25 years of bgen

What could bring a network of Britain’s botanical educators and enthusiasts to assemble at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew on a hot summer’s day?

Probably a number of reasons, in fact, but few quite as special as the celebration of 25 years since the formation of bgen.

Picnic at Kew for bgen's 25th birthday
Picnic at Kew for bgen’s 25th birthday

Having grown from an informal meeting of botanic gardens staff sharing experiences and advice over a glass of wine, into a formal, funded body offering support (and wine) to over 200 member organisations, bgen has been at the forefront of promoting and developing botanical education in the UK & Ireland for a quarter of a century.

Offering specialist support and training for professionals working in plant-based education, bgen works to help visitors understand the vital efforts of its member organisations. The members branch from botanic gardens to parks and zoos to historic gardens, all sharing the aim of raising awareness of plant diversity, plant conservation and the role of plants in our lives.

Although the original formation of bgen is somewhat hazy in the memory of most, it is generally agreed that the initial meeting took place between Ian Edwards (RBG Edinburgh), Ruth Taylor (Chelsea Physic Garden), Timothy Walker (Oxford Botanic Garden) and Gail Bromley (Kew Gardens), along with early support from Bill Graham and Julia Willison. But what was the catalyst in forming this network between botanical establishments? “For me, it was the desire to share information and collaborate with others who were often working in isolation”, says Bill. An opinion echoed by Julia, who highlighted “the need for staff working in botanic gardens to communicate about education and develop programmes for the public”.

The informal initiation of the bgen committee grew into an official body following the first formal meeting in the early 90’s. Again, although few are entirely sure of when the meeting took place, most agree it was at the Botanical Gardens Base in Birmingham in January 1992. It is here that the committee drafted a mission statement and education strategy for bgen, with a focus of widening the audience for botanical gardens and arriving at a funding proposal. In more recent years, the focus has also shifted to broaden the audience of bgen members, growing from strictly botanical gardens and arboreta to including public parks, zoos and educational trusts. Despite growing into an official body, the friendly and networking-focussed nature of bgen has remained, ensuring the original desire of collaborating information to better the plant-based education system as a whole has flourished.

So, why is having a body like bgen important? By having the support and advice of workers in other organisations, the task of promoting and implementing plant-based learning becomes easier. The benefits of plant-based learning are varied and often underestimated: sustainable living, healthy eating, fitness and well-being, paving careers and inspiring learning methods as a whole are among some of the reasons learning through plants can be so widely accessible and, resultantly, enjoyable. As Ian Edwards spoke at Kew Gardens, having accepted his thoroughly-deserved honorary bgen membership, he highlighted “practical gardening projects [as] one of the most important things that bgen has achieved”.

Practical gardening activity have been one of bgen's greatest successes
bgen aims to help children grow personally and educationally by learning through plants

Growing Schools is just one of the projects bgen has supported that have brought the opportunity for kids in schools to connect with the environment – be it on an inner city window ledge, a school’s veg plot or vast open country estate. Growing Schools, managed by Farm & Countryside Education (FACE), strives for every young person to have the opportunity to experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of educational and personal development – not just a handful of kids planting some token carrots and cabbage.

The success of bgen over the last 25 years has been an amalgamation of the passion of its members, its willingness to adapt to the rapidly changing world of education and, of course, the free wine at the conferences that have no doubt helped take the edge off. So, where can bgen go in the next 25 years? A number of elements highlight that bgen’s work is just starting, and there is a growing scope for the network to engage people with plant-based education at all levels. As Ian described his “humbling” experience in South America, it is evident that even at the highest-levels there is still so much more to learn about our environment. Essentially taught the entire breakdown of the local ecosystem by a ten year-old child, Ian used this as an example not just of what we have left to learn, but of how the youngest generation still hold that innate intrigue and enthusiasm of the world around them.

Compare this with the frightening statistics of children’s environmental engagement in the UK and it’s clear that the call to action for bgen in the next 25 years has arrived. While digital understanding is flourishing (kids spend on average 7 hours a day looking at a screen), recent statistics show that 59% can’t climb a tree, 63% wouldn’t know how to build a den and 91% can’t recognise 3 types of butterfly. Enter bgen. They are here to provide resources, advice, enthusiasm and green spaces to schools and families, to ensure the mass urbanisation of the world around them doesn’t restrict the opportunity for kids to develop essential personal and educational skills.

The network and passion of bgen is growing, now let’s grow the plants. Here’s to the next 25 years.

By Anna Bland & Alex Day

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