0 Bassett’s allsorts!

The multitasking that's name of the game at Wakehurst, Kew's southern stronghold, still allows the grounds management team to enjoy their favourite flavours of what is a hugely diverse function.

The Weald of Sussex bears the mark of several pioneering plantsmen, who travelled the world in search of rare and exotic species to populate their estates.

Leading amongst them were the Loder family. Until 2010, descendants of the Victorian expeditionists owned Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, whilst another offshoot cultivated High Beeches near Crawley, an estate also boasting rare and beautiful flora.

In 1903, Sir Gerald Loder bought the estate now named Wakehurst, but its history dates back to the medieval period

Back in the 1300s, William de Wakehurst bought 40 acres of land from Phillip de Crauele (local baron after whom Crawley is named).

Above the main entrance to the mansion a date of 1590 marks construction of the latest reincarnation, built by Edward Culpeper as a family home of Sussex sandstone quarried on site, complete with Horsham stone roof, since restored and extended by successive occupants.

As the first Lord Wakehurst, Sir Gerald set about developing both house and gardens, planting a host of fine trees and shrubs from across the world, particularly East Asia and the Southern Hemisphere.

From 1935, Wakehurst was home to Sir Henry Price, 'the 50 shilling tailor', who made his fortune fashioning demob suits after WW1. Several species of plants are named after the family.

The estate passed to the National Trust on Sir Henry's death in 1963. Two years later, the charity leased the 535-acre gem to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which runs and finances it to a 99-year agreement at a peppercorn rent.

Wakehurst is Kew's wild botanic garden in Sussex, sitting in the High Weald's Area of Outstanding Beauty (AOB).

Managed gardens and deciduous and evergreen woodlands blend harmoniously to create a widely diverse spread of habitats for flora and fauna. Set within them is the 150-acre Loder Valley nature reserve, with its traditional woodland, wetland and meadowland.

We're standing in front of Wakehurst mansion on a blisteringly hot day, chatting to the Sward and Mechanical Technicians team, who are taxed with tending the lawns and other grassed areas of the estate.

The lawns in front of the house look in extremely fine nick - stripes still showing through, given the huge public footfall across them. Shifting priorities in the estate's management have brought the lawns 'front of house' in more ways than one - presenting a highly visual 'first hit' for the 350,000 visitors who flock here annually.

They were the scene of upheaval some years ago when TV archaeological show Time Team dug up the lawns nearest the house to explore the foundations of the two original wings of the mansion.

Visitors throng Wakehurst for many reasons, explains Logistics Manager Chris Bassett, who heads a five-strong team of multi-skilled operatives. "Many come for their daily walkabout and take the same route round the estate. The miles of paths to explore here allow visitors to tailor their walks to suit them."

With more than 300 acres of the estate open to the public, visitors are spoilt for choice in how they spend their time at Wakehurst

"Then there are all the family parties who picnic on the lawns and just chill for a great day out," Chris adds.

A self-confessed tractor techie, Chris, 46, has worked at Wakehurst for twenty-seven years, arriving after three years at Cottesmore Golf & Country Club, Pease Pottage, whilst attending Plumpton College studying agricultural engineering. "It's a grounding that has stood me in good stead," Chris says, "because so much of our work here is undertaken with large-scale machinery. As you'd expect, tractors are my favourite pieces of kit."

The cluster of estate buildings to the rear of the main house proves ideal for sheltering the machinery fleet and allows the team to conduct most maintenance in-house - only regrinding is contracted out.

Officially in charge of all the machinery, Chris also takes his management duties seriously, encouraging a friendly, hands-off though committed team approach.

"I just sign the orders and give them the money to buy what they need," he laughs. "I'm not one for micromanaging as the guys know what they are doing and the timescales they have to achieve the work in. You don't achieve results if you keep on people's backs."

Joining us on the lawns are team members Sam Pierce and Nick Cooper.

Sam, 42, arrived twenty-one years ago after attending college, then farming for a spell. As Sward and Machinery Technician (SwaMTech?) he looks after the tractors and diggers. "I have nothing to do with fine turf," he smiles. Like Chris, the big machines are favourite. "There's a hellova lot of variety in the job - a little of everything really." That even includes helping to install the striking willow weave and wicker sculptures spotted around the estate.

Another technician, Nick (`The Duck Whisperer`), 35, is back at Wakehurst after a year's self-employment following his 'seven-year itch'. "Fine turf, the croquet lawn and meadows are my responsibilities," he volunteers.

Soon after the gates open, the public arrive - an elderly couple stride across the front of the mansion, clearly on a trekking mission. "Many visitors come here for their regular walks," explains Chris. "They'll do their circuit or whatever then leave."

Nick turns to look, then notes: "It's a race to get everything done before the public descend on us. There's no hope of cutting with cylinders after 10.00am. It's all about timing. Wakehurst opens 363 days a year, so we cannot let up for a minute."

He then points to a grassed area nearby. "The croquet lawn," he states. "A bit wild at the moment, but we'll be reseeding it and bringing it back into play soon."

Sounds like a shrewd move as the sport's popularly is rising and National Trust properties such as Lyme maintain croquet lawns for visitors to enjoy.

After handling the mowing duties, longstanding team member Trudy Ede, who has worked here six months longer than Chris, carries a wide brief that takes in managing the car park areas as well as planting and mulching across the "front end" of the estate.

Another 'old-stager', Ted Shirley, 67, has clocked up thirty-two years at Wakehurst. "We've recently switched him from mowing duties," Chris explains. "Now our Recycling Technician, he looks after composting, which is a big operation here."

The sheer scale of Wakehurst and the challenge of managing hugely diverse habitats mean one team cannot tackle everything.

The gardening and arboriculture tasks have rested with separate arms of the management programme. However, changes are afoot as Chris explains. "After a period of restructuring, the idea is for more collaborative management - less territorial and more pooling of resources."

"Harriet, John and Luke are our climbing arborists, who work under senior arborist Russell Croft, who inspects and surveys the stock."

When on site, independent tree consultant John Hannoway fits radar sensors to the bark to check a tree's inner health - searching out signs of disease or decay.

Russell then prioritises work based on his findings. "It's a vital function, bearing in mind so many members of the public are on site."

Chris vividly remembers the Great Storm of October 1987. "We lost 20,000 trees that night. Four years later, we were still clearing away some of the big beeches."

Former team member Michael Poole arrived at Wakehurst after an apprenticeship at Sussex County Cricket Club and a stint at nearby Ardingly College independent school.

"My responsibility centred on the lawns in front of the mansion," Michael recalls. "The turfcare programme had mostly involved spiking in summer and watering with occasional mowing. The soil samples taken and tested showed the rootzone to be nutrient poor, so we quickly set up a Maxwell Amenity fertiliser programme to improve growing conditions," he explains.

Although not unduly plagued with Poa annua - "we verticut in April to control it" - the lawns had suffered from thatch build-up, Michael continues. "After levelling off, then deep scarifying with our trusty Dennis FT510 at year-end, I began an organic fertiliser regime, regularly feeding with Sea Action liquid seaweed and granular feed."

Mowing with the Allett Buffalo 34 up to three times a week throughout April and May to a 20-25mm cut height, after overseeding with an LM2 rye and fescue mix, transformed the health of the turf."

"Because of the heavy footfall across the lawns, we selected cultivars resistant to wear and tear and also drought that would produce an attractive, rich green sward," Michael adds.

The programme under Michael's care has certainly left a lasting legacy and the team continue to work to the same schedule of turf management. Fancying another fine turf challenge, Michael, still only 26, departed Wakehurst to take up a greenkeeping post at Slinfold Golf & Country Club, near Horsham, West Sussex.

Armed with a Level 3 in Sportsturf, he is well qualified to make a major contribution to the proprietary, family-run site. We'll pick up his story again there in the next issue.

Lawncare is now Nick's baby. "The grass just has to be stripey," he says. "I cut once a week at 19mm in hot weather - a first-cut with the Honda gets the seed heads the cylinders miss. Any shorter and the turf browns off, which is a no no because the lawns are used for weddings, so we need an attractive green backdrop for those events."

We return to arboriculture. Aside from much ancient woodland, Wakehurst is the custodian of the national birch collection and nurtures important collections of rhododendrons and skimmias.

Clearance work is also a key element of balancing flora and fauna populations, Chris explains. "Strip injection of Ponticum (purple flowering variety of rhododendron) is carried out regularly with grants from Natural England as the plant is extremely invasive. Trust properties across the country have undertaken similar work."

Yew trees are suffering from soil-borne Phytophthora ramorum. "It's ever present in the soil, but the last few years have seen our yews under stress."

Since my last visit some years ago, the tightly trimmed line of yews near the house, complete with living arch, have been replaced by a recently planted rosemary hedge.

Ash dieback is an issue too. "Tops can snap off and we have to remove affected trees if the infection becomes severe, but we do whatever we can to preserve our native species."

Among critically rare specimens at Wakehurst is the Wollemi Pine - known to grow in only a few, secret, locations in Australia's Blue Mountains. A team from Kew collected seeds to bring here for the Millennium Seed Bank.

Champion trees include the long-leaved beech (fagus sylvatica).

Internationally rare bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) and lichens grow in the nooks and crannies of the estate, whilst the fragile Tunbridge filmy fern populates this Site of Special Scientific Interest in the sandstone escarpments of the High Weald.

Perhaps most prominent to visitors when they approach the house and adjoining restaurant is the giant redwood. Standing 120ft (36m) high and ablaze with festive lights in December, this specimen of Sequoiadendron giganteum is claimed to be 'the tallest Christmas tree in the UK'.

"Our task is to deck the tree with lights," Chris explains. "The Facelift access equipment certainly comes in handy for that job." Such a giant must be particularly thirsty in dry spells. "Yes, we have to drip feed it round the base to keep the tree watered adequately." Abstraction of up to 20m3 a day for irrigation is allowed from the main lake - replete with carp, pike and eels. "A water bowser is hired for further needs."

Little if anything is wasted at Wakehurst. "Everything is recycled," says Chris, "grass cuttings and green matter pass to composting." We climb into a utility vehicle and he takes us to the site - an order of magnitude larger than I'd imagined and cut into the slope.

"Temperatures reach 70OC in there," Chris reveals. "Hot enough to bake potatoes."

Huge mounds are sifted into three large rows of material then further refined into heaps that are wrapped and left for three months before being assembled into manageable batches.

"All wood waste is screened and used for footpaths, and dry matter is applied across the site to a depth of two to three inches," Chris explains. "Fine acidic mulch from Ashdown Forest comes in to supplement our supply every so often and we're currently seeking PAS 100 accreditation."

The composting function is also deemed important enough to function as an educational tool. Older foreign students are treated to tours of the facility throughout the year.

We're still in the utility vehicle and tootling along the main drag - a winding metal-edged resin-bound path recently laid. Chris shows us evidence of Wakehurst's dedication to encouraging wildflower populations

Originally farmland, the Coronation meadows are rich in wildflowers, some harvested for their seeds. Springtime work includes scarification before sowing, flowering and haymaking. "Hebridean sheep, brought in from Ashdown Forest, graze the meadows in winter, while Riggit Galloway rare breed cattle graze in summer. We have a separate 35-acre farm in the middle of the estate and some of our hay also goes there."

Bloomer Valley meadow is brimming with orchids in season, a valuable food source for butterflies. "It was hand sown and plug planted to achieve the stunning effect," Chris explains. "Then the meadow's cut for hay later in July."

"We flail cut the areas of bracken twice a year, first in July to 2in height, then later in autumn, after which it slowly dies back."

What was once close-mown grass around the glazed barrel-vaulted Millennium Seed Bank has been left to create a meadowland habitat befitting the purpose of the building, Chris explains. Freed of close mowing, the team cut the area to collect hay for farm animals to graze.

Alighting the utility vehicle after our conducted tour, we move back of house.

Chris's two springer spaniels, Ella and Stan, bound up to us as we approach the workshops. "Good guard dogs," he states.

The team usually product test on site before committing to purchase kit that spans everything from flail mowers to telehandlers and rough terrain forklifts. John Deere machinery is a popular brand with Chris. "They give us no trouble at all," he reports. A new JD E-Gator is planned, but the issue of electric versus petrol or diesel trundles on.

"The nursery team run electric vehicles, but they have to be aware of pedestrians, who hold right of way. There is a case for continuing to use petrol or diesel because they can be clearly heard when in use," Chris says. "Our four petrol Kubota RTV500s are really handy utility vehicles. We work with them every day."

Still on a safety theme, Wakehurst's extensive network of tracks, roads and trails are off limits to cyclists. "The steepness of the site and the number of blindspots prohibit it," Chris adds.

"The JCB, my favourite, is a good universal machine we fit with buckets and a man cage for tackling lower-level tree work. At £500 a pot, replacing tyres is not cheap, but they spread the load over the ground to limit risk of compaction."

In the courtyard stands a refuelling station. "We have our own supply," says Chris. "The tanks hold 300 litres of diesel and petrol each - the red diesel is cheap at around 60p/l, but petrol is pretty much pump prices.

He breaks off to fill the TH4365 Iseki standing beside the pumps. "This is a general loader 35hp tractor we use for moving compost. It's filled up every three or four months."

The 110hp T6020 New Holland nearby also handles compost and deliveries to site, also hauling 9ft wide flail toppers to tackle the large fields on site.

Security is never far from Chris's mind, given the fleet of tractors and machinery on site, including a JCB digger, shredders, utility vehicles, mowers and a host of blowers and chainsaws.

"PlantGard is fitted on the JCB," Chris confirms, "whilst infrared NPR cameras survey North Drive and CCTV scans the main car park. Security officers guard the seed bank overnight and rangers patrol the estate daily."

Annual health checks are part and parcel of management policy. A visiting mobile monitoring unit checks weight, hearing, eyesight and blood pressure and operators are checked regularly for any arm or hand vibration issues.

Finishing at 11.30am on Friday, the team pick up maintenance duties before they leave. "Usually blade changes, washing down and greasing," Chris notes, "I've reinforced the importance of these tasks - as all operators are responsible for their own machinery and equipment - and everything is now back on track." They don't escape that easily though as weekend duties stretch to spells in the nursery.

Images © speedmediaone/Eleanor Pickett

First steps

We walk from the machinery sheds and workshops to the site offices to be confronted by a shelf stacked full of giant conifer cones, pods and thorns. No ordinary examples these. The exotic, the gigantic and the bizarre.

"This is Devil's Claw," reveals Plant Propagation and Collections Manager Jo Wenham, picking up an alien-looking cone with woody antennae protruding from it.

These are her samples we are gazing on with awe. She cups a Monkey Puzzle tree cone in her hands - a hard, woody, spikey ball that shelters some of the rarest seeds on the planet. These monkey puzzle seeds were collected from the last remaining coastal population in Chile and can be seen as nine-year-old plants in Coates Wood in the Arboretum.

"I'm acquiring plants to grow into our living collection and these cones are my specialty - I love them," Jo explains.

Our group follows Jo into the nursery where she stands amid young specimens springing out of pots. "Wakehurst is laid out phytogeographically," she states. "We target areas of the world with our expeditions designed to collect seeds for growing in the nursery and adding to our living collections and storing in the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB)."

With so many plant species on the endangered list, Jo's heartened when Kew expeditionists discover living specimens of ones thought to be extinct in the wild.

Recovering seeds from remote, inaccessible corners of the globe is part and parcel of their task, but one doubtless bringing rich rewards in job satisfaction.

"One of the most amazing collecting stories I have heard is that Wollemi pine seeds were gathered by helicopter from the Blue Ridge Mountains by a team in South Australia," Jo tells us. "That was the only way to access this surviving outpost of trees."

The species has lived in the region for aeons. "Fossilised leaves of this species have been found dating back to the time of the dinosaurs," Jo notes.

Like several large estates in this corner of Sussex, Wakehurst grows a diverse selection of rhododendrons - in the Asian Heath Garden and Westwood, with its moisture retentive soils and shady aspect, is the perfect place for them, mimicking as it does the Himalayas from where plantsmen plucked so many specimens.

"There are 110 rare and red-listed rhododendron species at Wakehurst, including ones in the azalea subgroup," Jo continues, "and some of them are among the large, historic collection here. Specimens preserved in the gardens already may have gone extinct in the wild."

The seven-strong nursery team is bolstered by ten volunteers, half in the seed bank. "The team begin propagating plants for seasonal display in the gardens and wild collected trees for the arboretum, but also with the aim of bringing on plants to flowering point to ensure we have the correct identification and we can harvest additional seed to store in the seed bank," she explains.

Jo came here fourteen years ago from Golden Acres Nurseries. If she was eager to take up a new challenge where the unusual is the everyday, she certainly found it at Wakehurst.

"When you have to blowtorch the cones of Banksia from Tasmania and Ghost Pines from the USA to open cones and remove seeds and try to germinate them, you know you will always be challenged in your job." Diversity is the name of nature's game.

Banking on the future

Opened in 2000 by HRH the Prince of Wales, the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is a hub for scientific activity where visitors can discover more about Kew's vital mission to conserve 25% of the world's plant species by 2020.

"A gold reserve ... a place where this reserve currency, in this case life itself, is stored" was how Charles described the £20m Wellcome Trust Millennium Building on opening day, and the work undertaken since only serves to reinforce his description.

The bomb-proof research and cold storage facility - billed as the world's largest ex situ plant conservation project - is a far cry from its predecessor though.

"Our first seed bank was transferred here from Kew Gardens in 1976," explains Keith Manger, a senior manager at Wakehurst for more than twenty years. "It was literally a chest freezer and silica gel drier, but they represented the two cornerstones of successful long-term conservation, drying and freezing."

The MSB aims to provide an insurance policy against the extinction of plants in the wild - key to providing food, building materials, fibres for clothing, medicines and fuel - and to preserve our botanical heritage.

A team of some eighty plant scientists and MSc/PhD researchers work within three glass sections housing laboratories, seed-preparation facilities and a public exhibition area above a vast storage vault.

Within that setting work horticulturalists and scientists tasked with germinating seeds and growing plants from the collections as required, developing protocols that the MSB can transfer to its own seedbank and those of 189 countries under a global partnership of knowledge, data and genetic material set up thanks to Kew's global name in plant science and horticulture.

"I marvel at how they manage to do it," Keith continues. "Germinating seeds presents one of our biggest challenges as we have to overcome the plant's dormancy strategies. Seeds are germinated within incubators that can mimic any temperature on Earth. Agar provides the optimal growing medium and once the seed radicle appears, the seedlings can be transferred to the nursery for potting up."

Seeds are germinated and grown for various reasons - "research or analysis for novel chemical compounds for example," adds Keith, who is particularly involved with the security of collections worldwide.

"The seedbank just outside Sydney has a firebreak surrounding it because of the likelihood of extremely hot weather," he says. "It is vital that we duplicate collections around the world, so we work with our partner countries to ensure safe, secure storage."

The approximate cost of producing a "decent quality seed collection" is surprisingly low - "about £2,000," Keith reveals. "The average seed collection holds around 33,000 seeds, specimens varying in size from a tenth of a millimetre, to large examples measuring many centimetres from trees, and are stored in hermetically sealed, completely moisture-proof containers within large freezers at minus 20OC, after scrupulously cleaning and drying them.

"The MSB collections are valued between £100m and £200m, after factoring in full costs of developing them, but they are priceless to humanity, Keith stresses. The prized assets seem safe enough though, as the Kew storage vault is built to last at least 500 years.

"The destruction of plant habitats is happening so fast that it is not always possible to conserve plants within threatened habitats. "Collecting seeds and preserving them away from their natural habitat offers an economical and effective way to save seeds and keep them for posterity," states Kew. "They can later be germinated and reintroduced to the wild or used in research, if required."

In 2009, Britain became the first nation to store its botanical heritage, when Kew completed its mission to preserve seeds from the UK's 1,400 native plant species.

But the UK is species poor in some senses, Keith notes. "Although we are about the size of Tasmania, they have more than three times the number we do."

In 2010, Kew met its goal of banking 10% of the world's flora, targeting areas where species are in most threat of extinction - rainforests, arid lands, tropical and pine forests - and is "well on the way" to its 2020 vision, Kew states.

Seeds of so-called 'recalcitrant' species cannot be dried and therefore banked. Overall, nine in every 100 species are thought to be recalcitrant, however that proportion rises to at least one in two among tree and shrub species in tropical moist forests where their typically large seeds tend to sprout as soon as they touch the ground.

Accordingly, Kew plans a large-scale cryogenic storage facility - the Kew Cryosphere Centre of Excellence - to deliver methods to store such specimens. Currently, they are stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 196OC, pending development of the facility.

Kew's plant specialists go to the ends of the earth to retrieve recalcitrant seeds from endangered species. In 2009, they collected specimens from the last remaining coastal population of monkey puzzle trees from their foothold on remote, Chilean clifftops. Inaccessible by foot, the scientists flew in by helicopter to retrieve their 'treasure'.

On the parterre outside the building rest raised beds that evoke eight threatened habitats of the British Isles - shingle beach, chalk cliff, chalk downland and meadow (all to be found between the south coats and Wakehurst), marsh and fenland, hills and mountains, heathland and cornfield. Seeds from these habitats are stored in the Millennium Seed Bank.

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