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Bulley for them;Historic gardens;Summer School

The plants in Ness Botanic Gardens may be settling into comfortable old age, but their guardians have had to face up to modern commercial pressures. Luckily, they're well ahead of the game, as Stephen Anderton discovers

Ness Botanic Gardens, part of Liverpool University, is 100 years old this year. Does that sound rather comfortable? It is not. University botanic gardens in Britain are having difficult times: institutions which once sheltered under a motherly academic wing, without a financial care in the world, are being sent off to seek their fortunes in the big bad commercial world. And it can hurt.

The buzz words driving the change are "income generation" and "public interface". Botanic gardens must pull in the visitors. And in this regard Ness is nicely ahead of the game. It has been operating as a public garden with an entrance fee for nearly 20 years, and today has more than 120,000 annual visitors - pound;4 a head for adults, children under 18 free if they're with an adult. Gone are the days when botanic gardens could operate on philanthropy alone.

As part of this drive to attract the public, there is recognition that gardens are a diverse and attractive educational resource. At last they are starting to be used to their full potential, instead of just as somewhere to run about and see pretty flowers.

Ness positively encourages school visits, and takes 4,000 children a year through its gates on organised trips. Curator Peter Cunnington has a voluntary team of eight ex-teachers working with children on curriculum-related activities from maths to natural history, with in-service training days to show teachers how the garden can be used.

Ness is part of the Botanic Gardens Education Network, a group which encourages dialogue between education officers. Most botanic gardens have an education officer today even if, as at Ness, he or she is a volunteer like Liz Marrs. But members of the group are not confined solely to traditional botanic gardens; they come from such diverse institutions as Chester Zoo, Jodrell Bank Arboretum, The RHS gardens at Wisley and Stapeley Water Gardens. Anyone teaching near a botanic or large public garden can usefully make contact to see if there are organised educational activities or teaching materials.

Although Ness has reached its century, it is a relatively young garden. A house built in 1898 at Neston on the Wirral peninsula by Liverpool cotton broker A K Bulley is at its nucleus. Bulley set up the famous seed company Bees (the Bs were he and his brother, not the bumble sort). But more importantly his passion for plants led him to sponsor the great seed collectors of the day, such as George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward.

New plants poured into the country from the East as a result of Bulley's patronage - including Primula bulleyana, Rhododendron wardii and Pieris formosa "Forrestii". Bulley grew the Pieris from seed George Forrest sent back from China in 1919, and the original plant is still there today, reliably throwing out its red young shoots and white flowers in May.

After Bulley's death, his daughter Lois left the house and 60 acres to Liverpool University, to be kept as an ornamental botanic garden open to the public.

Ness is a garden rich in history - but it is the history of 20th-century gardening's love affair with plants (many of Forrest's original introductions still grow). It is not a history laid down in design and structure; there are no temples or 18th-century orangeries or grand vistas. Ness's assets are its plants, which can be moved around and the pack shuffled to make the garden interesting, and in order to explain and interpret the plants' significance.

To a developing botanic garden this flexibility is invaluable. It is heritage without rigidity. It is power without the most limiting or expensive responsibilities. And Ness seems to be making the most of it. It runs two theatre seasons, concerts by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, a Festival of Gardening, a plant sales centre, and still has space for research into bracken control, herbicide resistance, and which plants will tolerate contaminated ground.

And if that is not enough, there is the garden itself, which includes a fine rock garden, a heather garden, rose garden, herb garden and long herbaceous borders. Go soon, and you will see the water lilies at their peak.

Ness Botanic Gardens, Ness, Neston, South Wirral L64 4AY. Tel: O151 353 0123

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