Recording our plants on GPS – It’s a big job, but someone has to do it!

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Lesley McCauley, Plant Records Gardener, with her GPS. What a prestigious title to have in a place like Mount Stewart. What is awe inspiring is not only does Lesley recognise nearly every plant, tree and shrub in Mount Stewart but that she remembers their names and species. Her job is so precise and exacting that the only person to write about it is Lesley herself.


Lesley McCauley, Plant Records Gardener, with her GPS. What a prestigious title to have in a place like Mount Stewart. What is awe inspiring is not only does Lesley recognise nearly every plant, tree and shrub in Mount Stewart but that she remembers their names and species. Her job is so precise and exacting that the only person to write about it is Lesley herself.

For the past 4 years the National Trust has been involved in a project to record the plant collections at all its major properties. Here at Mount Stewart we have amassed more than 10,000 records. The precise position of each of the woody plants is logged using Global Positioning Satellite technology. This can then be uploaded to the Trust’s national plant database and may be used to generate maps of the various garden areas. Each record contains additional information such as planting date and source. It’s important to know the plant’s provenance, whether it’s been propagated from our own stock, bought from a specialist nursery or acquired from plant hunting expeditions. At the same time photographs are taken of each plant in situ and all of its distinguishing features. These will all eventually be uploaded to the plant database too. The whole process brings together information from a range of sources and collates it in a comprehensive and accessible format that can be used by the gardeners, other botanical institutions and ultimately visitors too. It will help us as we begin to create an app for the property and that will provide visitors who purchase it with a greatly enhanced interactive experience.

While one person is responsible for maintaining the records it is very much a collaborative project with everyone on the team providing valuable information. No individual can know all the plants in such a vast and diverse collection but each of the gardeners knows the plants that they have selected and/or planted themselves and all the gardeners, past and present, have been very generous with their time and knowledge and I am extremely grateful for their support. Our volunteer photographer Janet Holland deserves thanks for her excellent work. Also thanks are due to Catherine Tyrie and Paul Hackney for their assistance with the identification of some of our more unusual plants.

The GPS project has brought to light unusual plants that had been forgotten about and plants that have become vulnerable or are now in danger of extinction in the wild. It enables us to develop plans for the propagation of significant and rare species. This is vital for the conservation of the collection and to facilitate the sharing of plant material across the Trust and beyond. It also helps us to respond to queries whether they are from visitors or from other botanical institutions across the UK and the world.

It possibly all sounds a bit stodgy but it’s actually been a truly fascinating and exciting project. The question I’m most often asked is, ’Is it finished yet?’ and  the simple answer is NO and it never will be! The garden is always changing and developing, just as it did in Lady Edith’s time. Every year plants die or have to be removed and new ones are planted in their place. This has been especially true in the past year with the on-going conservation plan being implemented and the arrival of many new plants, some of which I had never heard of before! That’s an important part of the joy of what I do. I’m always learning something new and sharing what is learned with gardeners and visitors. I feel extraordinarily lucky to work in such a beautiful place alongside a terrific team on this very interesting project.

Lesley

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