Isle of Wight Ventnor Botanic Garden attraction criticized
Overgrown with weeds, on a ruined slide and not deserving of the title “botanical”.
It was the damning review of Ventnor Botanic Garden from its former curator, Simon Goodenough, who penned a letter to the County Press this week.
He wasn’t the only one speaking out.
Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society (VBGFS) President Valerie Pitts has emailed the more than 300 members to let them know they will not be funding any more plants for the Living Collection until they be assured that the plants can be planted and cared for appropriately.
Head gardener Michelle Cain, who only joined earlier this year, has left – leaving a desperate shortage of qualified horticulturists.
John Curtis, who took over the Isle of Wight Council Garden ten years ago, responded to all the points raised and said the garden was moving from the methods of traditional horticulturists and creating at the place synthetic ecosystems, which take years to create.
He said: “We believe the future of gardening in the face of climate change and accelerating rates of plant extinction will celebrate this approach. We call this approach the Ventnor method. It is not a quaint English border filled with flowers with graduated planting heights in threes and fives.”
Simon Goodenough’s Damning Criticism of the Ventnor Botanic Garden
Mr Goodenough wrote to the CP: ‘I have been silent on the direction of travel from Ventnor Botanic Garden since my departure, and the Isle of Wight Council have cleared it.
“However, after one visit, I can’t stay that way anymore. I’ve tended to ignore bad TripAdvisor reviews, but seeing the ‘garden’ with my own eyes to say I was shocked is an understatement.
“There’s obviously little to no maintenance going on, the place is overrun with weed species and what used to be a rich and diverse horticultural and botanical collection is in complete disrepair.
“Although there are still many amazing, large and rare specimens, many of them show a lack of care and maintenance.
“The so-called Mediterranean garden is now a sea of weedy species and the plant collections amassed in the 1980s and 1990s have all but disappeared.
“The vaunted Ventnor method is a smokescreen for a complete lack of care and maintenance and is completely at odds with the naturalistic plantings I have had the pleasure of arranging.”
He said the collections of a botanic garden should be kept and documented in a carefully maintained record system, but there was little evidence of this.
He said the garden did not deserve the title of botany and that huge strides would have to be made to save the garden “from an inexorable slide into ruin”.
He said during his visit he had not seen any gardeners or volunteers and had heard that many staff had been “deployed” to do private gardening work elsewhere.
He ended by saying: “There are so many good examples of gardens run as charities across Britain. Ventnor Botanic Garden is not one of them. It’s time to rethink, it’s time to change direction?”
Garden Review by the Ventnor Botanic Garden Friends’ Society
A VBGFS member said she understood there were no longer professionally trained horticulturists working full time in the garden.
The apprenticeship program has also been halted and the county press understands that key staff members have left the marketing and events sections.
Ms Pitts, in her letter to members, flagged them a recent change to Companies House’s statutes, which means Friends will no longer receive 20% of non-profit monies. Instead, that money can now be used more widely, including for buildings and donated to other charities.
Response from John Curtis of Ventnor Botanic Garden CIC
Mr Curtis said he regretted the stance taken by VBGFS ‘after Covid’ and said: ‘Where many charities around the world are increasing their spending to support their target beneficiaries, VBGFS is doing the reverse.’
He said: “When we started saving the garden in 2012 it was losing £20,000 a month with 14 council staff not used to working in the private sector.
“VBGFS does not always understand the level of effort and innovation required to create a viable entity from this starting point.
“And we did that by pumping £750,000 into the garden and its buildings.
“To date, we have restored or renovated 16 buildings. The fountain area, olive grove, Japanese garden and magnolia walkway 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 World Conference, and said that as a small provincial botanic garden it is increasingly recognized worldwide for its innovative approach. .
He pointed to the garden’s two national collections – one for semi-rustic Puya and one for palm trees.
Mr Curtis said: “Simon Goodenough, the curator until 2011, is critical of his own garden and Kew-educated protege, Chris Kidd.
“What Simon planted in the 1980s is now mature. Eucalyptus trees dominate the eastern end of the garden and are slowly smothering the layers of shrubs and perennials below.
“What no one sees are our propagation efforts to move these lower layers into new parts of the garden.
“Simon’s planting success means that many understory plants perish due to the established canopy above and the phytotoxic leaf litter below.
“Biologist Dr Colin Pope recently discovered a eucalyptus truffle growing on the roots of our eucalyptus trees, the second case of this species being identified in England. For us this is the culmination of years of work to establish a strong and adapted mycorrhizal system.”
Mr Curtis admitted they had to tackle weeds ‘just like any other gardener’ and wished they had more resources to do so.
He said: “We recently hired a top head gardener in light of the best financial performance achieved after ten years of trying to generate income.
“We couldn’t create the budget or the resources to make it successful.
“We will be hiring more junior gardeners to lead the plant collection display in the coming weeks.”