Kew Gardens: Through the Eyes of a Fresh Volunteer

My first day of volunteering at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has finally arrived! Starting this year, I am a horticultural volunteer in the Alpine and Rock Garden, the place to see rare and unique specimens collected from the rugged cliffs, terrains, and mountains of the world.

A push to expand the volunteer team meant that my CV (from many months ago) was dug out of a large pile of other volunteer applications, and after a brief interview, I received an invitation to join the newly minted Rock Garden volunteer team.

The first day is a day of orientation for me — looking around the Rock Garden and getting very familiar with the layout. I receive at least three tours by three separate leaders and still manage to get lost a few times, which is how I truly learn where the staff room and exits are.

The Rock Garden

The Rock Garden is divided by continents — we have North and South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia. There is an amenity area, where the main goal is to keep the areas looking beautiful. The plants in the amenity area may be sourced from nurseries or collectors. There is also a wild-sourced area, meaning all the plants were gathered in the wild, some by modern-day plant hunters.

I arrive an hour later than the rest of the group, and they are already well on their way weeding out the Californian poppy that had self-seeded itself all around the Rock Garden, “on vacation” to continents where it wasn’t meant to be.

I wonder what makes certain plants alpines, and the answer from the Rock Garden supervisor really intrigues me. He says, “alpines are a miniaturist’s view of the plant world. If it’s small and cute, there’s a good chance it’s an alpine.”

Interestingly, the foundation for the Rock Garden, on its present site, was laid a few centuries back when a private collector donated more than 2000 alpine specimens to Kew. The donation spurred the botanic gardens to build a dedicated Rock Garden, which now houses many alpine specimens from all around the world.

There are many people milling about the Rock Garden. Aside from the public, we have scientists, staff members, students on the Kew Diploma course, specialist horticulture apprentices, and of course us volunteers.

The Rock Garden Nursery

The nursery is very busy. Rows and rows of plants in terracotta pots stand in a base of sand and gravel. The nursery staff “plunge” the pots in the sand to keep the temperature consistent for the dormant bulbs. These plants don’t respond well to temperature swings, which happen regularly if the pots are left exposed. Usually, the plants are placed in display areas while still in their terracotta pots, and then covered with gravel. This makes it easier to retrieve and move them. A lot of replanting work happens at this time of year. Staff and volunteers carefully check each plant for signs of illness and replant them in new medium to prevent the spread of diseases.


For lunch, I make my way to The Orangery, which I have never been to. The garden supervisor gives me directions, “See the old tree there? Walk past it and turn left at the pine tree, and you’ll arrive at a white building.” I realise this is the first time I’ve been told to use trees as landmarks. How funny. I wouldn’t be finding your way by pine trees in the city, that’s for sure.

And great landmarks they were, standing tall and proud, easily visible among the turfed areas. I find The Orangery with no trouble and proceed to order a stuffed butternut squash and a lemon/courgette cake. Not my typical sandwich lunch. I love it!

I can’t help but notice the patches of snowdrops, springing up here and there and everywhere. “The first flower of winter” Galanthus, as the genus is scientifically known, really perks up the barren landscape. It’s delicate, beautiful, and the first harbinger of the bloom explosion to come in spring.

Snow Drops

At lunch, I bump into a nursery volunteer, drinking meadowsweet and St. John’s wort tea. That’s fascinating enough to me, but when she explains she foraged it herself near her houseboat, which she uses to continuously cruise through the English countryside, and even up to Scotland, I am completely blown away. Absolutely amazing what some people are up to.

The Sunset

As the sun begins its early descent around 3pm, it lights up the Rock Garden as I make my way out. The volunteering day is over, and the staff are on their tea break. It’s quiet in the garden, except for a few wandering visitors. An older couple stops my photography spree in the Davies Alpine House.

“It’s just stunning, isn’t it?” says the husband. “Do you have a garden?” asks the wife.

They have come for the day from Gloucester, specifically to Kew, to visit a special exhibit called “Life in Death” by Rebecca Louise Law. It’s an intricate large-scale artwork inspired by Egyptian garlands, and their print-out flyer instantly catches my attention. I must see it.

They tell me about their grandson who has won a Young Horticulturist Award at school. At 12, he makes wooden planters out of pallets, and sells them to  a waiting list of clients, including all his teachers. We stop to admire the diminutive plants blooming around us.

Yes, it’s certainly stunning.

Until next time!

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Also published on Medium.

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