Nearly 200 years old, the Botanical Gardens are a must-see attraction in our city. But it’s not all about the history, or even the plants – and here’s why…
The stats are impressive. Fifteen acres of lush greenery and vegetation set like a multi-coloured jewel in the heart of our city. Around 250,000 people coming to enjoy it or just pass through every year. More than 20,000 schoolchildren experiencing first-hand the wonders of nature and the environment. An army of 200 volunteers keeping everything prim, proper and in its place. The Botanical Gardens are one of Birmingham’s Greatest – and also one of its ‘best kept secrets’. Opened nearly 200 years ago by Birmingham Botanical and Horticultural Society, the Gardens – designed by J C Loudon, the most innovative and successful garden planner of his day – are simply glorious. Wonderful Grade II listed architecture abounds with imposing glasshouses spanning climates from tropical rain forests to arid desert, a very special birdhouse and equally lovely butterfly house, plus beautiful grounds, wildlife tracks and trails. It’s also a centre for corporate functions, weddings and summer parties and festivals.
So, what’s this ‘secret’ thing all about? Well, we think that not enough Brummies – or garden lovers in general – realise what a world-class centre of excellence they have in their midst. The Gardens’ relatively low profile is something chief executive James Wheeler is willing to admit to. And it’s something he’s looking to change over the next couple of years. “Best kept secret is a fair description,” he says. “But last year saw a 40 per cent increase in visitors, so we must be doing something right! And we are actively pursuing marketing changes to ensure those figures keep rising and many, many more people get to know how special our Gardens are.” Running any business has been challenging over the past five years, but none more so than for James and his team. As a self-supporting independent charity the Gardens don’t receive a penny of external support funding. “We are the only gardens in the whole of the UK, other than Chelsea, that totally pays its own way,” says James with a sense of pride. “And we actually view that as a positive as it gives us greater autonomy and flexibility to do what we want. We are about sharing our plants and our knowledge with the community across all frontiers. “What we have is something very special, and you can see and feel that from everybody who works here. It’s just such a wonderful place to be, and a real privilege to share with as many people as we can.”
The full-time team running the Gardens is mind-bogglingly minute. Just 12 full-timers and eight part-timers – plus those volunteers – to look after the biggest glasshouses around for over 200 miles. The catalogue of the 7,000 plants on show runs to nearly 200 pages! “Our volunteers are so important to us,” says James. “Many of them are horticultural students who come via our partnership with Birmingham Metropolitan College. But we have a lot of older volunteers too. For some reason we always seem to have a tremendous number of retired head teachers helping us out!” James is especially proud of the interaction with schools. “Many of the children who come are local school parties, but we get youngsters coming from all over the world too. The Gardens have a very wide appeal. The wonderful thing is that we have everything the children could want to see about flora, wildlife and the environment in general right here in one place.” He’s particularly aware of the importance of ‘grabbing them when they’re young’ as he came to the gardeners’ world relatively late after initially working in the City of London. “I decided I couldn’t imagine years of being something in insurance, so I went to art school and then into garden design.” He took over as chief executive at the Botanical Gardens seven years ago after being head gardener at Heever Castle – the childhood home of Anne Boleyn – in Kent.
JAZZ IN THE JASMINE
“Although I have the title, I’m just as likely to muck in and do anything that needs doing around the place,” he explains. “Everyone’s the same here because we all have a fearsome pride in the Gardens.” And, just in case you think the team already has plenty to do, this summer’s activities are more full-on than ever. Apart from the usual visitors, the Gardens are hosting open days for charities, charity walks, many music and drama events and performances and various demonstrations and shows. So, if you want to hear classics among the chrysanthemums, jazz next to the jasmine or brass by the begonias, you know where to go…