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Isle of Wight attraction Ventnor Botanic Garden criticized

OVERGROWN with weeds titled, on a slide to ruin and not deserving of being “botanical”.

This is the damning criticism of Ventnor Botanic Garden from its former curator, Simon Goodenough, who wrote a letter to the County Press this week.

He was not the only one to speak out.

Chair of the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society (VBGFS) Valerie Pitts emailed all 300-plus members to inform them they would no longer fund plants for the Living Collection until they can be assured the plants can be appropriately planted and cared for.

Head gardener Michelle Cain, who only joined earlier this year, has left — leaving a desperate lack of trained horticulturalists.

John Curtis, who took the garden over from the Isle of Wight Council ten years ago, responded to all the points made, and said the garden was transitioning from the methods of traditional horticulturists and instead creating synthetic ecosystems, which take years to create.

He said: “We believe the future of gardening in the face of climate change and accelerating plant extinction rates will celebrate this approach. We call this approach The Ventnor Method. It is not a flower-filled quaint English border with graduated heights of planting in threes and fives.”

Simon Goodenough’s damning criticism of Ventnor Botanic Garden

Mr Goodenough wrote to the CP: “I have remained silent about the direction of travel of Ventnor Botanic Garden since I left, and the Isle of Wight Council disposed of it.

“However, after a visit I can no-longer remain so. I have tended to ignore bad TripAdvisor comments but having seen the “garden” with my own eyes to say I was shocked is an understatement.

“There is obviously little or no maintenance going on, the place is overrun with weed species and what was a rich and diverse horticultural and botanical collection is completely run down.

“Although there are many amazing, large and rare specimens to be seen still, many of these are showing a lack of care and maintenance.

“The so-called Mediterranean Garden is now a sea of ​​weed species and the collections of plants amassed in the 1980s and 1990s all but gone.

“The much vaunted Ventnor Method is a smokescreen for a total lack of care and maintenance and is completely at odds with the naturalistic plantings I had the pleasure to heal.”

He said a botanic garden’s collections need to be curated and documented within a carefully maintained record system but there was scant evidence of this.

He said the garden does not deserve the title botanic and huge strides would have to be made to rescue the garden from “an inexorable slide to ruin”.

He said during his visit he saw no gardeners or volunteers and heard many of the staff were “hived off” to do private gardening jobs elsewhere.

I have finished by saying: “There are so many good examples of gardens run as charities all over Britain. Ventnor Botanic Garden is not one of them. Time for a rethink, time for new management?”

Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society’s assessment of the garden

One VBGFS member said she understood there were now no professionally trained horticulturalists working full-time at the garden.

The apprenticeship scheme has also been halted, and the County Press understands key members of staff have left the marketing and events sections.

Ms Pitts, in her letter to members, pointed them to a recent Change of Articles of Association, on Companies House, which implies the Friends won’t be getting 20 per cent of the Not for Profit sums anymore. Instead, this money can now be used more widely, including on buildings and given to other charities.

Response by John Curtis of Ventnor Botanic Garden CIC

Mr Curtis said he regretted the position VBGFS has taken ‘post Covid’ and said: “When many charities around the world are increasing their spending to support their target beneficiaries, VBGFS is doing the reverse.”

He said: “When we started to rescue the garden in 2012, it was losing £20,000 per month with 14 council staff not accustomed to working in the private sector.

“VBGFS do not always comprehend the level of effort and innovation required to create a viable entity from that starting point.

“And we have done that while pumping £750,000 into the garden and its buildings.

“To date we have restored or renovated 16 buildings. The Fountain Area, the Olive Grove, the Japanese Garden and the Magnolia Walk have all been developed.”

He said an abstract titled ‘Reinventing the botanic garden for the 21st century’ had been accepted by Botanic Gardens Conservation International for presentation at its 2022 global conference, and said as a small provincial botanic garden it is increasingly recognized around the world for its innovative approach .

He pointed to the two National Collections at the garden—one for half-hardy Puya and one for palm trees.

Mr Curtis said: “Simon Goodenough, the curator until 2011, is criticizing his own garden and his protege, Kew-trained Chris Kidd.

“What Simon planted in the 1980s is now mature. The eucalypts are towering over the east end of the garden and slowly choking out the shrub and perennial layers underneath.

“What no one sees is our propagation efforts to move these lower layers into new parts of the garden.

“The success of Simon’s planting means many of the understory plants are perishing due to the established canopy above and the phytotoxic leaf litter below.

“Biologist, Dr Colin Pope, recently discovered a eucalyptus truffle growing off the roots of our eucalypts, the second instance of this species being identified in England. For us this is the culmination of years of work to establish a strong, adapted mycorrhizal system. ”

Mr Curtis conceded they have to battle weeds “like every other gardener” and wished he had more resources to do it.

He said: “We recently hired a high-profile head gardener in light of the stronger financial performance achieved after ten years of effort to build revenue.

“We could not create the budget or resources required for her to succeed.

“We will be hiring more junior gardeners to drive the presentation of the plant collection in the coming weeks.”

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