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Three weeks at RBG Kew

March 30, 2023
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Three weeks at Kew go quickly – February 2023

Welcome to my second diary entry. Although my time as the AGS trainee is going very quickly, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. It felt like I only started the apprenticeship yesterday and yet, my three-week placement at Kew was already fast approaching. My time at Kew would be spent working in the alpine and rock garden department.

On the first day Lizzy showed me around the rock garden and alpine house. I was impressed by the sheer size of the rock garden which is over an acre in size and was originally constructed in 1882. Within that site, plants from six mountainous regions of the world are grouped in their own areas.

Behind the scenes, Jeremy showed me the impressive set of glasshouses containing plunge beds and outdoor plunges with overhanging structures to protect the plants from rain. This is where most of the bulb species are held, including the national collection of Juno irises (Iris subg. Scorpiris) and Tulipa spp.


The Rock Garden at Kew with the Davies Alpine House in the background - credit Joshua Tranter

The Rock Garden at Kew with the Davies Alpine House in the background - credit Joshua Tranter


Jeremy and Graham were involved in repotting the Sempervivum collection, plants from which are used for display in the Davies alpine house throughout the year. I soon got to work helping to repot the remains of the collection by knocking them out of their terracotta pans, tidying them up by removing dead foliage and inspecting for pest and diseases. Working in different gardens is a great experience because everyone has different ways of doing things.

At Kew they use a plant database called BRAHMS which contains information essential for a botanical garden. Graham kindly showed me how the database worked and how to find the relevant information. The Sempervivum collection list was printed off and we worked through each accession, repotting and checking stock and amending if necessary using the BRAHMS software. Each time the work on a plant is completed, it is edited in the software so that in the future people can see when last the plant was repotted.


Another collection I helped repot was the Drimiopsis collection. These bulbous plants belong to the Hyacinthaceae family and come from Tropical and South Africa. After knocking a few plants out I noticed plants were already in active growth. In order to minimise root damage, we carefully placed them into larger pots with a little fresh compost and then top dressed with grit.


As I am keen on Lewisias and grow many at home in my greenhouse, Faye gave me the task of repotting the collection at Kew. The collection includes species like Lewisiopsis tweedyi, Lewisia cotyledon, L. congdonii and L. oppostifolia. I tidied the collection by removing any dead foliage. In the wild, Lewisias grow in a rocky substrate with humus so the soil is light and porous. When repotting we used Kew’s alpine mix consisting of pumice, sand, vermiculite, perlite and Seramis (absorbent clay granules) to which we added some humus. Once the collection was repotted, plants were moved into plunge beds in another greenhouse. We replenished the sand in the plunge bed, then watered the beds ready for plunging the pots the following day.

Newly repotted Lewisias at RBG Kew - Joshua Tranter

Newly repotted Lewisias at RBG Kew - Joshua Tranter


During my placement I helped with propagation of Campanulas. Due to the hot weather in 2022, followed by a hard winter, stock in the nursery has suffered. There are several forms of Campanula isopylla and C. elatinoides growing in the Davies Alpine House. I collected the cuttings from the display house using sharp secateurs and took them back to the potting shed, where lower leaves were removed using a sharp, sterilised scalpel. Cuts were made just below a node and cuttings were put into a mix consisting of equal parts of coir and perlite. The trays of cuttings were taken to the propagation greenhouse and watered well, then moved under grow lights in order to receive maximum light levels which will improve their health.

Taking Campanula cuttings propagation

Taking Campanula cuttings

Davies Alpine house

I was fortunate to spend time in Kew’s display house several times during my three-week placement, working with Vicki who looks after it. My main task was to help with the weekly change-over of the pot displays, whereby we ensured the displays were looking good for the visitors. I also had the chance to help with planting alpines in the tufa display beds, the plants having been raised by seed or cuttings by staff at Kew. There were many species that I had not previously encountered, so I researched on the internet and in books to gain more knowledge on these plants.

After choosing suitable areas for the plants, we drilled planting holes in the tufa rocks, then dipped the roots of the plants in a bucket of water and lightly teased the roots to remove the compost. Plants were then placed on a thin trowel to insert into holes in the tufa. The roots were covered in tufa dust, then smaller pieces of tufa were used to secure the plants after insertion. The plants were watered well, using a mist spray. Until the plants are established they will be watered daily.

Pershore show

During my placement at Kew, the AGS organised their annual flower show at Pershore so I took the opportunity to go home for the weekend. On the Friday afternoon I helped set up the show benches and on Saturday I helped with the show. This helped me understand how AGS shows are organised and I was able to see the amount of effort that is put into these shows by the organisers and helpers.

Attending AGS shows is a great day out and gives the chance to chat with many skilled growers and gain tips from them. It was also enjoyable to meet many people face to face from my social media network whom I don’t normally meet. As always, the show benches were full of wonderful plants, including tricky plants and also garden-worthy and easy to grow plants. Here are a few photos from the Pershore Show.


As my last days at Kew approached, I was able to visit the collection of dried plant specimens in the herbarium. This is one of the largest collections in the world with over 7 million specimens and around 20,000 new accessions are added to the collection every year. As I am currently doing a research project on Fritillaria it was good to see the collection of dried specimens collected on various expeditions around the world. I took many photos and notes for my project during an enjoyable visit.

Plants of interest

Narcissus asturensis

One of the smallest trumpet daffodils. In the wild it comes from northern Spanish mountains, growing at high altitudes of around 1300-1500m.

Fritillaria pudica

This is a North American species which grows to 5-15cm in height. In the wild it is found in open situations in gritty or sandy soils at 2000m.

Saxifraga latepetiolata

A rather attractive plant from Eastern and Southern Spain, where it grows on limestone rocks. This biennial plant has hairy leaves and a 30 cm tall inflorescence covered in white flowers.


As a charity, the AGS supports the development of knowledge and skills in the alpine field by funding the AGS Trainee Scheme. During the 18 month placement, the successful candidate has the opportunity to work at various horticultural institutions (such as RBG Edinburgh, RBG Kew, RHS Garden Harlow Carr, RSPB Haweswater Nature Reserve and the AGS Garden at Pershore). The work includes maintaining and enhancing the alpine plant collections in all the gardens as well as management of plant records. At RSPB Haweswater the trainee with help with conservation work.