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A Garden for a Sustainable Future

Volume 1 Number 17 - December 1998

Professor Charles Stirton





Wales is known for its passion for life - for sports, the arts, music, its heritage and its beautiful landscapes.  The new Garden of Wales embraces all of these themes.

The National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW) is a new national and international botanic garden and scientific institution dedicated to horticulture, conservation, research, environmental education, and leisure.  The creation of the garden fills a long-felt need for Wales to have its own national garden like those in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.  It is the first botanic garden in Wales and represents a significant cultural development for the country. It is also the first major new botanic garden created in the United Kingdom for over two centuries.

The garden is a landmark £46 million Millennium project funded principally by the Millennium Commission.  A flagship for ‘preferred futures’ it aspires to be a model to a sustainable way of living in harmony with our natural world.

The garden formally opens in May 2000 and we expect over 200,000 visitors every year.  This paper describes the aims, philosophy, and key environmental principles that have guided our garden’s development.

The Site

The Garden is set in the 18th Century Regency Park of Middleton Hall in Carmarthenshire, Wales. The Estate comprises 568 acres. It is situated on the edge of the beautiful Towy Valley, virtually free of pollution and with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside; steeped in Welsh history and culture.

The Middleton Estate was the creation of Sir William Paxton who bought it from the Middleton family in 1785. He built a fine Manor House with extensive stable outbuildings and walled gardens. By the early 1900s the estate and buildings had largely fallen into disrepair. The Carmarthenshire County Council later acquired it and in the early 1990s leased it to The Middleton Botanic Company (a Registered Charity) for 999 years at a peppercorn rent.

The garden lies in a rural area only a few miles from the industrial, urban south.  Invisible to the park, the M4 intersection is a few miles from the southern tip of the park providing easy access to visitors.  The Welsh Office is building a grade-separated interchange to the M4 extension to facilitate easy access. The garden enjoys a varied topography, a network of lakes, a range of microclimates and has the added benefit of established woodlands and wild meadows.

Philosophy and Guiding Principles

At the garden we have a vision of a world where we understand, value, enjoy and sustain plants and fungi as vital elements in creating a sustainable relationship with life on earth. We wish to help people understand how plants work and contribute to human welfare. They will touch, smell, and taste plants yet above all enjoy the experience of living conservation, thus contributing towards a ‘preferred future’.


The National Botanic Garden is a new institution being built at the turn of the second millennium.  This has afforded a unique opportunity for Wales to create a landmark project designed and run using best environmental practice.  The ethos of the garden arises from the concerns of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, Agenda 21 and the aspirations of an emerging confident outward looking Wales taking its place in the modern world.

We are embracing sustainability as an overall theme offering innovative approaches to helping people make choices about their future - a preferred futures site.

One of the garden’s key objectives will be to inform the public at large about the relationship between plants and global well being.

Principles of Action

There are four key principles of action:

  • The garden will demonstrate real commitment to the principle and practice of environmental protection and sustainable development in all its operations.
  • The garden will provide education, vocational training and encouragement to its employees and volunteers on environmental issues, so that they can pursue their work in an environmentally responsible manner.
  • The garden will join and promote interdisciplinary networks of environmental specialists at the local, regional, national and international levels, encouraging collaboration on common environmental projects in education and research.
  • The garden will share with the public its experience in running a site of best environmental practice.

These objectives will be pursued by:

  • minimising energy consumption in providing optimum conditions for plant propagation and growth and visitor comfort
  • giving preferential consideration to sustainable energy sources
  • harvesting rainwater and minimum use of water for effluent disposal
  • consumption of waste handled on site wherever feasible
  • minimum light and noise pollution
  • maximising energy efficiency and conservation while minimising ongoing maintenance
  • championing health and safety yet ensuring accessibility
  • biological control in green and glasshouses.

Several features will make the garden a centre for ecologically correct design. These include the burning of renewable biomass as a source of energy; the on-site natural purification of effluent using a Living Machine and natural reed-bed systems; the harvesting of rainwater for irrigation; and organic farming.

Each of these is described briefly:

Renewable Energy

The threat of global warming and an imbalance of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere demand the harnessing of energy from renewable energy sources.  Trees provide one of the best energy sources as they are huge batteries of stored solar energy absorbing much of the earth’s CO2 releasing oxygen, that essential ingredient for life on earth.

The garden has chosen to build a wood-burning boiler.  Wood will be harvested within the estate woodlands.  Additional wood will be obtained from a biomass demonstration plantation and from material provided by landfill operators who are working with the garden to minimise organic material being disposed of in landfill sites.  The installation of the garden’s biomass boiler is commercially viable over the life cycle of the heating plant installation.

Wood is an attractive fuel.  It will have provided twenty times more oxygen that it will need for its combustion in a process that will release no more carbon dioxide than that through natural decay. The smokestack emissions from this type of combustion do not contain the greenhouse gasses and acid rain producers that are associated with non-renewable fossil carbon fuels.

The Living Machine

A large proportion of the garden site is effectively ‘green-field’, as much of the original 18th century managed estate has been lost.  This has provided an opportunity to incorporate resource use and waste management as an integral part of the scientific, educational and horticultural demonstration programmes, alongside the botanical and environmental programmes.  Waste treatment is a key part of this integrated approach.

The Garden’s Living Machine is a natural wastewater treatment system. It operates under the same principles as those that regulate the natural ecology of forests and diverse water systems.  Living machines are able to break down many harmful pollutants and purify wastewater.  The processes are designed to replicate the cleaning effects of natural ecosystems.

Wastewater from throughout the garden will be pumped up to an equalisation and anaerobic digester (septic tank) covered by a planted biofilter. The settled waste will be regularly desludged and the solids removed to the compost-making operation. In the secondary settlement stage the wastewater travels to two underground closed tanks located close to, but outside the greenhouse.  The effluent is then pumped into a standard green house through a series of four open aerobic tanks planted with floating rafts of aquatic plants ranging from invasive weeds to rare and endangered Welsh species.  This intensifies the wastewater treatment and provides a very diverse ecology.  After passing through a final biofilter it is passed into a reed bed inside the glasshouse from whence it is discharged into an external wetland for final cleansing.  From there it is discharged onto a grassy hillside.

The Living Machine will provide a year round opportunity to demonstrate how biological and ecological systems can be used to purify and recycle wastes.  They can teach ecological design and show how nature recycles wastes and purifies water.  The facility in the garden will be open to the public as a learning centre.

Rainwater Harvesting

Rainwater is captured off all buildings into underground water reservoirs, cleaned and recycled for irrigation within the Great Glasshouse and externally.  The glasshouse has a unique guttering system to enable it harvest the rainwater gently.

Organic Farming and Horticulture

The estate has one of the richest biodiversity landscapes in the region.  We intend to signpost these so visitors can learn about Wales’s contribution to agri-environmental schemes by demonstrating how Tir Cymen works and contributes to farming and enhancing biodiversity.  Tir Cymen is a Welsh farming system that enhances wildlife.

The estate lands will be a flagship organic farm celebrating the massive shift in emphasis in south Wales towards organic farming - what it means to the consumer from cities in the region, thereby building bridges between the countryside and the city. Our medium term plans are to become a centre for some rare Welsh breeds of farm animals and collections of old traditional cultivars of orchard tress and vegetable crops. There will also be a demonstration organic vegetable area.

The Garden will feature one of Europe’s few genetics gardens showing how plants have been changed by humankind from selection through to genetic engineering.  This open-air exhibition will help local people develop their views on genetically engineered crops and produce, what they mean for their future and for Wales.  The new technologies will have an important influence on human culture and raise serious moral and ethical issues.

The Attractions

Currently under construction, the Garden’s centre-piece will be one of the largest single span glasshouses in the world. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the ‘Great Glasshouse’ replaces the former Middleton Hall, lost by fire in the 1930’s, as the dominant building on the estate. When it is finished it will house a stunning landscape filled with a living collection of threatened plants from the Mediterranean regions of the World. A concourse gallery and ‘Bioverse’, a ‘hands-on’ educational adventure aimed at unlocking the mysteries of plant life will complement this.

There will be many other attractions for the public of all ages including:

  • An exhibition on herbal remedies of the Physicians of Myddfai set in the context of traditional healing practice worldwide.
  • A unique genetic garden tracing plant genetics from ancient times to modern genetic engineering.
  • New features for children from the Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water Discovery Centre, from a children’s garden to a children’s theatre.
  • Ideas for gardens - suitable for the keen horticulturist or the gardening novice.
  • A Garden of Gardens set in a large double walled garden with design and management input from visually impaired people, those with hearing and other physical impairments and other people with special needs.  It will celebrate the history of garden design.

Education Programmes at the Garden

The vision of the education programme of the garden is to develop environmental initiatives that will support the people of Wales in becoming part of a sustainable world.

Our initiatives will complement and extend environmental education. We are convinced that the future is dependent on sustaining and improving the long-term quality of natural habitats, the countryside and the richness of living organisms. By 2010 the garden will have become a leading environmental education organisation offering a wide-ranging programme of courses, visits, workshops, seminars, conferences, open days, public lectures and learning materials.  The garden will be a champion about raising awareness about plants and fungi and their role in developing preferred futures centred on sustainability.

We will:

  • build on the increased public awareness and interest in the environment
  • help improve the science and environmental understanding and skills of teachers
  • strengthen the connection between formal education and informal institutions
  • promote whole organism and ecosystematic approaches to the environment
  • influence changes in curricula
  • use leading edge technology in our education programmes
  • support the public in their quest for a better understanding of environmental issues and conservation
  • provide materials and activities for parents and their children.

Wales’ new garden will be a living model of sustainability and a place to learn about how we can live within and work with nature.


Le Jardin Botanique national de Galles ouvrira en mai 2000. C'est un nouveau jardin botanique national et international et une institution scientifique dédiée à l'horticulture, la conservation, la recherche, l'éducation à l'environnement et au loisir. Au milieu du jardin se trouvera une des plus grande serre d'un seul tenant du monde présentant une collection vivante des plantes menacées des régions méditerranéennes du globe.

La gestion durable des ressources est le point fédérateur du jardin émanant du principe de la convention de Rio et de l'agenda 21. L'énergie pour le chauffage et l'éclairage est générée par un système de combustion utilisant la biomasse du bois et l'influent est traitée sur place par l'utilisation de banquettes de plantes aquatiques. Les systèmes sont offert à la vue du public. Le jardin présente aussi des systèmes organiques de croissance des plantes utilisés dans les méthodes traditionnelles de cultures à destination du restaurant qui se trouve sur place. L'objectif du programme éducatif et de développer des initiatives environnementales à destination des gens du pays de Galles et à faire découvrir la gestion durable des ressources. Il est prévu qu'en 2010 le jardin deviendra un leader dans l'éducation à l'environnement offrant un vaste programme de cours , visites ,ateliers, séminaires, conférences, portes ouvertes, conférences publiques et matériaux destinés à l'enseignement.


El jardín botánico nacional de Gales, abrirá sus puertas al público en mayo del año 2000.  Es un nuevo jardín botánico nacional e internacional, así como una institución científica que se dedica a la horticultura, conservación, investigación, educación medioambiental y al ocio.  En el centro del jardín estará situado uno de los invernaderos más grandes del mundo con un diseño especial, que posee una colección de plantas en peligro de extinción del mediterráneo.

La sostenibilidad (palabra que en español no existe) es la parte más importante del jardín cuyas bases proceden de los asuntos tratados en la Cumbre sobre la Tierra de Río de Janeiro y de la Agenda 21.  La energía para calentar e iluminar se genera mediante un calentador de biomasas de madera y vertidos tratados en el lugar mediante el uso de Juncales.  Ambos sistemas están expuestos al público.  El jardín intenta también que las plantas crezcan ecológicamente usando métodos agrícolas tradicionales, para su uso en el restaurante de allí.

La visión del programa de educación es desarrollar iniciativas medioambientales que protejan a las personas de Gales y que formen parte de un mundo en equilibrio.  Sobre el año 2010, se prevé que el jardín se convierta en una organización líder en educación ambiental que ofrece un amplio programa de cursos, visitas, talleres, seminarios, conferencias, días de apertura, charlas y materiales de aprendizaje.

About the Author

Professor Charles Stirton is the Director of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Middleton Hall, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, SA32 8HG.  Tel: (44) 1558 668768  Fax: (44) 1558 668933