Is this a garden or a teeny tiny farm?

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, provides an update on our sugar beet growing project.

It’s National Gardening Week, and at The MERL we’re lucky enough to have a beautiful garden with a large lawn, herb garden, woodland area, and several community growing projects. It’s a great space for experimentation with different plant varieties and one of our current projects involves growing sugar beet – a vegetable that’s normally grown on farms rather than in gardens.

I must say that I felt very nervous waiting for our crop to germinate. The soil temperature and pH were right and we planted according to advice provided by British Sugar. But I was still worried that the seeds wouldn’t grow. I’m now pleased to say that our beets have germinated and are getting bigger and stronger by the day.

Photo of one of new sugar beet seedlings

But I still have concerns…

We applied fertiliser, as directed, and I worried that it might burn the new seedlings. We thinned the crop and I felt terrible for killing off perfectly good seedlings. Now, as the beets grow, I’m checking the bed with obsessive frequency – weeding and watering and fretting about the possibility that tender new leaves might be delicious to caterpillars and snails and vulnerable to any number of diseases. And what if the soil that I’ve painstakingly sifted using a hand-held riddle is still too stony to support a root crop like sugar beet?

Delving into the Sir Alfred Wood archive didn’t do anything to allay my fears – I’m now terrified that we’ll fail and end up with ‘fangy beets’:

Image of part of a vintage leaflet from 'Pictorial Hints on the Growing of Sugar Beet' (Presented by the Beet Sugar Factories of Great Britain'.

From Pictorial Hints on the Growing of Sugar Beet
(Sir Alfred Wood Collection, Reference: D MS1087 36/2).

Is this how a farmer feels in springtime? Excited about the possibilities, but acutely aware that it could all be snatched away at a moment’s notice by an oversight or act of nature? In my case I guess it’s just run of the mill gardening angst. Both the gardener and the farmer must deal with uncertainty, but if our sugar beet crop fails, it will be a mere disappointment – it won’t affect my pay cheque. Yet scale our tiny Beet Box up to 100,000 beets per hectare and the stakes are so much higher on a real farm.

A novice like me can just ‘have a go’ at gardening and see what sprouts, but a beet farmer (or any farmer) must be an expert in her domain. Keeping up to speed on the latest research and advice and combining this with experience in the field (or knowledge handed down through generations) helps a farmer to manage risk and respond to set backs, increasing the chances of bringing a profitable crop to harvest.

I think I’ll stick to gardening for now and see how I feel about beet farming at the end of the season.

Why is there a flying saucer in The MERL garden?

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals one of our new growing projects and the feat of DIY ingenuity behind an unusual landmark in our garden.

If you’ve visited us in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed that something funny is going on with our garden. Perched above one of the raised beds there’s a suspicious object. Something that bears an uncanny resemblance to a spaceship. Well let me put your mind at ease. I can explain. It’s all part of a new growing project and that spaceship is here to help.

Image of flying saucer - like object in The MERL garden.

Alongside our new community growing spaces, we have built a raised garden box with a focus on science and technology. Our inaugural project will see us attempt to grow sugar beet. Being museum folk, we love a terrible pun, so I feel no shame whatsoever in revealing that our project is rather dubiously titled ‘Beet Box’.

Image of sugar beet by Okt154 (through Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License).

Who knew this is where much of our sugar comes from? Image by Okt154 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Is the world ready for Beet Box? We think so. Around 7.5 tonnes of sugar beet is grown in Britain each year and these crops are used to manufacture a large proportion of the sugar that we consume. With this in mind, we’re keen to learn more about the history and practicalities of this industry. We might only produce a few kilos of beets and a very small amount of sugar, but this provides a good opportunity to explore the process of sugar production from first-hand experience. It seemed fitting that we sow our seeds on British Science Week, and using expert growing advice and seeds provided by British Sugar gives us the best chances of success. Let’s cross our fingers that conditions will be right to take our tiny crop to harvest.

Image of science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

Science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

So where does the spaceship come in? 

We wanted to do more than just grow beets, we also wanted to explore how technology could be used to track growing conditions. We’re delighted to be collaborating with Reading Hackspace on the project, and several their members have kindly donated their time and expertise to design and set up a monitoring system for Beet Box. Having installed soil and weather sensors, they also plan to use a solar-powered camera to capture information about the growth of the beets, and the solar panel is intended to sit inside that nifty Perspex spaceship enclosure.

Image of Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box garden bed.

A work in progress: Prior to planting, Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace
started installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box.

The Hackspace folks are a community of enthusiastic makers who use rLab – a peer led workshop, open to anyone who is interested – as a base for knowledge sharing and work on a wide range of fascinating projects. The team working on Beet Box have taken care to design a system for the garden box that is open source and uses widely available components, providing an opportunity to use the project for educational purposes and to allow anyone to replicate or take inspiration from the setup.

Image of our newly-sown Beet Box garden bed.

In the weeks and months to come, we will share more detailed information about the system and the progress of our beets, and get feeds up and running so that data from the project is freely available online. In the meantime, we anxiously await the germination of our beet seeds.

In the Garden: Reading Tree Wardens and MERL

It’s not every day that you spend the morning looking at trees, but recently a group of MERL staff did just that. Looking for information to be able to create interpretation in the gardens, we had called upon the expertise of the Reading Tree Wardens (

So on a gloriously sunny day back in July, Anna Iwashkin and Dr Michael Keith-Lucas came to the museum for several hours to help with the identification of trees in the front and back gardens, as well as from within the edible garden area next to the Reading Room.


Dr Michael Keith-Lewis and MERL staff

As we moved around the garden the sheer amount of knowledge they demonstrated was incredible. Usually able to recognise trees with just a quick glance, Dr Keith-Lucas would rarely need to turn to reference books for a more precise identification.


A rare shot of further research

Dr Michael Keith-Lucas would also provide some amazing facts about the trees seen during the visit. The first of these was about this 100+ year old Black Mulberry tree towards that back of the museum, where we learnt these were introduced to the UK in the 18th century by people wanting to encourage silk worms. This turned out to be a mistake as silk worms actually feed on White Mulberry.


Black Mulberry

Other new information included that lime fruit won’t be growing on this row of small leaf lime trees. In this context, lime is actually a derivative of the word ‘line’. The bark fibres of the tree were used by our ancestors to produce string.


Line of Small Leaf Lime

This Ginkgo is a living fossil and can be identified by it fan-shaped leaves. The tree, unchanged since the Jurassic period, has various uses in traditional medicine and its seeds are used in cooking.


Ginkgo tree and leaves

The dark bushy undergrowth at the very back of the MERL garden is typical of Victorian planting which probably done when the Palmer family lived in the building. These plants are a deep green colour and originate from Japan. The family would have wanted to plant exotic, fashionable and impressive evergreen plants. During the period, plants were imported from the Southern Islands of Japan after the country opened its doors in the last half of the 19th century.


Hidden away at the back of the MERL garden

A brief and fascinating trip meant that we were all taking lots of notes. Even then staff had to compile our observations which we used to create a basic map of the gardens.Plan

Come have a look at the gardens when we reopen in October. If you can find this root graft, you’ll have discovered our ‘star tree’ as selected by the Reading Tree Wardens.


Root graft and our star tree

Volunteers Voice #8: Plot plans for 2014

Our two gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger, spent the last year transforming our plots into bee friendly areas, designed to encourage bees into our garden and to show visitors how easy it is to support them. Tony and Roger have kindly written a post for us about what they have in store for 2014…

Following the use of plants that are attractive to pollinators last year, (read our last garden blog post for more info) it has been decided to double the area of direct-sown hardy annuals.   Last year, the plot nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was planted with bee-friendly half-hardy annuals.  These have to be raised under heated glasshouses and, although the effect can be more carefully planned, it is a costly exercise compared with direct sowing of hardy annuals.

Bed planted with half-hardy annuals

Bed planted with half-hardy annuals

The second plot was sown with four different mixtures of hardy annual flowers sold by Thompson and Morgan, the plot being divided into four beds with the following mixtures:

  • Annual early flowering mix
  • Wildflower honey-bee flower mix
  • Wildflower mix
  • Butterfly mix
Bed sown with mixtures of hardy annual flowers

Bed sown with mixtures of hardy annual flowers

There was a huge range of species found within these mixtures and, when in full bloom, the whole plot sometimes seemed to be humming.  To be honest, I cannot for the life of me prove that more butterflies landed on the butterfly mixture bed or that fewer bees landed on the butterfly mixture than on the bee-mixture bed.  But come on, ye of little faith!   Of course the little fellahs know what they are doing.

Those of you who ventured outdoors in April may remember that the seed was sown in drills about 10 cm apart (making hoeing and weeding easier) and then covered with horticultural fleece.   This had a dramatic effect on germination, providing warmth and conserving moisture whilst allowing water to penetrate.  Many seeds had begun to germinate in 10-15 days and as soon as most species were pushing against the fleece we took it off and gave them their freedom. If you are even a moderately interested gardener, do try a packet or two in any sunny corner that you don’t really know what to do with.   They come in packets of 1 gm which is enough to cover one per square metre.  I offer a tip, however.  If you go onto the Thompson and Morgan website you will find these mixtures hard to find.   Go to their search box and type in “bee mixture” etc. as listed above.  The same problem arises with their catalogue and a here a telephone call seems necessary.  Never mind, they are very charming!

Caring for bees

This year, in addition to growing plants that attract bees, we are planning to create examples of the habitats where bees like to build their nests. Visitors will be given a bee trail to follow which will lead them to all the places in the garden where bees might be nesting, so that they can see what they can do in their own gardens to encourage bees to take up residence.

Tony Hales and Roger Sym

If you have any horticultural questions, Tony Hales has kindly offer to answer your questions. Post a comment below or leave a question with staff at reception.


Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page

Photo opportunity: MERL offers a ‘green welcome’!

Photo opportunity on April 19th, 12pm – the press are invited to photograph BTCV and MERL volunteers putting the final touches to MERL’s front garden – building hedgehog homes, bird baths and mini-beast hotels

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, has been working towards creating a wildlife friendly space that reflects a wildflower meadow at the front of the museum. The project, funded by the Big Lottery Bid, is entitled “A Green Welcome” and it has involved working with the University’s Grounds Team, the BTCV and volunteers from the local community.

Working with the BTCV and the University’s Grounds Team, MERL has transformed its front garden.

On the 19th April, MERL and BTCV volunteers will be coming together for the last time to create mini beast homes and put the finishing touches to the garden. The garden will then be maintained by a team of MERL volunteers who will ensure that it continues as a wildlife friendly space and continues to resemble a natural wildflower meadow.

Rob Davies, MERL Volunteer Coordinator says “Originally the garden was a jungle of undergrowth, ivy and nettles, blocking out sunlight and not allowing space for nature to breathe. The area has been cleared, the ivy has been worked back and an array of wildflowers and herbs have been planted. With the first flourishes of spring we have seen the colorful mix of flowers often attributed to country meadows burst into life in our very own front garden.”

“We hope that the transformation of the front garden not only encourages further biodiversity but welcomes visitors to the Museum of English Rural Life, with a colourful and an eco-friendly smile.”