On the Road Again

by Derek Burch

It's a measure of how long it has been since the previous issue limped to press, that the travel which is the subject in this issue was once again to Europe. I don't get there that often (or nearly often enough). This was my regular and jealously guarded trip to the flower show in Amsterdam plus some time in England to get some good food and drink a little beer. Man does not live by plants alone.

I have been lucky enough to have visited the Eden Project in Cornwall several times over the past few years, tracking it from the day that the equipment first moved into the gigantic disused china clay pit to the present settling-in-but-always-to-be-under-construction status of this month.

Picture, if you will, a terraced car park with most of the terraces already filled long before opening time on an unseasonably warm November morning. (But overcast, and definitely crisp to an escapee from Florida.) Start down the path, and at a turn in the zig-zag stairway, there is suddenly an apparition deep down in the pit. Bubbles that have settled side by side along the floor and sloping wall. Not a bad analogy as it turns out, since their architecture addresses some of the same stresses that exist in the skin of a soap bubble.

The engineering feats and the technology of the domes with no internal supports is detailed on a number of websites, but there have been some surprising and pleasing benefits from the design. The frame members are tiny in comparison with the size of the units which they support, giving very little reduction in light reaching the plants. Then, the actual covering, which is an inflated triple glaze for each hexagon, does a wonderful job of insulation, greatly simplifying the climate control in the houses.

The drive that created the Eden Project was the realisation that, in the world that so many of us share, we must learn how agriculture can coexist with natural systems. The needs of mankind must be met without destroying the balance of nature, and indeed we have enough examples of man-made catastrophes stemming from imperfect knowledge to see that there can be few more important studies than this. Human impact may be regrettable in many cases, but it is real and will continue.

The Institute, which is the core of the Eden Project, will look for patterns of use that blend with natural forces rather than imposing new and unsustainable conditions. The physical presence of Eden Project gives the opportunity to reach enormous numbers of people, while, of course, eventually funding part of the other work of the Institute. And it is this other work: research in conjunction with a number of universities worldwide, field studies overseas in cooperation with local scientists, classes at all levels from kindergarten to shortcourses for universities, that gives depth and substance to the organisation.

The plantings in the domes demonstrate graphically the part that plants play in our lives, and send visitors home (or at least sent me home) full of the wonder of the natural world. The perception of the various habitats is created without trying to recreate the actual habitat. The presentation is full of color and spectacle and above all a sense of fun.

It is ironic that the unexpected success of the first year has brought crowding, and some concern on the part of the staff that the enjoyment level may be affected by this (what a paradigm of the overpopulation of the whole world !). Construction will begin soon on a third biome to expand the range of climates under control and spread people out a little until the next surge in visitor numbers.

Looking through the pictures that I have taken on various trips, I am interested to find that I haven't attempted to catch the really spectacular aspects - the waterfalls and pools, the almost sheer banks of the pit which are rapidly being clothed with vines and epiphytes. There is a whole gallery of images at, run by a couple who introduce themselves as the unofficial Eden site (and apparently have a very interesting accomodation in the vicinity). I have never had a chance to see the gardeners abseiling down the slopes to do their maintenance chores or to watch the daring young men on their flying trapezes checking the upper parts of the dome. (And this is only a slight exaggeration, Eden has trained a number of people specially for this work, which is further off the ground than most circus performers ever have to be, and, of course, done with no safety net, although every other possible precaution is taken.)

All soil had to be mixed and set into place. Local sand and clay plus recycled waste were the raw materials, and each section of the project had its own specific formula (see details at Growth in the hot tropical biome has been the easiest to track because of the sheer exuberance of the plant material, but the specialised mixes for the floras that need a less rich substrate have been just as successful in giving healthy growth appropriate to the types of plants involved.

It goes almost without saying that dealing with pests and diseases relies heavily on biocontrol methods. A few holes and spots on the leaves are to be expected in nature, and cause no concern. The same philosophy holds in allowing some debris to accumulate between the plants to build the soil microorganism population. Not trying to go all the way to recreate the natural habitat, but suggesting to the visitor that this is a planting that takes care of itself to some degree.

One aspect of the site which adds to the whole is the integration of intriguing art wherever it is appropriate, and even where it might be thought to be out of place, until you realise that these biomes are not intended to represent a pristine forest or primaeval fynbos area. Wonderful horses, created out of driftwood by a local sculptor, Heather Jansch,greet the arriving visitor, and their cousin pigs are grazing in the cork oak forest. At any one time, the work of at least 30 artists is on display formally or as exciting surprises throughout the site.

Actually this is a no-holds-barred sort of place, where anything that will make for a better visit is welcomed wholeheartedly.It is a place of constant change, always something new, but always underpinned by the belief that we must, and can, live with nature. It is a long way from the centre of Britain, but well worth the drive or the train ride, and, of course, is right in the middle of a wonderful area for gardens and for rugged scenery, so that, for a gardener, it is not out of the way at all. It seems to be at the heart of any trip that I make.

To stay up to date on the goings-on at eden, visit

On to see some of Heather Jansch' work

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