King Charles’ former gardener has launched a stinging attack on a famous botanic garden whose ‘rewilding’ project he says has turned it into a ‘monoculture of weeds’.
For 50 years, Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight has been a famous destination for plant lovers thanks to its unique warm microclimate.
But in recent months it has faced fierce criticism after its owner was accused of letting it fall into disrepair while pioneering a new approach he said was meant to tackle climate change.
American businessman John Curtis has defended his so-called ‘Ventnor method’, in which he says the garden ‘transitions’ from traditional gardeners’ methods and instead creates ‘synthetic ecosystems’.
David Pearce, the former kitchen gardener at the King’s private residence Highgrove in Gloucestershire, has dismissed the hands-off approach to maintenance as nothing more than a ‘greenwashing smokescreen’.
David Pearce, 25, the former kitchen gardener at the King’s private residence in Highgrove, Gloucestershire, said the ‘rewilding’ project at the Botanic Gardens on the Isle of Wight was turning it into a ‘monoculture of weeds’.
The then Prince Charles with Camilla and TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh visited the botanic garden in 2009
“Through my recent visits it is clear that Ventnor Botanic Garden is becoming a monoculture of weeds,” Mr Pearce said. In the picture: Dying plants in the garden
Before: Subtropical palms and aloes growing in a terraced courtyard in the sheltered microclimate botanic gardens of Ventnor Botanic Garden
After: Recent photos of the gardens show trees with brown and dead leaves and the paths littered with overgrown vegetation
In a letter to the island’s local newspaper, the 25-year-old – who trained at the botanic garden between 2016 and 2018 – said: ‘This “experimental trial” practiced at Ventnor Botanic Garden is being hailed as the future of gardening and a solution to climate change .
‘But I think it lacks any scientific backing to make it a viable and supportive scheme. Even if it were, no one should experiment at the expense of a scientifically important collection of plants.
‘The world-renowned botanic garden and its extensive collection of plants, invaluable to science, was simply handed over to a person who had no experience of working in gardens.
‘Through my recent visits it is clear that Ventnor Botanic Garden is becoming a monoculture of weeds.’
Mr. Trained at the Royal Horticultural Society, Pearce now runs the historic Whatley Manor, a 12-hectare arts and crafts garden and 5-star country hotel.
He added: ‘I think the Ventnor method is a greenwashing smokescreen used to hide the lack of financial input.
‘It is clear that this experiment has begun to happen at the expense of a beloved visitor attraction, an educational center and an internationally recognized plant collection.’
Criticism of the garden began earlier this summer when former curator Simon Goodenough returned to the site he looked after for 25 years to find it ‘overrun with weeds’ and ‘completely run down’.
Pearce criticized the experimental ‘Ventor method’ which has been hailed as the future of gardening and a solution to climate change
Sir. Pearce said the lawsuit “lacks any scientific backing” and in any case they should not be experimenting with a “scientifically important collection of plants”
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales visits Ventnor Botanic Garden during a day of engagements on the Isle of Wight on July 17, 2009
Mr. Goodenough – who left his post in 2011 – felt compelled to make his concerns public, writing a lengthy critique to the island’s local newspaper.
“I have sat and watched for 11 years as things get worse and worse, but feel I can no longer remain silent about the direction of the garden,” he wrote.
Mr. Goodenough, who started working on the garden in 1985, said it is ‘very upsetting’ to see his hard work ‘go to hell’.
Sir. Pearce continued in his letter published yesterday: ‘Behind the origins of the Ventnor method are the naturalistically planted geographical landscapes created by Simon Goodenough in the 1980s.
“These displayed at the time a large variety of rare and unusual plants (some of which were unique to horticulture) arranged how they would be found in their natural environment.
“Simon realized that given the fact that Ventnor was located with a favorable microclimate for the cultivation of Mediterranean species, it still differed in many very complex abiotic and biotic factors that allow the establishment of intact ecosystems.
‘That’s why it was gardening; carefully and skilfully cultivated to present an idealized depiction of these wild landscapes. For years this provided the horticultural and Isle of Wight communities with a tool for education, conservation and inspiration.’
Pearce said the turning point came when the Isle of Wight Council sold the garden in 2012.
‘Ship to the present and the Ventnor method is a concept currently being used under the guise of rewilding and sustainability.
‘Rewilding is an incredibly exciting movement that will hopefully shape the way we continue to manage large areas. But “rewilding” is very susceptible to greenwashing, and VBG is, in my opinion, a prime example of this.
‘The biggest misconception about rewilding is that it simply leaves a space to fend for itself. If that space happens to be Yellowstone Park, then yes, it can be confused by neglect because it has a self-sustaining ecosystem.
‘Through my recent visits it is clear that VBG is becoming a monoculture of weeds. VBG’s attempts at rewilding have only reduced biodiversity.’
Sir. Pearce said the Ventnor method was being used under the guise of rewilding and sustainability
“But ‘rewilding’ is very susceptible to greenwashing, and VBG is, in my opinion, a prime example of this,” he added
He added: “Without any management, the dominant, pioneer species will, and will continue to outcompete less vigorous species of flora that, under proper stewardship, should help us advance our understanding of plants, medicine and ecosystems.
‘It is clear that this experiment has begun to happen at the expense of a popular visitor attraction, an educational center and an internationally recognized plant collection.
“In short, I think the Ventnor method is a greenwashing smokescreen used to hide the lack of financial input.”
The popular attraction – touted to be ‘Britain’s hottest garden’ due to its ‘remarkable’ microclimate – was founded in 1970.
Until 2012 it was owned by the Isle of Wight Council before being sold to Mr. Curtis.
In an attempt to refute Mr Goodenough’s original criticism, Mr Curtis defended his progress.
He said: ‘We believe the future of gardening in the face of climate change and accelerating plant extinction rates will celebrate this approach. It is not a flower-filled picturesque English border with graduated planting heights in threes and fives.’