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Creating a Natural Environment for Learning

Volume 2 Number 2 - October 2005

Louise Allen





The University of Oxford Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 as a ‘place whereby learning might be improved’. The remit of the Garden has remained the same throughout the Garden’s history; but the user groups have dramatically changed, particularly during the last 15 years. This dramatic change in visitor profile, along with the marked increase in educational visits, has resulted in many positive changes to the way we work. The effect of these changes can be seen in the major role played by education within the Garden’s five-year plan, and the fact that education is now a key part of everyone’s job description. This article will outline how our Garden has evolved in the last 15 years, before exploring the Garden’s current educational philosophy.


The University of Oxford Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 as a ‘place whereby learning might be improved’, with the mission: ’to promote learning and glorify the works of God’. In 1963, the Harcourt Arboretum was taken on as a satellite collection to the Garden with the same mission. The Garden and Arboretum remains committed to ‘promoting learning and glorifying nature’ and the remit has largely remained unchanged throughout the Garden’s history; however the user groups have changed, particularly during the last 15 years. The dramatic change in our visitor profile, along with the marked increase in educational visits during that period, has resulted in many positive changes to the way we work. The profound effect of these changes is reflected by the central position of education within the Garden’s five-year plan, and by the fact that education is now a key part of every job description - with 10 members of horticultural and arboricultural staff involved in delivering education programmes, in addition to three full time education staff. This article will outline how the role of education in our Garden has evolved, and will then explore our current educational philosophy.

Looking Back

When Henry Danvers gave £5,000 in 1621 (equivalent to £3.5 million today) to the University of Oxford to establish the Oxford Physic Garden, the University of Oxford set out to create a garden where physicians could be taught about the plants used in herbal medicine.  During the garden’s 380 year history it has evolved from a collection of medicinal herbs for seventeenth century physicians, into a compact and diverse collection of plants with over 6,500 species representing almost every botanical family.  These species, within the garden’s two hectares, are now accessible to those between the ages of four and 94 through our education programmes. The garden’s success can be put down to its willingness to change and evolve to serve its user groups. If the garden’s remit had not moved with the times, it  is inevitable that the garden would have ceased to exist; we now refer to the garden as being a process rather than a product, with change being the norm.

Making the Change from Gardeners and Educators to Garden Educators

Key to the garden’s current educational success has been the introduction of education into everyone’s job description, so that everyone who works in the organisation signs up to the educational philosophy of the garden.  This means that the horticulturists do not regard education as something that somebody else does. It also results in everyone being much more aware of the implications of their horticultural operations. If you know just how loud you have to shout to be heard over the roar of a lawn mower, you are much less likely to mow the lawn in an area adjacent to a visiting group!  If you know just how excited a school group becomes, when they see cotton bolls growing on a cotton plant, then you are less likely to harvest them for the garden’s seed list until the school term has finished. These two simple examples show just how important this approach is to making the education programme a success. It also gives everyone on the staff a greater sense of ownership of education.

Making the change from gardeners and educators to garden educators is not a quick process and has taken over a decade to achieve. As new members of staff have joined the garden we have chosen individuals who are as keen to communicate as they are to garden. Staff training in presentational skills is offered to everyone within the garden, and even our one year horticultural trainees are given the opportunity to develop their guided tour techniques on the Friends of Oxford Botanic Garden. The Education Programme’s emphasis on live interpretation means that everyone on the staff regularly has the opportunity to put into practice what they have learnt. Some staff choose to focus their interest on adult groups; with other’s finding that their talents lie in communicating with children.

The Garden Today

Today, people of all ages and backgrounds use the garden and arboretum. Undergraduates studying biological sciences and related subjects at the University of Oxford visit to learn about many aspects of plant biology and plant conservation. In addition research workers from scientific departments within the university use the plants grown at the garden and arboretum. Plants and seeds are also provided for many other researchers in this country and abroad. Over 7,500 school children visit the garden and arboretum each year as part of our Schools Education Programme. Through our commitment to life long learning, the garden and arboretum ensure that adults as well as children can benefit from our programmes. Each year more than 5,000 adults attend courses and tours at the Garden to learn more about plants. The Garden also runs an active community programme with an annual Festival Programme at the Garden and a Family Learning Programme at the Arboretum attracting over 7,500 people each year.

Our Educational Philosophy

The educational philosophy that runs throughout our Education Programme is extremely simple; yet very effective. Using live interpretation we tell stories about plants. Each story that we tell about a plant aims to provoke, relate and reveal. This approach has been so successful, that it feels more like a mantra than simply a technique and has become second nature to the staff working with visiting groups. Regardless of whether the botanic garden visitor is four years of age or 94, we have found our approach to be a powerful and effective technique.



Le jardin botanique de l’Université d’Oxford a été fondé en 1621, comme “un lieu pouvant améliorer l’apprentissage”. La réputation du jardin est demeuré identique à travers son histoire mais les groupes d’utilisateurs ont considérablement changé, en particulier ces 15 dernières années. Ce changement radical du profil des visiteurs ainsi que l’augmentation marquée des visites éducatives ont eu pour conséquence de nombreux changements positifs dans notre façon de travailler. L’effet de ces changements peut se remarquer dans le rôle majeur que joue l’éducation dans le plan du jardin établi sur 5 ans et par le fait que l’éducation soit à présent une partie incontournable de tout profil de poste. Cet article expose la manière dont notre jardin a évolué ces 15 dernières années, avant d’ensuite explorer la philosophie éducative actuelle du jardin.



La Universidad de Oxford fue fundada en 1621 como un ‘lugar donde el aprendizaje podria mejorarse’. La misiόn del Jardín, ha permanecido a traves de la historia del Jardín, pero los grupos usuarios han cambiado dramaticamente, particularmente durante los ultimos 15 años. Este cambio dramático en el perfil de los visitantes,  junto con el marcado incremento en visitas educativas, ha resultado en muchos cambios positivos a la forma en que aqui se trabaja. El efecto de estos cambios pueden ser vistos por el important papel que juega la educaciόn dentro del plan del jardín a cinco años y el hecho de que la educaciόn es ahora una parte clave de la descripciόn de trabajo de cada miembro del personal. Este artículo describe como nuestro jardín ha evolucionado en los ultimos 15 años antes de explorar la actual filosofia educativa en el jardín.

About the Author

Louise Allen is Curator of University of Oxford Botanic Garden, Rose Lane, Oxford OX1 4AZ, UK.  Tel: 01 865 286 690. Fax: 01 865 286 693. Email: Website: