On fertile ground

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Botanic gardens aren't boring and they aren't glorified garden centres. They're 'zoos of plants', according to Louise Allen. Diana Hinds met her.

In the Garden

Louise Allen first knew she wanted to teach people about plants when, eight years ago, she was staking peas in the vegetable garden at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. "A Bangladeshi boy of about six came up to me and asked what I was doing. I said I was staking peas, and he replied that his mother bought her peas in a packet from the supermarket. It hadn't really occurred to me before, with my rural childhood, that some people grew up not knowing peas came from plants."

Now education officer at the Oxford University Botanic Garden, the oldest botanic garden in the country, Louise Allen has spent the past four years trying to make plants exciting to people "from four to 94". She says she wants "to raise plants from being the poor relation of animals to being at least their equal".

She traces back her own love of plants to early memories of riding, with the vegetables, in her grandfather's wheelbarrow on his smallholding. Her father was a park superintendent, and at the age of eight Louise announced her intention to be a gardener, although her sister rebelled, declaring that she hated plants.

After leaving school, Louise Allen worked for a year at the Blooms' Bressingham nursery in Norfolk - "A beastly job, where I worked mainly on the potting machine. It was like being in a factory." She took the Wisley Certificate at the Royal Horticultural Society garden in Surrey and spent a happy year at the Chelsea Physic Garden "becoming a gardener on my own two feet". It was while she was studying for the three-year diploma at Kew Gardens that she began to develop her ideas about education.

"Often when a school group arrives here at the Oxford Botanic Garden, I'll hear some child say, 'This is going to be boring', but I can generally turn this around by the end of the visit, although it gets more difficult past the age of 11."

Another misconception she tries to dispel was summed up by the little girl who said to her parents as they were leaving the garden, "Oh, what a lovely garden centre".

Louise Allen would like young visitors to experience the botanic garden as "a zoo of plants", a place where, with the help of its magnificent glass houses, they can go "around the world", from a desert to a rainforest to an Alpine mountainside.

At the same time, she emphasises the importance of relating what the children see to their everyday lives. Take chocolate, for instance. In the Palm House, they hold and smell a cocoa pod and its beans. They chew sugar cane. They contemplate the three-year-old banana palm already nudging the glass house roof - "Imagine if you had grown as fast as that," Louise prompts them. They meet what she dubs the "Gary Lineker plant", a specimen from the rainforest which is used to cure seven out of 10 children suffering from leukaemia. And her "Christmas pudding" project, in December, has become immensely popular, with children "travelling the world" to search out the pudding's ingredients.

Worksheets are out, and talking is in, although children may use paper and clipboards for observational drawings. Wherever possible, Louise Allen gets the garden superintendent, Timothy Walker, to accompany the groups with her, as she finds a lively conversation between the two of them useful in stimulating the children.

Secondary pupils are harder to engage. The Oxford Botanic Garden, however, has wooed them with a poster and travelling exhibition, entitled "Sex, drugs and botanic fulfilment", and this year visits to the garden from secondary schools number around 1,600, compared with only 60 when Louise Allen became the garden's first education officer in 1993. Around 4,000 primary schools, from Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties, have also been to the garden this year. And there are study days for sixth-formers, and tours for adults ("but strictly no flower-arranging").

Visits are free for school parties, funded by donations to the garden from charitable trusts. Louise Allen herself received a grant from the Merlin Trust when she wanted to further her work in Oxford by visiting botanic gardens in Ireland; she now helps to produce the charity's newsletter. Founded in 1990 by Valerie Finnis, in memory of her husband, Sir David Scott, and their son, Merlin, a gifted naturalist who died in north Africa at the age of 22, the Merlin Trust has made around 250 grants to aspiring young horticulturalists - or "Merlins" - for projects as diverse as visiting Dutch bulb fields, or seeking out unusual varieties of pelargonium in Virginia.

That Louise Allen has become attached to Oxford's botanic garden is obvious. Walking through it, she touches the plants - and encourages school groups to do the same - as if greeting old friends, and she is genuinely delighted to discover a species newly in flower. But while she cannot resist pulling up the odd weed, the tending of the plants must be left to the nine gardeners; Louise has to content herself with her own garden in Great Milton (just three metres square, but crammed with around 100 plants), and her village allotment.

"Once a year I get the chance to water the botanic garden, for two days between Christmas and New Year, which is a real treat, and I do the New Year's Day flower count. I don't do anything else, and to begin with I thought I would mind that bitterly. But I know the thing I want to do most of all is to educate."

University of Oxford Botanic Garden: telfax, 01865 276920 Merlin Trust: tel, 01536 482279, fax 01536 482294

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