse at Watering Lane Nursery, as it had threatened to grow through the roof).  It was apparent from this exercise that some of the trees would need some support until they were established.

Meanwhile topsoiling has been carried on around hard landscaping work, such as terracing and the placing of rocks. The various basic top soil mixes required for different exhibits have been manufactured from a range of recycled ingredients, thus avoiding the use of peat. Ingredients including composted bark, domestic waste, clay and sand are mixed at a site near the Eden Project and delivered to site on a rolling programme, these will be ameliorated to meet specific plants’ requirements. The soil is essential because the pit contains only inert china clay, sand and granite.  Different thicknesses of top soil have been used, ranging from planting pockets for the monkey puzzles trees, Auracaria auracana, in “The Chilean Temperate Rainforest” on the steep sides of the pit, to 50 cm deep in the external landscape where the tea garden is to be planted.

Planting started outdoors on site on the 11th September, the first planting was of native trees in the “Wild Cornwall” exhibit.  Since then thousands of landscaping plants, either from Watering Lane or directly from nursery suppliers, have been planted by the hardy “green team” members who have had to carry on despite the constant threat of rain.  Many of the exhibits are scheduled to be planted early in the New Year.  Exhibits featuring crops have specific planting times, with many of the spring crops being direct sown in February and March such as spring malting barley in our brewing exhibit “What’s Brewing?” and spring sown bread wheat in the exhibit “Our Daily Bread”.  Due to the tender nature of some crop species such as sunflowers these will be among the last plantings on site for our 2001 exhibits being sown around the second week of May, carried out as per commercial practice.  The planting sites for “The Early Cornish Spring Crops” exhibit was never programmed to allow planting of this exhibit on site at the correct planting dates in 2000 to come on stream for an early 2001 display.  It has been decided to plant the exhibit at the correct times during 2001 for a good display in 2002 rather than produce a less effective display in 2001 with plants grown off site.  There will be a daffodil event in 2001 using cut flowers, to highlight one of the Cornish spring crops that will be on display in this exhibit in 2002.

Meanwhile the humid tropics planting teams swung into action on the 24th September with the arrival of the first of the consignments of large trees direct from Holland. The consignments were scheduled to arrive on a daily basis from Rene van der Aren’s nursery for a month, each lorry being capable of carrying 24 tonnes of plants, in addition to plants from Watering Lane. These plants included tropical trees that were too large to be held in the Eden Project’s 6 metre tall Watering Lane Nursery, the largest trees were 14.5 metres tall and 3.5 tonnes in weight.  It was amazing how quickly the trees have transformed the humid tropics biome.  Even so, 6 metre tall palm trees, which seemed huge at the Watering Lane Nursery appear tiny when planted in the humid tropics biome.  By the end of December 2000 the plantings looked impressive by day and also on the few special occasions at night when the humid tropics biome has been illuminated for “Friends of the Eden Project ” visits.  During December many of the large plants and trees for the Warm Temperate Biome (WTB) have been moved in to the biome in preparation for planting.  Much hard landscaping and top soiling has been carried out in the WTB in readiness for the big planting operation starting in January. The hard landscaping in the area destined to be the wild  Mediterranean “Arcadia” exhibit is already giving it an authentic feeling.

So what is happening at Watering Lane Nursery?  A great deal of attention has been paid to identify and treat any potential pest and disease problems before plants are moved to  site, in conjunction with Kopperts, who have been supplying biological control organisms, and the local plant health inspectors from MAFF. Watering Lane has been providing a steady stream of plants to the main site.  Initially the movement of the large tropical trees had little impact on the nursery at Watering Lane, in terms of the number of plants on the ground, but this is changing as more of the smaller groundcover plants are moved to main site.  In the early part of 2001 the emphasis will shift  at the nursery to the production of the annual crop plants and herbacious annuals, including cotton, peppers, tomatoes, sorghum etc. and herbacious plants for the wild “Arcadia” exhibits.  These will include plants for exhibits, educational purposes and plants that may act as a source of living artefacts, to be used by guides to explain a given exhibit.

In addition to the commissioned art work to help with the interpretation of exhibits, a process of gathering together appropriate artefacts for the exhibits has been on-going.

A huge amount has been achieved in the last year.  Much still remains to be done before the site opens on 17th March 2001.  The pace will hot up; much midnight oil will be burnt and in a similar fashion to the opening of Phase 1 on May 15th 2000 there will, I am sure, be a real team effort to get the job done by Eden staff, mucking in where required.  As with any new plantings some areas will take a little while to establish – especially where shrubs and trees are involved.  Constant developments such as the recent arrival of large nursery grown specimen Liquidambar styraciflua trees, for structural planting around the outdoor landscape, are transforming the main site week by week. Rather like the changes that occurred when the biomes were being built, it is exciting to see the planting sites develop and change in a short period of time.  As one of my colleagues said the title The Eden Project is a good name because we will never really be complete, rather we should aim to evolve and develop our exhibits.  If our Phase 1 opening was about the evolution and building of the biomes and other structures, our opening in the spring of 2001 will in part reflect the evolution and development of the exhibits on site.

Many thanks to the “experts” who have helped in one way or another with the sourcing of plant material for exhibits mentioned in this article.  these include The Plantsmans Nursery (Jasminum officinale “de Grasse”); Peter Grayson, Unwins Seeds (Sweat peas), Gerald Sinclair (Nursery Further Afield), Valerie Anderson, Diana Grenfell (Daylilies);  Jennifer Trehane (Camellias); Sarah Thomas at Winchester Growers (Dahlias); Jim Hosking (Daffodils); John Snocken, Ray Brown -Plant World and Morris May – Plantavera (Pansies).



About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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