Over the past 10 months many of us have spent far more time in the great outdoors than we normally would. Courier Country is blessed with a host of beautiful parks, glens and open spaces – and a perfect space to walk and wonder is right on our doorstep at Dundee University Botanic Garden in the west end of the city.
Over nine and a half acres, it has a huge range of plants, collections of conifers and broad-leaved trees and shrubs, tropical and temperate glasshouses, a water garden and herb garden.
As well as many species of indigenous British plants, there are also representative collections of important plants from all the continents of the world.
And it’s fair to say that Kevin Frediani, the current curator of the garden and grounds, knows his stuff.
He’s worked for more than 30 years in heritage and botanic gardens, learning his craft before leading teams in collections including Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Windsor Great Park, London & Whipsnade Zoos, Amsterdam Botanic Garden and most recently Inverewe in the NW Highlands of Scotland.
The health benefits of being outdoors are well known – it helps mental and emotional well-being as well as keeping us physically active.
The botanic garden supports the Dundee Green Health Partnership, jointly managed by Dundee City Council and NHS Tayside, which aims to encourage communities to increase their overall health and wellbeing, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, by interacting with the environment.
Normally more than 80,000 visitors would cross the garden’s threshold every year but this has been no ordinary year. Reflecting on how the Covid pandemic has affected the running of the garden, Kevin says: “I cannot think of an area of life which has not been affected by Covid-19 in some way.
“For the garden we initially had to close with the enforced lockdown on March 23 last year, opening again with lots of protective measures in place for visitors, students, staff and contractors on July 15.
“Initially we couldn’t open the glasshouses and access to our buildings is still not allowed due to challenges and limitation with regards ventilation in the buildings,” he explains.
“Unfortunately, this included our art gallery space, a resource used and enjoyed by many the cultural network for amateur and professionals across the region.
“All events have been cancelled and move online while formal visits and teaching has stopped or been modified to a blended learning approach.”
As local people of all ages have headed out to visit the tranquillity of the botanic garden, the team have seen an overall increase in visitors this autumn than last year coming from Dundee, “a trend we hope continues to grow as we learn to live with the pandemic or overcome it in 2021,” says Kevin.
“It was a tremendous challenge while not all being able to work on site in these ‘new normal’ conditions but my team and my colleagues have down a wonderful job and been supported by Dundee City Council and tourism and cultural and arts community of interest in amazing ways,” he smiles.
“Not least of which their encouragement, sharing of ideas and support in what are tough times for us all.”
With a wonderful collection of plants that is core to visitor’s experience at any time of year, the botanic garden is planted with interest for all four seasons. Just now, over the winter months, features include bark, fruits and different hues of green that stand out at this time of year.
“Our Bhutan maples and birches at the far end of the garden stand out against the backdrop of the long needles in bundles on the Bhutan pines and Skimmias underneath,” says Kevin.
“We have introduced a fairy door trail this winter so, using the trail booklet and self-guided check sheet, visitors can explore the garden areas around the Mediterranean and native species areas of the garden.
“The doors encourage visitors to see beyond the ‘green blindness’ of the collection which can overwhelm the unfamiliar visitor – to share and make links between common wildlife found at the garden or associated with the plants in the wild and cultural stories associated with the plant or its habitat,” he continues.
“The Mediterranean zone is also next to our glasshouses where visitors can get away from the cold winter and enjoy botanical wonders form around the warmer parts of the globe, Cacti from the Americas, tropical trees from the Congo or amazon basin, habitats where at different time of the year fish swim where birds would otherwise fly in the flooded forest.
“We have economic plants of interest in this area too so we can share plant information about the flavours in our curries, the waterproof seed coverings that were in Second World War life jackets or the vanilla that flavours your ice cream.”
As the botanic garden heads towards its 50th anniversary on October 21 this year, Kevin and the team have a myriad of projects to ensure this milestone is marked in style. “We have 50 stories we are sharing in the lead-up to the anniversary – stories of the people, the development and the making of the garden,” he reveals.
“We also intend to build on the fairy door trail with an addition of 10 further doors in the spring as we build up to 50 doors for our autumnal celebration.
“In addition, we’ll be hosting a number of behind the scenes development and plant talks and events on our Facebook and website which everyone can access for free and enjoy.”
There’s also a new project which will see the creation of a ‘good grief’ garden area, with interactive memorial structures installed which will help people who have lost loved ones, including those during Covid, have a space where they can come and witness or share a thought in a tranquil part of the garden.
Kevin is currently exploring ways to work with the city council, private owners of green space and other parcel managers of land to create an ‘urban arboretum’ for Dundee – a ‘designed’ landscape where we share the diversity found in the botanic garden and create a city-wide landscape that benefits all of us who live, work or play in Dundee, befitting the only UNESCO Design City in the UK,” he says.
“As with all great vision, this concept must start somewhere and so I’m starting on our own sites where I can help inform the landscapes and maintain them at our cost.
“The first phase of this project is just being completed as we have evaluated what has grown well in the past and is currently contributing benefits to the wider community at the botanic garden.
“These ecosystem services include carbon storage and pollution absorption.”
Some of the work Kevin and the team carry out at the garden is something Courier Weekend readers could also contribute towards, as he explains: “At a local level, growing plants in your house on your window sill can improve your own environment. Those with a garden can plant a tree that provides a habitat for wildlife, benefits the wider community because as it grows, it locks up carbon and captures particulates that cause breathing problems.
“In addition, the tree will help absorb harmful pollution like ozone emitted from our vehicle engines.
“Or why not join in community groups such as Friends of the Botanic Garden, volunteer or support through donations so that our green infrastructure is optimised to bring the most benefit to the most people,” Kevin suggests.
Dundee Botanic Garden will remain open, observing social distancing and other protocols, during the current Level 4 restrictions. The glasshouses and cafe are closed until further notice.
Our Botanic Garden, A Place to Bloom is a garden anthology celebrating placemaking through the eyes of the community that have helped shape, enjoy and sustain University of Dundee Botanic Garden over the last 49 years. Full of personal stories, historic photos, inspired and poems. It is available for £20 from the garden visitor centre.