23 June 2015 15:19

Trees hung with story-telling apples and rhubarb which talks have helped bring a touch of 21st century magic into a Georgian walled garden.

Collaborating with gardeners and volunteers in the Walled Kitchen Garden at Clumber Park, a National Trust property in Nottinghamshire, researchers at Lancaster University have used their technical expertise to bring the garden to life in new and unexpected ways.

The project, led by Dr Paul Coulton and Liz Edwards, includes:

  • Real rhubarb sticks, which talk when they are grasped, explaining facts about their diverse varieties
  • Digital wooden apples hanging from the trees which hold the stories of the garden, from historical diaries from the 1880s to memories and facts about the walled garden recorded by the gardeners and volunteers
  • Plans to build upturned plant pots which will hold recorded information about the garden

Liz Edwards, a PhD student at HighWire, Lancaster University, is the designer behind the new garden features.

She said: “We wanted to encourage people to explore the garden and access information about the place in new and exciting ways.  Our designs are deliberately tactile and so simple to use that small children can pick them up and make sense of them. Ultimately, this project is about using technology to help people engage with nature. Rather than sticking to the paths we want them to walk under the trees, to touch the plants and listen to stories about the place that they might not otherwise hear.”

The Walled Kitchen Garden at Clumber Park holds over 130 varieties of rhubarb, the second largest collection in the world, and largest in the UK for which it last year received National Collection status.

The ‘Rhubaphone’ was designed to introduce people to historical, cultural and culinary aspects of selected varieties. It is part of the Trust’s wider work raising awareness of plant conservation and biodiversity.

The ‘Audio Apples’ are hand-turned wooden apples, made by Gary Smith one of the estate team at Clumber Park, which play when the apple is ‘plucked’ from the tree and held to one’s ear.

The design aims to take people away from gravel paths, to a part of the garden where grass is left to grow long and branches create natural  spaces for story-telling. In these spaces, visitors can listen to gardeners and volunteers giving personal accounts of the garden.

Design challenges have included ‘weatherproofing’ the technology and building prototypes which staff and volunteers can use and maintain long after the Lancaster researchers have finished the project.

Chris Margrave, Head Gardener at Clumber Park, said: “The Rhubaphone has proved a palpable hit with visitors – of all ages – to the Walled Kitchen Garden, providing information about the rhubarb collection in a truly memorable way and making people aware of the importance of keeping these old varieties alive.

“Working with Liz has been a great experience and the ideas and resulting excitement that have resulted from this are something we definitely want to keep running with.”