Organic gardening at Andromeda Botanic Gardens

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Some great things are happening at Andromeda Botanic Gardens, one of Barbados’ premier natural attractions. The six-acre tropical gardens – complete with shaded pathways and a unique collection of trees and plants of diverse origin – not only continues to be a beautifully designed and maintained botanical retreat, but is also fast becoming an important centre of sustainability and horticultural learning with the introduction of organic gardening and planting design courses. They have also opened a café which uses salads freshly grown from the gardens, emphasizing the importance and satisfaction of growing your own food on the national level.  I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Sharon Cooke, the garden designer whose passion and dedication has tirelessly been taking Andromeda from strength to strength.

WHAT LED TO YOUR CAREER IN HORTICULTURE, AND HOW DID YOU COME TO BE IN CHARGE OF THE DAILY MANAGEMENT OF ANDROMEDA GARDENS?

After working in a bank for years, I left and went to Uni – studied politics. While studying I bought a flat with a ‘garden’ – not really a garden – a patch of grass with broken rusty swings, etc. I re-designed it. So I finished my degree and decided to retrain as a garden designer. I designed gardens in England for a few years, came to Barbados, started teaching garden design courses privately, then organic growing courses. I was approached by the Barbados National Trust and asked to take over the running of Andromeda Botanic Gardens.

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THERE MUST BE SO MUCH THAT GOES INTO THE RUNNING OF A BOTANICAL GARDEN OF THIS NATURE. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MORE INTERESTING AND CHALLENGING THINGS YOU ENCOUNTER?

Not enough money, staff and time – basically extremely limited resources. Lack of water (drought, no irrigation system) is also extremely challenging!

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HAVE YOU INTRODUCED ANY NEW SPECIES OF PLANTS OR TREES SINCE TAKING OVER THE GARDEN? ARE THERE ANY THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO INTRODUCE?

We’ve planted some salvias to see if they are drought tolerant – Salvia coccinea is proving quite resilient but Salvia farinacea ‘Blue Bedder’ is prone to scale. We’ve also planted some zinnias for colour. One of our more important introductions is the giant Mexican sunflower – Tithonia diversifolia. We use it to screen the road but far more importantly it is our prime source of fertilizer! Wonderfully sustainable! I also introduced a plant that I think is Ophiopogon intermedius ‘Argenteomarginatus’ – variagted lilyturf – wonderfully drought tolerant. Sir Henry Fraser has given us some black willow trees that we will find a home for in the Garden.

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ARE ANY OF THE PLANTS RESISTANT TO DROUGHT? DO YOU HAVE ANY WATER CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES OR WAYS TO HELP THE VARIOUS PLANTS SURVIVE IN OUR CURRENT DROUGHT CONDITIONS / WATER SHORTAGE?

The good thing about taking over a garden during drought is the ability to watch and see how plants cope. Ignoring the succulents we have some excellent drought tolerant plants – Tabernaemontana ( star jasmine), Dracaeanas, Ixoras, canary bush, silver dollar, crinums and more! We need a sustainable irrigation system. Some lovely students from McGill University are designing one for us. Next stage will be to cost it and then apply for funding.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PLANT OR TREE?

Too many to mention them all! Jade Vine (botanical name Strongylodon macrobotrys) – the most amazing flower I have ever seen!!! Its natural habitat is the forest of the Phillippines – becoming increasingly rare there due to deforestation. It flowers between February and May and is simply out of this world! Madagascan almond – magnificent horizontal arrangement of branches and the leaves capture the light so beautifully!!! Butterfly gingers – smell delicious!

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Jade vine photo from Living Barbados magazine

DID YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR CONCEPT FOR THE DESIGN OF THE GARDEN WHEN YOU TOOK OVER THE MANAGEMENT OF ANDROMEDA, OR HAS IT REMAINED IN ITS ORIGINAL DESIGN STATE?

Original. The only thing I hope to change is adding some focal points to the visual ends of paths to make the journey through the garden even more special and exciting.

ANY PLANS FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF THE GARDENS?

Yes. We have received funding from the Peter Moore’s Foundation to help with our plant labelling plans – at least 300 trees, palms, shrubs and herbaceous will be labelled by March hopefully. We also hope to develop a ‘Tropical American Garden’ with plants from the region (most of the plants here at Andromeda are actually from outside of the region). We aim to open a nursery in 2017 and our courses will be increased so we aim to form a fully-fledged horticultural training centre. We have recently received status as a CVQ (Caribbean Vocational Qualification) assessment centre but have been teaching since we arrived at Andromeda (and before). 10 gardeners received their CVQ certificate after training here at Andromeda. This is the best garden in Barbados with the most incredible variety of plants. It is unique. I hope people understand this and value this national treasure as much as I do.

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Andromeda Gardens Café & Gift Shop from Living Barbados Magazine

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE ANDROMEDA GARDENS TO INSPIRE OR HELP THOSE OF US WHO LIVE IN BARBADOS?

So many ways! Andromeda is a retreat! You can get away from it all, recharge your batteries and simply be reinvigorated by being surrounded by nature.

This a part of our heritage, our history and our future. Iris Bannochie (who established the gardens) had vision. She planted trees etc. with the knowledge that she would not see them at maturity. Gardeners tends to be optimists – planting for the future – an inspiration for all!

We teach organic herb and vegetable workshops at Andromeda. We do not need poisons to grow food so we hope this helps people realise that. We also teach garden and planting design workshops. It is amazing how individuals react to certain shapes, colours etc. – some of these are emotional responses. Take part in the these workshops and you will definitely see the world differently!

Andromeda Gardens will be teaching you how to Grow Your Own Organic Herb and Vegetables – a one-day ‘Let’s Get Growing’ Workshop on Saturday 12th March 9am-4pm; and a five-week Planting and Garden Design Workshop from Friday 26th February.  Email sharon@andromedabarbados.com for more details.

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