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10 minute read

Plant Collection Guidelines: where do I start?

In December 2020, the BGANZ Collections and Records Management group (BCARM) held a workshop to find out what challenges horticulture staff face in their roles. A few people highlighted the lack of guiding documents that help structure and drive the content of individual plant collections. We decided to interview staff at one garden who have recently reviewed their plant collection guidelines to get an understanding of the process they went through to write such a document, as well as how useful it is in practice to horticultural staff.

There are many ways to create these guidelines. I interviewed my colleagues to find out how they developed their Plant Collection Guidelines (PCG). I hope this might spark further discussion within the BCARM community about how you might develop your own document, as well as to prompt the use of the toolkit available through the BGANZ website. I interviewed Bec Stanley, Curator, about the process she used to create the PCG and Angela Anstis, Collection Curator of edibles and natives, about the usefulness of the PCG in her work.

Let’s first find out from Bec Stanley what the Plant Collection Guidelines are all about and how they were written.

EB: Auckland Botanic Gardens has Plant Collection Guidelines – what are they and what is their purpose?

BS: The Guidelines set out our plant collection policies, as well as the ways we work, such as plant documentation and sustainable horticultural practice. But the largest part of the Guidelines are the statements for each collection/garden which outline why we have that garden and what research, conservation and education roles it plays. The Guidelines give a gardener a clear direction in terms of what is expected of them, guiding them on plant acquisition and horticultural standards. They also ensure accountability by enabling assessment of the presentation of each garden, and form the basis for the horticultural assessments.

EB: It’s a comprehensive document with lots of different elements, with a two-page outline for each garden, to general horticultural practice principals. How did you write a document like this? Was this drafted and then staff commented on it, or was a collaborative approach taken?

BS: It is crucial that the staff that manage a collection are part of the writing process. I’d led a collaborative project in a previous role, where I’d projected my computer screen to enable the group to write ‘out loud together’, a process I adapted for the Plant Collection Guidelines. I’d start by asking, “What is the purpose of this collection? Why do we have it?”, which focussed our brainstorming on that specific collection. Together we then agreed on its purpose for the future. This was a chance to reframe the purpose if necessary. I invited current staff that looked after that collection, and sometimes previous staff joined us too. I’d send out the statement by email immediately after the meeting (as it was drafted ‘live’) and ask for feedback. It was important that no major changes happened after we were together, and if so, we’d meet again.

EB: As with most policies and strategies, it’s valuable to regularly reflect on them and identify innovations and changes. How and when do you review the PCG?

BS: We optimistically thought that we’d revise the whole document every two years, but it’s turned out the policy parts are more stable. We review statements whenever a new staff member starts (to get a shared understanding with them), and also if there is a new development or other major change. The first draft took the most time, about six months, and it was a big project for senior staff that attended the drafting of every statement.

EB: Do the PCGs link with any other policies or strategies at the gardens?

BS: The Guidelines sit alongside the Engagement Plan which guides our visitor services.

EB: Is there anything you’d do differently if you were going to start from scratch when thinking about how you manage the plant collections?

BS: The first draft was a real commitment for field staff, so it’s best to time the meetings to coincide with the least busy time outside in the garden, rather than using the timeline of the guidelines project as the driver. I also think regarding the Guidelines as a live document (rather than a printed copy) would be more useful. It would enable more flexibility to make minor changes. A hard copy is far more useful in the field, however, so I understand why we print them!

EB: You’ve got a section on how you acquire plants for the gardens which is an incredibly important process especially for plant records. What are the key things to think about when creating an acquisition policy?

BS: We have a section in the Guidelines on plant introduction to ensure that plants we acquire meet the accession criteria for that collection, as well as being high performing plants (which haven’t been previously discarded due to poor performance). But, just as importantly, we need to ensure plants have been collected with the relevant permissions and that they are not weeds. We also provide guidance for rejecting plants if their identity is questionable or if we suspect they are not legally known to be in the country.

Now let’s find out from Angela Anstis how the Plant Collection Guidelines are put into practice by horticultural staff.

EB: As someone who is relatively new to working in a botanic garden, what have you found most helpful to understand the plant collections you manage?

AA: Each staff has their own copy of the Plant Collection Guidelines which are laid out in a clear and simple way. It was a bit overwhelming at the start, as reading lots of text can be bewildering, but after reading through the collections I manage a few times, I understood clearly what was expected from each collection.

EB: Every garden has a clear objective or goal so how do you know what plants to select when planting the areas you look after to ensure you are meeting those goals?

AA: One of the key tools I use is our database, IrisBG, to check what is currently growing and what we’ve grown in the past. I check the comments to see if there is information about plant performance and other useful information previous staff have recorded about the plants grown here. When we remove a plant, we record why it was removed, as this is such valuable information. For each part of the edible garden, it is very clear what types of plants I’d select because of the theme of each section. The Kiwi Backyard is for classic plants that New Zealanders would grow at home, the Culinary Courtyard is for plants used in cooking, and the Walled Garden is for more display edibles and provides different growing conditions within the walls.

EB: Globally, there are three key roles of a botanic garden; education, research and conservation. How are the key roles of a botanic garden incorporated into the Guidelines for each of your collections?

AA: In the Guidelines, there are clear statements to help me know what the roles are. For example, there is a rain garden in the edible garden, with interpretation about why it is important and how it is part of our sustainable water trail, which fulfils part of our research role. We’ve got a range of interesting displays in the edible garden to encourage people of all ages into gardening, like the raised planter beds for elderly people or those with accessibility challenges. The worm farm is popular with kids and educates visitors about the value of worms and what they can do at home in terms of worm farms and composting. The different types of interpretation help to communicate these messages.

EB: All the staff at ABG have a hard copy for them to refer to and make notes in. How often would you pick up the PCG to refer to it and what types of things might you be referring to when you do?

AA: When I started, I picked it up all the time. I asked lots of questions but always checked back with the Guidelines. It’s the bible for what we do in terms of plant collections management. As my knowledge and understanding grew, I started referring to it less often. It will be useful if I ever change collections. We rotate curators every few years so of course I can talk to other curators who have worked in that area, but it’s good to use the Guidelines as the basis of my understanding of what the plant collection is meant to achieve. We’ve also reviewed the Guidelines since I’ve been here, so it was a good opportunity to re-read them and see that the gardens were still meeting the goals and objectives. It’s an important document when you are new, but it’s also important at times of change in a collection. And gardens are ever changing!

EB: If you were going to give advice to someone who works at a garden where they don’t have a Plant Collection Guidelines document, what would you say to them?

AA: Find out as much information as you can from the other resources you have, like a plant database or the seed and propagation books in the The Native Plant Ideas garden shows outstanding ornamental native nursery. They give you an idea plants attractively combined in creatively designed gardens. of what has been tried before. Also look at the site you have and assess what would work in those conditions. Don’t be afraid to try things, but record what you do so that others can learn from it.

Please get in touch with me (emma.bodley@aucklandcouncil.govt.nz) if you’d like a copy of the Auckland Botanic Gardens Plant Collection Guidelines.

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